Equity in transport: what is it, why is it important, and how can we provide for it?

Over the past several decades, transport equity-based practitioners (be they consultants, researchers, advocates, or government employees) have been pushing for a new, more expansive approach to transport that goes beyond the “Five E’s” (Engineering, Enforcement, Education, Encouragement, Evaluation) to include Equity. The intent and purpose of this “Sixth E”, which can envelope many related concepts, such as inclusion, diversity, ethics, and empathy, is to help reshape how to think about, and therefore to plan and design, transport plans, projects, and policies.

Equity – what is it and why is it important?

Equity is a principle or concept that is often considered synonymous with fairness. It can be conceived socially, spatially, and procedurally. Equity recognizes that different people have different needs, particularly those belonging to disadvantaged groups, such as low-income earners, people of color, women, immigrants, older adults and children. Structurally, equity works to repair the damages imposed upon such groups, particularly communities of color, from factors including decades of disparate investment, environmental racism, redlining and displacement.  

Briefly speaking, transport equity can be defined as a situation where a particular mode of travel is safe, secure, and improves mobility and accessibility fairly, enabling all people to participate in socio-economic life.

If we effectively incorporate equity into plans, projects and policies, we are better equipped to create transport alternatives that service society fairly, and that can prioritize the needs of the most disadvantaged members of our communities, many of whom are more likely to be reliant on less costly modes, such as transit, walking, and cycling. As a result, people are provided with access to transport alternatives that can enable healthier, active lifestyles and improved socio-economic wellbeing.

Equity – how can we provide for it?

To provide for equity, consultants, researchers, advocates and government must, first, acknowledge and understand what equity is and, second, work to incorporate it into the internal structure of our governments and organizations. To do so, it is important that we evaluate things such as corporate diversity and cultural competency. By working towards a diverse and culturally competent structure, we are better equipped to serve our communities in an equitable fashion, as a wider range of perspectives are incorporated into our internal operations and how plans, projects and policies are structured and scoped.

The geopolitical and legal landscape is also an important consideration when looking to understand if and how the inclusion of equity exists in different contexts. For example, the Federal government of Canada has no overarching legislation mandating the specific inclusion of disadvantaged groups in the planning process, with the exception of certain sections of Canadian Aboriginal Law such as the Duty to Consult and Accommodate. In contrast, the United States’ Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is legislation that, while high level, has, at least to some extent, helped to ensure some basic consideration of equity in decision-making.

In addition to internal structuring, we must ensure that we are recognizing and addressing the needs and concerns of disadvantaged groups, by including such groups throughout the entirety of the plan, project, or policy-making process. In other words, we must work not just internally, but externally.

Plans and projects should be prioritized in areas home to the most disadvantaged, and also shaped to consider their particular needs and concerns. When it comes to cycling, for example, recent academic and non-academic literature, such as institutional reports, shows that concerns and barriers include: physical safety, such as the presence and quality of cycling infrastructure; personal security, such as real or perceived concerns of crime and other threats to personal safety; racism; policing and harassment; and fear of displacement from gentrification affiliated with cycling investments. When generating cycling-related plans or projects, we must, therefore, work to understand first the communities that will be impacted and second the thoughts – positive, neutral, or negative – of the people in those communities, while prioritizing those who are most disadvantaged. A traditional planning approach without context-sensitive consideration of equity can do more to hurt than to help.

Methods and approaches must be established and employed to evaluate a plan or project’s potential to generate equitable outcomes. Common methods include:

  • Accessibility and Level of Traffic Stress (LTS) analysis can make use of ArcGIS. Accessibility is a measure of the ease with which one can reach a destination and the number of desired destinations, such as grocery stores, banks and parks, that can be reasonably reached by a particular mode. LTS classifies streets according to their level of safety/comfort for a particular user.
  • Qualitative field work can be used to assess the quality of transport infrastructure and network and the surrounding environment.
  • Qualitative interviews, focus groups and/or community engagement events can be used to understand more effectively local needs and concerns.

Ultimately, the ways in which people working in transportation can most effectively address equity will depend on the sector in which they work. For example, it is often the role and responsibility of the public sector, such as municipal or level government, to ensure that effective engagement processes are part of any plan, project or policy.

It is often the role of consultants to support the needs of government in areas such as recommending methods for assessing whether and to what extent a particular plan, project, or policy can provide for equity.

Advocates and researchers, on the other hand, work to educate and expand people’s knowledge base and skillset and challenge us to pursue more innovative and equitable ways of doing things on an ongoing basis. Importantly, we must also recognize the importance of embedding the local knowledge and insight provided by the public we serve. It is the collective learning and action of all groups that best equip us to advance the pursuit of equity, not just in transport, but across all sectors.

Steer has been involved in a number of projects looking at equity analysis, including the Centre for London report, Fair access: Towards a transport system for everyone', the Oregon Metro RTO programme, and a study for the Development Bank of Latin America on mobility with a gender perspective.

Written by Alexandra Doran.


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