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Posts from the "Equity" Category

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Talking Headways Podcast: Escobar’s Escalator

Did you go to the World Urban Forum in Medellín, Colombia, last week? Neither did your hosts Jeff Wood and I, but we sure found a lot to say about it anyway on this week’s Talking Headways podcast. Medellín’s remarkable urban transformation — undertaken in the midst of war — has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention lately for making the city’s transportation infrastructure more equitable.

But first, we talked to our very own Angie Schmitt about the Parking Madness tournament. Did she know Rochester was a winner from the moment she laid eyes on that stunning parking crater? You’ll have to listen to find out.

And finally we turn to Dallas, where local activists are pressuring officials to tear down a 1.4-mile stretch of I-345 to make room for 245 acres of new development downtown. If it happens, it would be a tremendous win for smart urban development over Eisenhower-era car-centrism.

The other big news this week is that Talking Headways podcast is now available on Stitcher! So if you’re not an iTunes person, you’ve got a way to subscribe. But if you are an iTunes person, by all means! Or you can follow the RSS feed. And as always, the comments section is wide open for all the witty remarks we should have made but didn’t think to.

Oh, and despite the fact that we said, “See you next week” at the end out of habit, Jeff will be traveling so we actually won’t be taping a podcast next week. So take that opportunity to catch up on any episodes you’ve missed, and we’ll see you in two weeks.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Let Them Drive Cars

South Korea's Cheonggyecheon stream and park used to be a highway. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/25869929@N03/2468502996##Michael Sotnikov/flickr##

South Korea’s Cheonggyecheon stream and park used to be a highway. Photo: Michael Sotnikov/flickr

Quick quiz: What city is the world leader in highway teardowns? San Francisco? Portland? Madrid?

Wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s Seoul, South Korea, which has removed 15 urban highways — and is about to remove another. In this week’s Talking Headways episode, Jeff and I talk about what can take the place of a freeway in a city and why it’s worth it.

We also debunk the argument, made in Atlantic Cities and the Washington Post last week, that promoting car access will benefit people with low incomes. The whole concept is based on a study that basically said that in the 90s you needed a car to get around the suburbs. Not exactly a persuasive justification for automobile subsidies in today’s cities.

We wander down Saffron Avenue and Nutmeg Lane to investigate whether it’s true that cities are losing their smell — and whether that’s really such a bad thing. Then we accidentally trip into a conversation about pheromones and good-smelling men.

What’s your favorite smell in your city? Let us know in the comments.

We’re working on getting the podcast available on Stitcher, which apparently is a thing that exists, but for now you can subscribe on iTunes or follow the RSS feed.

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The Problem With Prescribing “Access to Cars” in the Fight Against Poverty

It goes without saying that the mass suburbanization of the past 60 years has been very bad news for people who can’t afford cars, and it’s getting worse as poverty levels rise in the suburbs.

Every additional car on the road means a slower trip for bus passengers. Photo: Mark Harrison/Seattle Times

In nearly every place America has built since the 1950s, owning a car is a prerequisite for participating in the economy. In The Geography of Nowhere, James Kunstler wrote that we had created a built environment which divides society into two classes of people: “those who can fully use their everyday environment, and those who cannot.”

Given all that, the findings from a recent Urban Institute study are utterly unsurprising. Researchers studied 12,000 low-income families in 10 cities around the United States. And they found that car ownership is linked to several indicators of well-being.

Housing voucher recipients with cars were able to secure places to live in stronger housing markets, with “higher social status” and lower health risks. They were also twice as likely to find employment and four times as likely to remain employed, the study found. (By the way, this isn’t a new finding — studies have shown this kind of effect dating back to at least the 1990s.)

These results demonstrate just what a deep disadvantage low-income, carless families face in the United States, and make a seemingly straightforward case for a better transportation safety net: more compact land use, abundant transit, and safer biking and walking connections.

But that’s not what author Rolf Pendall wanted to get across in a post on Atlantic Cities. Pendall made the case that “access to cars” should be a higher priority for policy makers in the fight against poverty. One of his suggestions is that specially tailored car sharing might be part of the solution for poor families. He also says it’s worth considering how welfare programs can facilitate car ownership. In a follow-up piece by Emily Badger in the Washington Post, Pendall acknowledges that cities need to be built differently, but he also says that “we need to add car access to the list of things to do.”

He’s not arguing that cars are a better long-term solution than better transit, just that, given how deeply car-dependent we have become, giving poor people cars produces a bigger immediate improvement in their life prospects than the hard, piecemeal work of building a more equitable transportation network. Basically, Pendall is saying that helping individuals is faster than fixing the broken system.

It sounds reasonable, but what about the families left behind? Part of the problem with subsidies for cars is that they reinforce the pattern of exclusion that results from building places around cars in the first place. Every additional car on the road adds to traffic congestion and slows down buses. Every additional parking space spreads destinations farther apart, making places tougher to traverse on foot. Giving a poor family a car might help that specific household, but it would harm others at the same time.

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Our Cities Can’t Afford So Many Rooftop Spas

Rooftop pool with a view of the Washington Monument? All this could be yours if you have insane amounts of disposable income. And I do mean "disposable." Photo: ##http://www.rentalsgonewild.com/propertydetail/183/i-street-nw-washington-dc-20037##Rentals Gone Wild##

Rooftop pool with a view of the Washington Monument? All this could be yours if you have insane amounts of disposable income. And I do mean “disposable.” Photo: Rentals Gone Wild

First, let me be clear: Tomorrow is April Fools, not today. This is real.

There are luxury apartment buildings in Washington, DC, trying to lure renters with communal puppies.

That sounds like the makings of a tiny tombstone engraved with “Tragedy of the Commons,” if you ask me. Who’s going to take responsibility for a dog that lives in the hallway?

In any case, the shared dog is just one of many tricks and teases DC developers are using to entice renters, according to Jonathan O’Connell of the Washington Post.

“When the boom started a few years ago, a nicely finished kitchen or a landscaped courtyard made a project stand out,” O’Connell writes. “Now those are considered baseline essentials if a building is going to compete.”

The new must-have amenities include rooftop pools, pet salons, soundproof music “practice jam-rooms,” 24-hour resident concierge services, dry-cleaning valet, a calendar full of activities for residents, customized cupcakes and a signature cocktail at a nearby bar. Oh yes, and “a six-month-old miniature English bulldog named Emmy will take up residence in the sleek new lobby of 2M, one of dozens of apartment buildings being completed in the region this year.”

This is in a city where the average rent for a two-bedroom is over $2,000.

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Sec. Foxx: Bicycle Infrastructure Can Be a “Ladder of Opportunity”

Sec. Foxx told hundreds gathered for the Bike Summit that he won't stand still and allow bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities to increase. Photo: Brian Palmer, via the ##http://www.bikeleague.org/content/sec-foxx-shares-support-bikes##Bike League##

Sec. Foxx told hundreds gathered for the Bike Summit that he won’t stand still and allow bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities to increase. Photo: Brian Palmer, via the Bike League

This morning, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s blog post is all about bicycling. He opens by touting the complete streets policy he helped implement in Charlotte (it passed before he was mayor) and the city’s bike-share system — the largest in the Southeast.

His post follows on his speech yesterday to the National Bike Summit, which began with this frank admission: “I’ve got big shoes to fill.”

Foxx’s predecessor, Ray LaHood, became the darling of the bike movement when he stood on a table at the 2010 Summit and affirmed his commitment to safe cycling, later declaring “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

Foxx’s speech was less fiery but showed his commitment to the issue. He mentioned that he himself had been the victim of a crash while jogging in Charlotte, and while he wasn’t hurt, he’s aware how lucky he was that it didn’t turn out differently.

“All across our country, every day, there are accidents and injuries — and unfortunately sometimes even fatalities — that occur among the bicycle and pedestrian communities,” Foxx told the Summit audience. “I didn’t tolerate it as a mayor. And as U.S. secretary of transportation we certainly won’t stand still and allow this crisis to slowly build up over time.”

“Our roads should be safe,” he went on. “They should be easy places to travel no matter how we are traveling on them.”

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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.

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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.”

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Study: For Americans With Lower Incomes, Long Commutes Sap Will to Vote

For decades, researchers going back to Robert Putnam have drawn connections between total leisure time and individuals’ level of political and community involvement. New findings published in American Politics Research say the amount of time spent commuting is especially important in determining whether Americans vote, take part in political campaigns, and otherwise engage in politics.

Long commutes impact voting behavior, a new study finds. Image: ##http://journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/transportation/commuting-distance-fitness-metabolic-risk## Journalist's Resource##

Long commutes impact voting behavior, a new study finds. Photo: Journalist’s Resource

Researchers Benjamin Newman, Joshua Johnson, and Patrick Lown examined survey data from 590 working adults. Overall leisure time, they found, was actually not a very good determinant of political involvement. For example, part-time workers were no more likely to vote or otherwise participate in politics than those who worked full time. In fact, those who worked the longest hours were among the most likely to be politically engaged.

Rather than focus on what activities take the most time, researchers explored which activities drain individuals of the most energy that might otherwise be devoted to political behavior. They found that long commutes were actually far more exhausting than working.

“Time spent commuting,” they wrote, “involves a higher degree of depletion of psychological resources and incurrence of negative emotions than time spent on the job.”

The results were not consistent across socioeconomic groups. Newman and his research team found that the effect was most pronounced in workers who make less money. Those who earned higher incomes actually skewed the opposite direction: They were more likely to vote and participate in politics the longer they commuted.

Researchers theorize that higher-earning workers were better able to shake off the stress of long commutes. They might have more comfortable cars. They can eat out if they get home late. And they’re more likely to listen to the news while commuting — a factor that might have something to do with their increased political involvement.

The researchers speculated that higher transit use among people with lower incomes might add stressors like overcrowding and noise — but, they noted, “higher-income commuters are no less dissatisfied or frustrated with their commuting than low-income commuters.”

Newman and his team say their findings should worry us as a society. Lower political and civic engagement among people who make less money and have long commutes translates to less political power for those who already have too little. It means that job sprawl and poor transportation options end up costing them a voice in their own communities. And their lower participation rates could very well have an impact on who ends up getting elected to public office.

Wrote the researchers: “The societal processes increasingly forcing commuting on individuals, and leading to longer commuting times, are working to further distance an already weakly active and often marginalized segment of the populace from the democratic process.”

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NAACP: A Walkable Built Environment Is a “Premier Civil Rights Issue”

The shooting at the Capitol yesterday, which took place as Walking Summit advocates were there lobbying lawmakers, underscores a very important point: Street safety isn’t just about sidewalks and traffic. It’s also about crime.

That’s one aspect that walkability advocates often overlook when discussing improvements to make an area “safer” for pedestrians. “For us, the conversation is along the lines of ‘reclaiming the streets,’” Niiobli Armah told me. Armah is the NAACP’s manager of childhood obesity for their health and wellness initiatives.

Flatbush Avenue and Fulton Street, Brooklyn. Photo: Threecee/Flickr

It might surprise some that the 104-year-old civil rights organization has a focus on walkable and bikeable neighborhoods. But it shouldn’t. It stems from the organization’s work on childhood obesity. Nineteen percent of black children between two and five are obese. Black high school girls are two-and-a-half times more likely to be obese than their white counterparts.

“We think of health as the premier civil rights advocacy issue,” Armah said. “We advocate for the built environment so that students can have opportunities for safe physical activity in their neighborhoods.”

In some places, there’s a wide racial gap for health indicators. Obesity rates are going down overall, but they’re still rising in communities of color. Armah says it’s a social justice issue. “Regardless of what community you live in, you should have access to healthy eating and active living,” he said. And that means making sure the built environment is conducive to walking and biking.

In addition to trying to install streetlights, crosswalks, and traffic calming devices, residents have to address concerns about personal safety, which can outweigh concerns about traffic safety. Armah said they work on those issues with residents, often incorporating the same tactics used to boost walking and physical fitness.

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Commemorating March on Washington, Foxx Links Transport to Civil Rights

Photo of Rosa Parks seated on a bus

Today marks 50 years since the landmark March on Washington, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. I was privileged to join tens of thousands of others on the National Mall this weekend to commemorate the anniversary.

In a blog post today, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx noted the role that transportation has played in the nation’s civil rights struggles:

In the mid-1950s, a young woman who sat down and refused to get up — she did it on a transit bus. And the boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system resulted in changes that spread across the South.

Foxx notes that the nation’s highway-building boom contributed to racial divides. ”Rarely in the last century did an urban interstate highway plow through a neighborhood that wasn’t characterized as poor,” he writes. “In 2013, many communities are tearing down those divisions and building bridges.”

He doesn’t necessarily cite the clearest examples of how transportation and streets can heal divisions, however. He points to Columbus, Ohio, where a “once-vibrant community was cut off from the downtown area when I-71 was built, leading shops to close and families to relocate.” But the current project aiming to “reconnect the city’s communities” will actually widen I-71, as well as I-670. Not a good way to reconnect communities.

A better project that Foxx highlights is the highway teardown in New Haven, CT, where the state DOT “is helping the city reclaim a highway that has split the city in half, creating a barrier between New Haven’s downtown and the Medical District and Hill neighborhoods.”

Meanwhile, Foxx says, transit can bring communities together:

And when I was Mayor of Charlotte, I fought to bring a streetcar system to our city.  The whole community got behind it. That streetcar is the first effort in Charlotte’s recent history to connect a poor part of the city with modern transit.

“President Obama gets this,” Foxx writes. “He understands that when you isolate communities, it’s not just those who are affected who are hurt. We’re all hurt.”

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Jarrett Walker: Empty Buses Serve a Purpose

Most transit agencies have been through some version of this scenario: In one part of the city, buses drive around stuffed like sardine tins, while elsewhere they can be all but empty. Car drivers mock the empty buses in low-density parts of the city. Some elected official picks up the banner, demanding that the transit agency stop flagrantly wasting taxpayer money by running these money-losing routes.

Transit consultant and author/blogger Jarrett Walker says transit agencies need to search their own souls to determine the best mix of ridership and coverage. Photo: Aucklander

If you hear echoes of the federal fight over Amtrak, you’re not going crazy — it’s the exact same conversation.

And it merits the exact same answer.

Ridership versus coverage

As transit consultant Jarrett Walker, the mind behind the Human Transit book and blog, sees it, every transit agency needs to make a trade-off between ridership and coverage. The agency can focus on routes with high ridership — which makes the most sense environmentally and financially — but then large swaths of the area will have no service at all. It simply doesn’t make fiscal sense to serve low-density areas, or areas without a complementary pedestrian network, with transit. Not enough people will ride it.

But if you cut that service, you’ve cut off a lifeline to people with disabilities, seniors with no other transportation options, people with low incomes, and others. “Social benefits of public transport, such as accessibility for persons who cannot drive, tend to be based on the severity of need among certain population groups, rather than the level of patronage to be gained by meeting this need,” Walker wrote in a 2008 paper in the Journal of Transport Geography. The people served by a low-ridership route might not be populous enough to make a route through a low-density area particularly profitable, but the service is still valuable. It serves a goal of coverage, not ridership.

Walker encourages transit agencies to have the ridership-versus-coverage conversation publicly and without shame. They should decide upfront, with community input, what percentage of their resources will be spent on routes with high ridership and what percentage will be devoted to broadening the geographical reach of coverage outside those high-ridership zones.

These conversations are becoming more and more essential as tight budgets and limited federal funding are bringing more scrutiny to transportation spending. Although transit agencies are generally serving more riders with less money, they are constantly asked to prove that they’re not wasting taxpayer funds. “One of the ways you can answer that kind of public demand is to have the ridership/coverage conversation,” Walker told Streetsblog, “because to the ordinary suburban voter’s mind, an empty bus driving around their subdivision looks like government waste. They don’t understand that it’s actually the result of conscious policy, namely a coverage policy, and that their own city leaders may have been fighting hard for that policy.”

“There’s a lot of confusion out there, and unfortunately there a lot of economic intellectuals out there who are writing articles that make it sound like because transit systems run empty buses that means they’re failing — just not understanding what transit agencies are actually expected to do,” Walker said. “Those buses are valued for the lifeline access they provide for the isolated senior.”

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