Advancing Equity in Transportation Systems

We know that our transportation system is not equitable. A system centered on moving vehicles, not people and goods, is not equitable.

Most of us don’t think about “transportation” as an issue. We think about our commute, our errands, our trip to drop the kids off at school. Transportation is so completely woven into our lives that we don’t think about it separately. We also don’t question whether the way we get around could be different, or should be different. It just is the way it is, right?

Because of this, we often can’t see how the way it is negatively affects us and our communities. If somebody suggests a change, we can see how the new thing could be problematic, but we rarely question the way things are now. It is time for a change.

At OEC, we think a lot about how to apply the concept of “equity” to our work. This is difficult, and we’re always trying to learn more, listen better, and question our assumptions. One of the ways we’re working on applying equity is in our work on transportation policy. 

We know that our transportation system is not equitable. Anybody who has limited or no access to a private or shared automobile experiences this every day. Our current system benefits many people by providing the ability to move around freely, but those benefits are not experienced equally. They are provided primarily to people who are physically, financially, and legally able to use a private car to drive around.

People who do not meet those requirements are left to make do with “alternatives” – such as transit, biking, walking, carpooling, or paying for ride shares. Often these are much less convenient and costly, because the system is set up to move cars around, not people.

Our transportation system also burdens us all in a number of ways. It pollutes the air, damaging our health in a long list of ways. It kills 40000 people a year on American roads. It is responsible for nearly 40% of Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions. It takes up an enormous amount of public and private space in our cities.

Many of these burdens fall hardest on the same people who benefit from the system the least. Communities of color are more exposed to air pollution and to risk of being killed by a car while walking. These burdens are externalized; the people who create them do not pay for them. 

Once we understand that the system as it is does not work in an equitable way, we can start to ask how we can change. How can we make sure people can access the services, jobs, community centers and other things they need, without pushing the costs onto other people? 

One policy approach that OEC supports is to price the use of the roadway, through charging people to park and/or to drive. This has two positive outcomes.

  • First, people choose to drive less where they have flexibility. They may combine two trips, or take the trip by bike instead of car, or carpool with a friend. When we reduce our Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), we reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and risk of crashes. (We also make driving easier and travel times more predictable for people who continue to drive.)
  • Second, the money paid into the system can be used to reduce the burdens of the system on impacted communities and make it easier and more convenient for everyone to get around without driving alone. We can spend that money on transit, walking, biking and other improvements. We can also use that money to mitigate for past harms caused by the transportation system. We can turn an action – driving a vehicle that endangers and sickens ourselves and other people – into money that we can use to build a better system and fix what we’ve damaged. 

As we evaluate policy choices, we also need to carefully design solutions with an eye to their equity impacts. While higher-income people drive more than lower-income people, charging people to use the roadway adds a financial burden to driving that could weigh heavily on the category of people who are driving, but are close to being unable to pay for it. The charging mechanisms can mitigate this by providing discounts or rebates.

Building equity into policy evaluation and advocacy is possible. A first step is to evaluate all the things we assume are permanent and inevitable – like how we get around our communities – for the ways they create and reinforce inequity. A transportation system centered on moving vehicles, not people and goods, is not equitable. It’s time to look for other ways to meet our needs, to correct and redress the places where our systems cause harm. 

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