Research offers bird’s-eye view of equity in regional transportation plans

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Aerial view of Tampa, Florida; one of the case studies in the research

A NITC study took a look at how metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs, can better serve transportation-disadvantaged and historically marginalized populations when creating regional transportation plans.

The transportation disadvantaged are those unable to drive or who lack access to an automobile, and may include the elderly, low income, young people, persons with disabilities, and those with permanent or temporary health conditions. Historically marginalized communities are often left out of the planning process and include many of the same groups but also ethnic and racial minorities.

A new freeway, with all its attendant air and noise pollution, might cut through a part of town where low-income and minority populations are concentrated. Bike lanes sometimes wait to make an appearance until a neighborhood has begun to gentrify. People over the age of 60, as well as people of color, are at greater risk of being killed by a car while walking. Low-income neighborhoods often have poor access to regional transportation networks, making getting to and from work and other destinations a challenge for residents. English language proficiency is a barrier to participating in the transportation planning process and is also recognized as a dimension of transportation disadvantage.

To address problems like this, equity needs to be a priority in every regional transportation planning process. The report, Evaluating the Distributional Effects of Regional Transportation Plans and Projects, provides guidance for MPOs to address these equity concerns. Led by Kristine Williams of the University of South Florida and Aaron Golub of Portland State University, the project’s goal was to provide guidance to MPOs on how to evaluate distributional equity in regional plans and projects. 

MPOs are legally required to evaluate the distributional effects of long range transportation planning, but it’s a complex process. Equity analysis can help uncover important community transportation needs that may otherwise be overlooked in long range planning and investment decisions.

Despite widespread evidence that MPOs are working toward equity goals, the role of equity analysis in shaping long-range transportation plans and project decisions is often haphazard, unclear, and undefined.

Williams and Golub hope to provide MPOs with more clarity by outlining essential steps for integrating equity analysis into transportation planning.

The final report catalogues the various methods in use by MPOs to evaluate equity in planning and suggests best practices, as well as new methods, data sources, and processes for distributional and accessibility analyses.

Researchers engaged in the regional planning processes with their respective MPO partners – Hillsborough MPO (Tampa, Florida) and Metro (Portland, Oregon). 

In supporting their research needs, Williams and Golub were able to learn from these processes.

The Florida research team engaged with Hillsborough MPO staff on methods for identifying communities of concern and issues of transit, pedestrian and bicycle accessibility, housing and transportation costs, and safety. 

The Oregon research team engaged directly with the Portland Metro planning process by supporting staff research needs as they developed the equity analysis measures for the long-range plan update process.

Williams and Golub demonstrate that a more systematic approach to equity in regional transportation planning would not only benefit transportation disadvantaged communities; it could also lead to a more holistic and comprehensive approach to regional transportation planning that would enhance livability, affordability and economic opportunity for the broader population.

The case studies presented in the report illustrate how equity analysis can help uncover important community transportation needs that might otherwise be overlooked.

For more details about recommendations, case studies and equity analysis, visit the project page or download the final report.

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