Study: Civil Rights Protections Lack Teeth When It Comes to Transportation

American transportation policy has a woeful history of civil rights abuses. For a good part of the 1950s and ’60s, using highways to level black neighborhoods was a matter of national policy. And the white flight and segregation that those highways engendered have left a legacy that continues to shape much of America in the present day.

Photo:
Wisconsin is sinking billions into highway expansion projects while city transit service languishes. Photo: Milwaukee Business Journal

Out of those chapters in American history came a few key protections. Laws like Title VI of the Civil Rights Act aim to safeguard people from discrimination by federally-funded agencies.

But are these protections shaping a fairer transportation system? Not according to a recent study by researchers at the University of California-Davis published in the Journal of Transport Geography [PDF]. Authors Alex Karner and Deb Niemeier say that most metropolitan planning agencies are simply going through the motions, not making equitable decisions.

Right now, “basically anything goes,” Karner told Streetsblog. “You can make anything look good from a civil rights perspective” under current law, using conventional metrics to demonstrate compliance.

As a last resort, civil rights activists can use federal laws to take action in court. Black and Hispanic community groups in Wisconsin, for instance, are suing the state Department of Transportation under the National Environmental Policy Act for shortchanging transit with the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange project, outside Milwaukee. But Karner and Niemeier say the whole federally-required “equity analysis” process needs to be reformed if it is to have a meaningful effect on decision making.

Here’s what Karner and Niemeier recommend to give civil rights protections some real teeth when it comes to transportation investments:

1. Perform Equity Analyses Early in the Planning Process

Metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs, are agencies that play a big role in distributing federal transportation dollars. They generally decide what they want to do first, then spend a lot of time developing plans, and then at the very end perform the required equity analysis.

“After all the major planning decisions have been made, it’s a pro forma thing,” says Karner. “They just kind of check a box.”

Karner and Niemeier say in order to meaningful advance equity, it’s important to consider who will be affected very early in the planning stages or — better yet — in the project selection phase.

2. Planning Agencies Need to Understand People, Not Just Geographic Areas

Most MPOs begin equity analyses by examining “communities of concern,” or geographic areas that have a concentration of low-income or minority households. This is less than ideal, Karner says, because poor people and people of color living outside those areas are ignored for the purposes of the study.

Additionally, MPOs do not typically consider race as a factor in transportation modeling, even though they track a range of demographic characteristics like household income.

3. Positive Projections Obscure Current Inequalities

Planning processes require agencies to project decades into the future, to predict things like air quality impacts and traffic volumes. But predicting what will happen 20 years from now requires a great deal of guesswork, and assumptions made by planners about the long run can mask real effects in the present day.

“The forecasts always show things getting better,” said Karner. “In these conditions it’s very easy to show that it’s equitable — everyone is better off.”

What advocates for low-income and minority groups in the Bay Area have requested is that planning agencies take a closer look at current and near-term conditions, which can offer more meaningful insights.

The Federal Role

Karner said he isn’t optimistic that MPOs will reform these practices on their own. Many MPOs fear that changing the way they measure equity could make them vulnerable to litigation, if the new method shows past investments were distributed unfairly.

A more hopeful scenario is that U.S. DOT will become “more prescriptive” with the way it handles the issue, Karner says. Currently, the federal government forbids discrimination but is extremely vague about what transportation agencies must do to avoid running afoul of the law. The Federal Highway Administration, for example, does not specify how agencies “should assess the incidence of benefit and burden” with respect to protected groups.

The result is that, in practice, any equity analysis completed by MPOs “is considered sufficient for compliance,” Karner and Niemeier write.

  • Elliot

    The first link in the story, to the study PDF, appears to be broken. Can you please fix? Thank you!

  • oooBooo

    Government and the political process by its very nature is incapable of equity.

  • david vartanoff

    Thanks for posting this. I am glad to see that someone else sees the “redlining” that infects much of transit planning and implementation from route selection through fare structures.

  • Yeah, just leave it to the free market! They always get things right!

  • oooBooo

    A free market is far more equitable than government has ever been. That’s why government makes sure there isn’t a free market.

  • A free market is more equitable when it works. Free markets don’t always work for every market, which is when there’s a place for government intervention. This is not up for dispute, your opinion does not change fact, sorry.

  • oooBooo

    It’s very much up for dispute. When someone claims a “free market” didn’t work, the reality is that it wasn’t free. There was a government interference that people choose to ignore.

    Furthermore each government interference begets another. Which begets another and so on and so on. This is a fact. It cannot be avoided because government, even if operated by good meaning people without self interest will never be able to know everything and thus there are unintended consequences.

    After enough interventions, you have situation like Elvis just before his death. Pills to treat the symptoms caused by other pills to treat problems caused by earlier pills to treat the original symptoms.

    So, let me know when you find people who are all knowing, have no self interest, and only good intentions. Then maybe there’s a chance for government to be equitable instead of simply serving those with the most political power and/or influence.

  • valar84

    You’ve got to be careful with people like him…

    Here’s something to think about: define “equity”. What is equitable? What is not?

    Let’s take schools that are funded by localities. What is equitable? Is it to have every school district fund its own school so that the money paid by the community stays in the community? But what about schools in poor neighborhoods then, where people can’t afford high school taxes? They will be starved for cash and the kids will be deprived of a proper education for being born in the wrong place. Is it equitable?

    Let’s do it different, let’s adopt a scheme to redistribute school taxes so all schools have equivalent funding per student. But then, communities that are richer will pay more, but not receive more. Is that equitable?

    Even more, let’s say studies show that the students in rich neighborhoods do not need as much money because their families really pressure them to do well and so they will tend to do so, but poor kids in difficult neighborhoods require more money to have the same achievement as the kids in the rich neighborhood. So let’s bias the system even more, the rich will pay more, the poor will pay less, but the rich will receive less than the poor. Is that equitable?

    What will make you decide what is most equitable is your own values, but an argument could be made for each, by people with different values and principles.

    Now, people like oooBooo I know well… they essentially define an equitable outcome as “an outcome obtained through the free market”. Trying to convince them that an outcome of the free market is inequitable is impossible, because they assume any outcome from the market will be equitable. The free market advocates are very close to religion, it’s about Faith, capital-F Faith.

  • valar84

    I do not like the idea of tying transit advocacy to race. That is, in my opinion, one of the main flaws of American progressives: making everything about race, all the time. I understand that talking about class instead of race runs into much opposition from the established elites, but it’s still worth it, because that is exactly the issue. The issue is not race, the issue is poverty. Worse, when you make policies to address racial inequalities instead of wealth inequalities, you often end up creating policies that help middle class racial minorities instead of the poor.

    Racial obsession also leads to the division of the workers and the poor. Taking a racial analysis to transit for example would lead to the conclusion that under-serving a poor black neighborhood is bad… but under-serving a poor white neighborhood is fine. So instead of grouping together all the people in under-served neighborhoods, you end up splitting them and putting them one against the other.

  • david vartanoff

    When Title VI is re-written to take into account poverty, race can be ignored. Irony department. One of the least (transit) served netghborhoods in Oakland CA is a mostly white, very well to do, hill area which has lost almost all bus service over the last two decades. As a corollary I note that the often non white domestic workers arrive by car whereas decades ago they would have come by bus.

  • ocschwar

    Ms. Schmitt, you’ve written a very diplomatic assessment of the situation around Milwaukee. A candid writeup would point that transit policy there is driven by active malice towards the black residents of Milwaukee. And no change to the planning process will help when the people following that process are acting with malice and in bad faith.

  • mbrenman

    For those who want to know more about this topic, you may want to look at Tom Sanchez and my book, The Right to Transportation. In the article above, this is not entirely true: “the federal government forbids discrimination but is extremely vague
    about what transportation agencies must do to avoid running afoul of the
    law.” The Federal Transit Administration, for example, has excellent and detailed guidance.

  • Jack Jackson

    In an effort to be equitable, I was bused for 3 years from grades 6-8…the only thing equitable was that everyone’s education was lessened

  • neroden

    “Let’s do it different, let’s adopt a scheme to redistribute school taxes
    so all schools have equivalent funding per student. But then,
    communities that are richer will pay more, but not receive more. Is that
    equitable?”

    Yes, of course it is.

    This is pretty simple. Money is mostly gained through inheritance and “money making money”. The best you can usually do is to strip away that particular unearned advantage.

  • neroden

    The only way to have a functioning market is to have massive government control.

    The alternative is Somalia. Where men with guns take your stuff.

    Or the US banking system, where people are defrauded out of their houses.

    “Free market” worshippers are idiots. All functioning markets are created by government action, starting with the anti-theft laws and continuing with the anti-fraud laws… and then there’s more regulation than that necessary, too.

    There is no such thing as a market without a government. They depend on government.

  • Coolebra

    The invisible hand of the free market has sticky fingers.

  • Coolebra

    We can’t begin to plan for and make equitable transportation investments until we eliminate restrictions on what federal transportation dollars can be used to build and operate.

    We build what we can get money to build, not what is best to build.

    Our studies do not attempt to identify the best, most crucial investments; rather, they rely on a witches’ brew of flawed analysis to simply validate bad decisions. A bad decision that can be built, they say, is better than a good decision that can’t.

    First and foremost, it’s about the money – what we can get money to build and who gets paid for building it. Over 85% of formula-based federal transportation dollars go into road building. That’s why equity advocates don’t stand a chance – you can’t build what you can’t get money to construct and operate. States and regions want to build, as it means jobs and economic activity, albeit not evenly distributed.

    Solve the money problem first.

    How is it, for instance, that MPO long-range plans are all heavily biased in favor of highway construction and expansion? Is it because we really need incremental road capacity in congested urban areas, or perhaps more lanes traversing vast open space between established metro areas, particularly as transit continues to suffer from a combination of under- and dis-investment?

    Could it be that by federal statute their plans have to be fiscally constrained, meaning that 85% of the funding pot is available for roads, so 85% of your plans have to be roads – no matter if they are the right things to build, or not?

    We spend a billion dollars to [allegedly] improve auto travel time by a single minute over multiple miles of travel, but invest nothing to improve painfully slow transit trips over short distances, or to close gaps in transit service between jobs and prospective employees in need of work.

    With funding constraints cast aside, we can focus on how best to incorporate the sorts of analysis and metrics that cultivate improve outcomes.

    Solve the funding problem, which directs 85% of federal formula-based funding to road construction and expansion. The highway era is over, but our funding mechanisms are perpetuating it.

  • Wanderer

    Nice to see a Title VI article on here. One type of project that has, to my knowledge, rarely been subjected to a Title VI analysis, are the downtown streetcars that are all the rage right now. Many of them serve or would serve disproportionately white, affluent ridership, compared to existing transit ridership. They can suck up capital funding that could have been available for improving major routes in low income neighborhoods. But because cities have generally sponsored these projects rather than transit agencies, they seem to have evaded scrutiny.

  • oooBooo

    “The only way to have a functioning market is to have massive government control.”

    Declaration without support. Also entirely false.

    “The alternative is Somalia. Where men with guns take your stuff.”

    That’s because those men with guns are imposing government. Their government. That’s what government is at its most simplistic, men with guns, taking your stuff.

    “Or the US banking system, where people are defrauded out of their houses.”

    HAHAHAHAA! The US banking system is a creature of the government. Or perhaps the right way to say it is that the US federal government is a creature of the banking system. The US banking system is a poster child of what “massive government control” results in. A revolving door of cronies ripping off people at large.

    “”Free market” worshippers are idiots. ”
    It’s amazing how mods pick and choose to intervene around here.

    “All functioning markets are created by government action, starting with
    the anti-theft laws and continuing with the anti-fraud laws… and then
    there’s more regulation than that necessary, too.”

    While government would ideally do that, it’s not the only possible mechanism.

    “There is no such thing as a market without a government. They depend on government.”

    Markets exist regardless if government exists. Governments distort markets, control markets, try to destroy markets, and act to create a market for more government, but markets do not depend on government to exist. To argue that government is needed is to have a view of humanity such that the only the threat of punishment makes people good or cooperate or do anything.

    BTW, what clearly makes your statement false is that markets exist in goods government declares illegal. These markets continue despite the risks due to these markets being dominated by criminals. Furthermore legal markets dominated by white collar criminals with government’s help also continue, like the banking system. Furthermore, even in prisons markets exist, where government has the most control, markets it does not approve of still exist.

  • StayOnTopic

    Do you want us all to buy your book?

  • mbrenman

    I don’t know about “all” buying the book, but those who are interested in knowing more about the topic of equity in transportation in the US may want to take a look. Many university libraries have it.

  • Nathanael

    Most people are good on their own…

    …but some people aren’t. and that’s why you need government.

    Lack of government causes massive market distortions; it creates what we might call “unfree markets”. You really don’t know your history. “Unfree markets” are interesting but not desirable.

  • oooBooo

    “but some people aren’t. and that’s why you need government.”

    And where do those ‘bad’ people go? Into government where they can operate with impunity. And if they don’t go into government they use it, they team up with it.

    Government creates distortions with their interferences. For instance, the housing bubble. I know history quite well. You should go back and review. Learn how your government took sides to make for those “unfree markets”.

  • jennacatlin4

    In the absence of secure transporatation system masses are kept deprived of their basic needs and resultantly, this creates a lot of hassles among people because they have to travll on daily basis with Heathrow Parking

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