City transportation planners need to place more emphasis on less tangible goals like helping people who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods access essential services, the authors of a new study argue.
Urban transportation planning is mainly concerned with easing traffic congestion, improving safety, and saving time for motorists. Most metropolitan transportation plans strive to blend environmental, economic, and social-equity goals to promote sustainability.
But a new study of 18 metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada finds that many plans focus largely on local environmental and congestion-reduction goals—and fail to include meaningful measurements of social-equity objectives.
Difficult to measure
“Many of the plans talk a lot about social-equity goals, but these goals are not translated into clearly specified objectives—and it’s not at all clear how the goals are incorporated into decision-making,” says Kevin Manaugh, assistant professor in McGill University’s department of geography and School of Environment, and lead author of the study published in the journal Transport Policy.
That’s partly because traffic speed and certain environmental effects are easier to measure than social-justice considerations, such as access to job opportunities or health care for low-income groups, or balancing the interests of pedestrians and cyclists with those of motorists.
Transportation plans cover the gamut of infrastructure projects, including sidewalks, highways, bicycle paths, and suburban rail systems.
A few cities—notably Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, and Chicago—have managed to build in clear, measurable indicators for achieving social-equity goals, Manaugh says.
Building such considerations into the process is important, because “these are very long-term decisions. Once you build a highway, it’s there for many decades.”
The researchers say these measures could be included in urban planning to better address social-equity objectives:
- Changes in accessibility to desired destinations, particularly for disadvantaged groups.
- Difference in travel times, to work and to essential services, between car and public transit.
- Difference between top and bottom income quintiles in the proportion of household expenditures spent on transportation.
- Difference between car users and pedestrians or cyclists in traffic injuries and deaths, on a per-trip basis.
These indicators are “relatively straightforward to capture with a combination of census data, regional travel surveys, and on-board (commuter) surveys,” the researchers write. “A plan with these kinds of indicators could potentially go a long way toward making social equity a less ‘intangible’’ aspect of transportation planning.”
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Fonds de recherche du Québec-Société et culture funded the study.
Source: McGill University