Keeping Pace with Rapidly Changing Environmental Justice Populations in Transportation Planning

TREC FHWA April 2019 Report - EJ Demographics story.png
Principal Investigator: Aaron Golub, Portland State University
Learn more about this research by viewing the Executive Summary and the full Final Report on the Project Overview page, or watching a recording of the January 2019 webinar.

Since 1994, every Federal agency must develop a strategy for addressing “environmental justice” (EJ) – the disproportionately adverse human health or environmental effects on low-income and minority populations (sometimes called “EJ Populations”). In transportation planning this means including those communities' voices in the planning process, and evaluating the social impacts early on in the planning and project development process.

But what happens if EJ Populations move or grow during the sometimes decade-long project development process?

"If you're in a community that is changing, can you rely on forecasting to look ahead and have a detailed view of EJ impacts into the future? Unfortunately, the forecasting is just not there to be able to predict EJ populations with the kind of accuracy that would be needed," said Aaron Golub of Portland State University, the lead investigator on the project.

A neighborhood that was not classified as EJ (and therefore not subject to stricter planning guidelines) during a planning phase of a transportation project may become so during subsequent transportation decision-making phases. Moreover, gentrification can displace EJ populations and put pressure on low-income populations who struggle to afford increasing rents– meaning considerations of EJ in a location may not be relevant over time.


The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is interested in how these changes are understood and addressed within the transportation planning process – how were local, regional and state agencies altering their planning processes in area of rapid community change?

To that end, a new report from FHWA, prepared by Portland State University and ICF International, provides an in-depth analysis of national demographic trends and a synthesis of best transportation decision-making practices borne out of five case studies. The report was authored by Aaron Golub, Nathan McNeil, Matt Gray, Charles Rynerson, Stephanie Lonsdale and Madison Levy of Portland State University, with Les Brown and Michael Grant of ICF International. A webinar was held January 30, 2019 on this research.

"This project at least raises the issue, by cataloging how little is being done to consider changing community demographics. We've asked agencies to look at trends and ask questions about community change in ways that they may not have before; thinking of how a community may change between the time frame of a long range plan and then the actual investment. That time span can exceed ten years, fifteen years," Golub said.


New approaches to public engagement and data gathering can improve improve forecasting of demographic and income changes, including predicting potential displacement and gentrification. By taking these extra steps, transportation agencies can better understand driving forces and ensure those changes are recognized throughout the progression of transportation decision-making and between decennial census releases.

The research team focused on five agencies at the regional and state levels currently using notable practices that hold potential for change in this area.

  • Metro (Portland, OR metro area): Advocates’ concerns about the accuracy of demographic forecasts as pertains to race and ethnicity were addressed by Metro’s use of a 10-year interim modeling analysis, in which the demographic assumptions are likely more accurate compared to a traditional 25 or 30 year long range projection.

  • Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT): This state DOT uses a unique Environmental Screening Tool referenced by every planner in the state, which incorporates census data and could be quite useful if it alerted planners to areas undergoing rapid demographic change.

  • Metropolitan Transportation Commission (San Francisco Bay Area): Their innovative performance measure evaluates the potential for regional plan investments to create additional displacement pressure. The measure highlights neighborhoods potentially experiencing more pressure, and serves as a tool for planners and advocates to use in protecting affordable housing near transit and other key locations.

  • Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission (Columbus, OH): MORPC uses a population-weighted method to address underrepresentation of EJ populations, measuring aggregate impacts of transportation actions on different populations at the regional scale.

  • Atlanta Regional Commission (Atlanta, GA): ARC conducts an innovative stakeholder engagement process to improve its forecasting and modeling while also assisting those stakeholders with understanding their own community dynamics.


Given the apparent limitations of long-range projections that make limited provisions for the way neighborhoods might change, planners may opt instead to focus planning and investments on short term projects to address immediate needs of EJ communities.

For example, earlier this week Metro announced four pilot projects which will provide more equitable and immediate access to new transportation technologies including ride-hailing, car-, bike- and scooter-sharing, and real time transit information around greater Portland. Rapid response to mobility gaps can also inform long-range planning.


Local Trends

  • Is your community addressing the issue of demographic change when engaging the public?
  • Is your community aware of demographic changes to date that may have already shifted community composition?
  • Do recent trends suggest the community is likely to shift over the lifecycle of a transportation plan or investment?
  • If it will change, how will you address that at later decision points?

Impacts of Planned Investments

  • Is your community considering how planned investments could result in local demographic change?
  • Has your community developed a process to evaluate impacts of investments on neighborhood change?
  • Do investments address the needs of EJ populations and are there scenarios considering community change?

If you want to learn about more research that ties in with these practices, take a look at some of our projects that focus on transportation equity.

This research was funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration.


To learn more about this and other TREC research, sign up for our monthly research newsletter.

The Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) at Portland State University is home to the National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC), the Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation (IBPI), and other transportation programs. TREC produces research and tools for transportation decision makers, develops K-12 curriculum to expand the diversity and capacity of the workforce, and engages students and young professionals through education.

Share this: