Longstanding inequities in transportation systems and related investments will be challenging to overcome. But doing so is critical to support more inclusive communities, better transportation access, improved health, and more economic and social opportunities for everyone, according to experts who spoke at the NJTPA’s December 8 symposium on Advancing Equitable Transportation Systems.
The virtual program was the second in a series of “TPA Tuesdays” events looking in-depth at critical issues and gathering input for Plan 2050: Transportation, People, Opportunity
, the NJTPA’s next Long Range Transportation Plan, scheduled for adoption in fall 2021.
“This current health crisis will pass; however, the need for transportation will not and the realities of climate change mean the need for transportation resiliency and redundancy will only increase,” said Passaic County Freeholder John W. Bartlett, NJTPA First Vice Chair, in his opening remarks. “I’d suggest that as one of the nation’s largest MPOs—in one of the country’s most diverse regions—the NJTPA can lead by example by looking at race and equity issues not solely as obstacles, but also as opportunities.”
Keynote speaker Stephanie Gidigbi, CEO of North Star Strategies, highlighted the legacy of racism and exclusionary policies and presented opportunities for advancing equitable transportation systems and investments. Gidigbi worked in the Obama Administration in various positions, with involvement in such efforts as the Hurricane Sandy Taskforce and U.S. Department of Transportation’s Ladders of Opportunity community development program. She previously served as Chief of Staff for the City of Orange in New Jersey.
“The decisions and infrastructure investments that we made fully impacted communities for a generation,” she said, pointing to the construction of I-280 in Essex County as one example of systemic inequity. “We consciously divided people based on race and class; that implication continues to affect communities until today.”
She said it will take a level of intentionality, and willingness to change the way things are done, to transform the system into a more equitable one.
Gidigbi challenged attendees to use “radical imagination” and be transparent in their work. While metropolitan planning organizations like the NJTPA must develop long-range plans, she said they must not forget about the people using the transportation systems today. “You can set a big vision, but also address the individual needs of residents, customers, riders, constituents as part of that discussion,” she said. Gidigbi also stressed the importance of including people who often go unheard and unseen in the planning process.
She noted that as much as 80 percent of a person’s health outcomes are based on where they live rather than genetics, adding that climate change is exacerbating this issue. She also said that changes intended to benefit one group can have unintended benefits or consequences for others. One example of a benefit is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was implemented to assist people with accessibility challenges. Yet improvements such as curb cuts and automatic doors also helped people pushing strollers or even rolling luggage. She asked attendees to think about ways to mitigate negative impacts and create more positive outcomes for everyone. “It’s a great way for us to reorient our minds,” she said.
Following her keynote, Gidigbi joined a panel discussion moderated by Byron Nicholas, Hudson County Supervising Transportation Planner, founder of Black + Urban
and recently elected Vice Chair of the NJTPA’s Regional Transportation Advisory Committee. Other panelists were Donald Burns, Director of Planning and Program Development for the Federal Transit Administration’s Region 2 office; Flora Castillo, President of Pivot Strategies; and Jen Roberton, Senior Transportation Policy Advisor at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.
The panel discussed the history of fixed-route transportation, such as bus lines, which were designed for another time and haven’t been adapted to meet current needs; the need for more flexibility with paratransit services and other programs designed to get people to critical services and other destinations; the connection transportation provides to job opportunities; and the need to consider the impacts of transportation infrastructure, such as the effects on air quality and noise pollution.
Castillo said the pandemic has elevated public transportation’s foundational role in getting people connected with opportunities and needed services and this must be considered in efforts to make the system more equitable. She said transportation is a right that can provide access to opportunities without barriers. “We must look at the intersection of health and transportation and leverage the choice points that we have through the customer journey to reverse decades of cumulative and compounded effects of systemic racism that have disadvantaged communities of color,” she said.
Roberton said low-income populations and communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by poor air quality and climate change. Poor air quality leads to respiratory illnesses, which also put these populations at higher risk for contracting COVID-19, she said. She noted that same-sex couples have a higher rate of respiratory illnesses, climate change, and air pollution impacts compared to different-sex couples. Roberton called for more investment in electrification, bicycle infrastructure, and alternative modes to reduce pollution and improve quality of life for these communities.
Gidigbi emphasized the need to shift from a transactional to transformative approach to transportation systems and investments, building upon the cultural assets of communities. “Show how you can engage or do things differently and how you hope to have a different outcome,” she said.
The third in the TPA Tuesdays symposium series is scheduled for January 26, 2021 at 9 a.m.; the focus will be on opportunity. For more information visit the Plan 2050 website: www.NJTPA.org/Plan2050