Only 73 percent of pedestrian master plans even acknowledge the importance of equity considerations in how we build our walking infrastructure — and just 40 percent of plans commit to concrete goals to actually reduce those disparities, a new study finds.
But that same study suggests an intuitive new framework to get those numbers up — and it could be a game-changer for cities who want to create transportation systems that are antiracist, anticlasssist, and all-around better.
In their groundbreaking new paper, Kansas State University-based researchers Amber Berg and Gregory Newmark took a deep dive into 15 pedestrian master plans from major cities across America to understand how some of the largest departments of transportation were — or weren’t — centering the needs of marginalized communities in their policies. “Equity” has long been a buzzword in the transportation realm, of course, but there is still no single federal definition of what the word actually means when it comes to pedestrian planning — nor are there many federal requirements for the equitable distribution of key resources and interventions that could save lives on our roads.
That could help explain why there are still such disturbing disparities when it comes to the safety and convenience of walkers from different racial and socio-economic groups. According to the advocacy group Smart Growth America, walkers who are non-White, elderly, and traveling through low-income communities are disproportionately more likely to be killed by drivers — even after controlling for differences in population size and walking rates.
“I think Amber’s always been acutely sensitive to systematic injustice,” said Newmark, who assisted Berg in developing the paper as part of her Master’s thesis. “Hopefully, with this framework, planners won’t be able to hide behind not knowing what ‘equity’ really means anymore.”
Even among those who bothered to include the word “equity” in their master plans, Berg and Newmark found a wide discrepancy in how our transportation leaders seemed to define the term.
“A lot of cities had what we call a ‘horizontal’ approach to equity, which is about seeking equity in how things are distributed — they’ll might say, for instance, ‘we need to build an equal number of crosswalks in each neighborhood this year, and that’s how we’ll achieve equity,” Berg says. “But that approach doesn’t address the non-infrastructure-based [barriers], and even the non-physical barriers to walking that are so difficult to overcome in areas with high death rates. Nor does it address what resources some areas might have already had.”
A ‘vertical’ approach to equity, by contrast, might first take a thorough inventory of which neighborhoods already had a lot of crosswalks, and which had none — and do vigorous community engagement around what the residents of underserved areas might need besides crosswalks in order to feel safe on the road, such as taking inter-agency action to end brutality in street policing.