Equity in Transportation, Part 1
About This Episode
In this episode, Erin Murphy, AICP, leads a conversation about the importance of equity in transportation. She’s joined by Kimley-Horn transportation planners John Martin, P.E., and Danielle McCray, P.E., and Amy Edwards, Board Chair for Dimitri House, a not-for-profit group in Rochester, New York. This episode explores the history of making transportation projects more equitable, shares strategies to effectively engage and include diverse perspectives in the planning process, and explains how current projects are working to reverse the adverse societal effects from past transportation projects that resulted from less-inclusive decision-making.
Erin Murphy: Hello everybody. My name is Erin Murphy. I’m a transportation planner with Kimley-Horn of DC. And today we’re going to have a discussion about putting equity at the center of transportation planning. I have a few panelists with me: John Martin, Danielle McCray, and Amy Edwards. Amongst ourselves, we’re going to have some discussion about what our responsibility is to our communities, and for those of us who are engineers or planners, to our profession, and understanding how we can bring equity into transportation planning. And with that, I’ll hand it off to John so he can introduce himself.
John Martin: Well, hello everybody. My name is John Martin. I’m a transportation planner engineer with Kimley-Horn in Reston, Virginia. I’ve worked on transportation planning projects in Washington, DC in Rochester, New York, and all over Virginia, and really across the U.S. In our planning work, we really strive to include as many voices as possible in developing transportation solutions and really the more perspectives, the better. We have some excellent project examples that we want to talk about here, in a few minutes. Erin has also asked us to share our background a little bit. Quickly about me, a little history would be that as a kid, I was bused. I grew up in a town part of desegregation and from sixth to ninth grade, I was bused to a part of the city in Raleigh, North Carolina that was historically Black. When I went to high school, I went to a high school close to where I lived and Black kids were bused my side of the town and we just got to know each other.
It was desegregation and it was what was going on in the Seventies and Black kids from predominantly Black areas. I mean in Raleigh the ratio was about two-thirds white and one-third Black and what the City decided to do was have that ratio at every school. Later on, I learned that was a major social milestone but at the time I just remember seeing more Black people at my school and we got to know each other as kids. I realized more and more growing up that it was a positive influence on me. Growing up in that era, it really gave me a perspective on the culture of the white people and Black people working together. I mean, we all worked together. We watched our adult leaders work together to educate kids, solve issues, and really improve our community. That was my growing up experience. When I got to college, I saw some prejudice; I saw some discrimination from students who came from less diverse communities. And then when I left college and went into the Air Force, I learned early on that discrimination wasn’t tolerated in any way.
In every Air Force unit I was in, there was a mix of cultures and races, and really where you grew up was more about, it was more of a discussion topic than anything else, and we all just got along. We worked together to accomplish the mission. When I did leave Raleigh and drove across the country to my first Air Force assignment, I quickly learned that not everyone had a Southern accent, that not everyone was Baptist or Methodist or Episcopalian, and not everyone was Black or white. There were lots of other races, lots of other folks lots of other religions. It was really fun getting to know all those cultures. Those experiences have helped me more readily accept and embrace other cultures. It’s really helped my transportation planning practice, and I’ve taken this roll your sleeves up together approach in my practice, and it’s really been a mantra over the years. It’s worked well in many communities and we’ve got some great project examples to talk about here in a few minutes. With that, I’ll turn it over to Danielle.
Danielle McCray: Thank you, John. I think we may have more things in common than we thought. As Erin mentioned, my name is Danielle McCray. I am with Kimley-Horn in the Reston, Virginia office, and I am a transportation engineer by training. Most of my practice area though is focused on transportation planning, connecting with stakeholders and communities, and shepherding projects or plans through consensus building to implementation, and that has certainly become a passion of mine. That’s connecting with communities and individuals and building consensus. A little bit of that dates back to some of the differences that John alluded to earlier. So, a little bit about me. I am from central Virginia and growing up as a Black female family circles or my social circles as a young person, it was predominantly Black. My high school was fairly mixed, mostly white and Black kids. But as I started to progress along in my educational years to college, whether it was in the governor’s school in high school, I started to experience more of my spaces being predominantly white and people not reflecting who I am as an individual or people not looking like me in those spaces, whether it was college or as I mentioned before the governor’s school, or even now in the professional workspace. I started to question why aren’t there more people like me in these spaces? That’s led me to engage in programs and activities that really try to get the communities that are traditionally not represented to the table, and that certainly started early on in my career in college. I participated in a lot of STEM, robotics, competitions, and coaching high school students that are participating with a program that’s near and dear to my heart, Computers for Kids in Charlottesville, Virginia.
And we were really looking to bridge that digital divide and provide technology and access to the internet and computers to kids who didn’t have that in their home. A little bit of that has translated to my professional career where I’m as a professional, also seeking to employ that same passion for diversity and inclusion and projects that we work on and making sure that the communities we work with that we’re speaking to and hearing from the voices that may or may not be represented or may not have a seat at the table. Whether that’s through my work with a safe route to school program, where we’re trying to encourage younger kids to walk and bike to school, or whether it’s through engaging underrepresented communities in the stakeholder process. That’s a little bit about me. I look forward to the conversation with you all today.
Erin: Amy, thanks for joining us today. Could we ask the same question of you? I know that you’re the non-transportation professional in the room, but you’ve certainly got a lot of experience in, in thinking about how people live and how that impacts their days. Could you give us a little bit of perspective on yourself and your background?
Amy Edwards: For sure. Thanks so much for the invitation. My name is Amy Edwards. I’m the board chair for Dimitri House. We are a local not-for-profit in Rochester, New York. We’ve been around for about 35 years and we are focused primarily on food and shelter within our community. In talking a little bit about equity and transportation, I remember being a middle schooler and a high schooler and taking the city bus all across the city five days a week for six years in a row, and I became very comfortable taking the city bus, taking transportation to get me from here to there. In my years growing up, I have come to realize that my suburban counterparts didn’t necessarily have that same experience. They didn’t have any visibility or understanding in what it was like to have to take the bus, to time your day around public transportation, to be at the mercy of that public transportation, which may be affected by the weather, which may be affected by mechanical failures, which may be affected by route changes and all those sorts of things.
In finding my way to Dimitri House 20 years ago, my perspective definitely changed. The lens in which I see my community through, for me, was clarified a great deal. I have learned to be actively involved and nonjudgmental of our other community members, which is something that you have to do all the time. You have to make sure that you are telling yourself and reminding yourself that is important to others. May not be the same things that are important to you. From a Dimitri House perspective, focusing on food and shelter, some of the questions around equity and transportation that come to mind are getting our clients to, and from our food cupboard with their groceries. How do they accomplish that? How many bus stops is it? Do they have to get all their kids on the bus? How do they make their appointment on time? The same goes for shelter. If you come to a homeless shelter at 11 o’clock at night in January, and it’s 10 degrees outside and they’re full and you have to go somewhere else, how do you get to somewhere else? How do you get on the bus if you don’t have any money or don’t have a bus pass or a token, things of that nature? It even goes for Dimitri House one step further in that we’re helping clients try to find jobs and employment and figuring out how you’re going to get to your job. How are you going to organize daycare? If it’s going to take you 90 minutes on the bus to get to your job, how far is your job from the bus stop? Those things come to mind for us. I find the equity and transportation being a very interesting piece of the puzzle overall as to how we successfully empower people to be self-sufficient and successful within our community and really within society as a whole.
Erin: Thanks everybody for the introductions. And I think that you’ve provided some really interesting context from which we can jump off in our conversation that all of us can be limited by our own lived experience and the value of broadening the connections, seeking to understand people that are different from ourselves, and then applying that perspective in our professional lives. That can be something that we do outside of our day to day jobs and bring that back to what we’re doing on a day in and day out basis. I wanted to step back a minute because we’ve talked about this terminology “equity” a few times and make sure that put ourselves in the right framework to give it a relatively simple definition.
Equity is the fair distribution of benefits and negative impacts. If we think about that in terms of transportation, there are a few key phrases probably on the shortlist, and we could go on all day about what this term means and how it applies to transportation. But transportation that is safe, that is accessible, and that means physically and financially in terms of its usefulness transportation. Just because it’s there, it’s not inherently useful. If it doesn’t get you to where you want to go and get you to your place of employment, your daycare, your groceries, et cetera, and is also reliable. As we think about how we integrate equity in transportation planning, I think that you’ll hear some conversation as we move forward about how that plays into the process of transportation and by really integrating equity in the process, how we’re hopeful that that can turn into outcomes that result in that fair distribution of benefits and negative impacts across all communities.
It’s important that we bring this lens of equity into the transportation planning and that we understand where we as a country have been in terms of the history of transportation, planning, and land use policies that have brought us to the place of continued racial injustice that we are facing today. How we’ve harmed low income communities, communities of color, how we have lessened health benefits, how we’ve hurt the environment, how we have really segregated economic opportunity. And so how we understand why that’s part of the puzzle is important in understanding the lived perspectives of the constituents that we are seeking to interact with in our work and coming out with those equitable outcomes for our communities.
John, I wondered if you could step in here, and sorry to ask the older gentleman in the room, to give us your perspective as you’ve lived through what I’m going to call the before and after of the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970 that comes on the heels of the previous civil rights act which is really the law mandating that we assess environmental impacts of our proposed actions and certainly applies to transportation projects.
John: Yes, I was here in 1970 on this earth, but don’t quite remember the details of this, so I had to look them up. As a transportation planning practitioner, we are beholden to the National Environmental Policy Act. It was passed by Congress in 1969 and signed by President Nixon in 1970 on January 1st. It ushered in a new decade where the environment was really pushed to the forefront in transportation planning and major federal projects. Before NEPA, there were a lot of perspectives that we don’t have today. The automobile was king. The future was going to be auto centric. Prior to NEPA, especially in the major planning efforts, following World War II in the forties and the fifties, so many of those transportation planning decisions were made based on the automobile, but they’re also made behind closed doors.
Decision-makers took the path of least resistance in their time, which meant that interstate highways went through low-income neighborhoods or airports on farmland owned by disadvantaged or underrepresented people. When it comes to highways, we’re going to talk about two projects. One in Rochester, New York, and one in Washington, D.C. that are good examples of this decision-making before NEPA and the planning that’s going on post NEPA. NEPA did usher in a period in which environmental protection was really at the forefront of American policy. NEPA allowed the public to call a time out on some major federal projects that really were probably not the best decisions to be made for the future of communities.
Where did racial justice come into play? Well in the 1980s using NEPA as a tool, environmentalists and citizen activists, including members of the congressional Black caucus, and there was a commission also from the United Church of Christ, really got involved and they began drawing conclusions about the decisions made on locations of things like hazardous waste sites, locations of highways, locations of airports, and the conclusions they made were that those pre-NEPA decisions were made behind closed doors that affected people that were traditionally underrepresented. This community activism resulted in a national policy of environmental justice. It was based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it was implemented by executive order in 1994, and it was entitled “General Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-income Populations.” Today, the NEPA process includes deliberately addressing environmental justice along with socioeconomic cultural and historic considerations. For transportation planning, NEPA helps us deliberately address these considerations and really mitigate concerns all in an effort to accomplish this mission of solving transportation challenges. We have NEPA to guide us in our transportation planning, and we had this environmental justice aspect of NEPA. That was a quick primer on NEPA and environmental justice. Erin, would you like to roll into a project example?
Erin: Certainly John, and I think we have several projects that we’ve been working on together that take what was the confluence of urban renewal and interstate development and the lack of transportation, lack of transparency in those projects. If we’re putting rose colored glasses on it, if we’re looking at it from the lens that we’re sitting in today, but how we can speak with the communities that we’re working with to reconnect those places and reconnect people to really great places to live.
If you could, talk about that project that you referenced in Washington DC, that is a prime example of that sort of historical context and planning that’s going on today.
John: That project is called the Southeast Boulevard, Barney Circle project. It’s an environmental assessment that is being finalized today as an excellent example of both pre NEPA decisions and then the post NEPA transportation planning. Imagine it’s in the late ‘40s and the automobile is what everybody thinks is the future of transportation in this country. The district began planning an 18-mile Interloop freeway in and around D.C. that was envisioned to be able to get people around. By the late 1950s, this planning led to an interstate designation of this freeway. One segment of it was designed, and it was about a two-and-a-half-mile segment of an eight-lane elevated freeway over Virginia Avenue. That design would have required the condemnation of about 160 houses and a whole bunch of other commercial properties, but by the mid-60’s there was a lot of opposition that had built up to this.
Not the least of which was the fact that the reason for this opposition was there wasn’t a lot of low-income housing that people could relocate to from existing low-income housing. This opposition grew in the ‘60s that you can imagine that was in line with the Equal Rights Act and everything else going on then. A compromise was reached, and segments of this freeway were built, and this segment called the Southeast Freeway was built from what is 11th Street today over to Barney Circle at Pennsylvania Avenue. Then this freeway took less houses, but it still ended up being a barrier between the houses that remained and the riverfront and other destinations. If you’re familiar with D.C., you can see the vestiges of freeways that were built but never connected back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
This freeway ended up being a back door to RFK stadium, if you’re familiar with this area. When the 11th street project was built in the late 2000s, and it was completed in 2014, that little segment of Southeast Freeway was converted to an arterial boulevard, but it’s still not very pedestrian friendly or bike friendly. The transportation planners really entered into the picture, and Erin and I have worked on this project now for the last couple of years, where we worked on this environmental assessment process, going through the NEPA process and considering all the requirements you’re supposed to with NEPA, but we’ve gone beyond that. We’ve involved the community. We’ve done the outreach to the community. We’ve had public meetings; we’ve been out to neighborhoods. We’ve been out to civic association meetings, to the advisory neighborhood commission meetings, we’ve worked with the District DOT to come up with a concept that would bring this old freeway up to an urban boulevard and connect with neighborhood streets.
You have pedestrian bicycle connections across an urban boulevard that are much easier so that neighborhoods would be connected to waterfront by sidewalks, by bike trails, by a bicycle pedestrian bridge. The concept was vetted with the community, and it’s on the project website and you can see the concepts are beautiful and they were developed in concert with the community. They were vetted and there is consensus on those concepts that they provide the accessibility that the community would like to see. They provide wide sidewalks, street trees, on-street parking, and green infrastructure. There’s also as part of this potential excess right-of-way that’ll be disposed of. That means that’s the process where you dispose of right-of-way and then create land for potential development as part of that project. Another unique feature of the Southeast Boulevard project is that the boulevard is going to be elevated to the level of the current neighborhood along L street in D.C. and underneath this elevated Southeast Boulevard is going to be a bus garage, a bus transit, and the support facility, a very unique way of meeting a need within the district for bus maintenance and bus storage, and the operations of a bus fleet called the D.C. connector.
All that was also vetted with the community and some of their concerns were assuaged when we explained in layperson terms, how this is going to work, that the buses are going to access a facility on either end of the old freeway of the new urban boulevard and they’re not going to be running through neighborhoods or operating at night. All those considerations were brought to bear in this NEPA document called an environmental assessment which we’re finalizing today.
Erin, I would say that from an equity perspective our team really did go above and beyond the NEPA process and bring in perspectives from the community. We had those public meetings where we had very tactical exercises showing them the pieces of a street. What can be put together from a cross section? How do sidewalks work with bike trails and street trees and travel lanes, and how does all that work together? We explained the complexity of constructing this road, raising it, and then how to operate that bus facility underneath. We did come up with a solution that makes sense. It’s a story that we were able to tell the citizens. We were able to hear a lot of different voices through that whole process and all those voices to influence the outcome of that planning process, and they’ve really helped us get to the point where that environmental assessment is poised to be approved and the project can move forward into design and construction.
Erin: Thanks, John. I think you’ve really hit on a key point there about the perspective that we have by mandate of law. And that law is half a century old at this point about where we can transition from limiting harm in our transportation projects to advancing equity in our transportation projects and dialogue with the community, bringing the community into the conversation and bringing them into the conversation in such a way that they have an opportunity to shape the plan or the project or the policy, is really one of the key the key considerations about how we can move together forward with a common thread.
Danielle, I wonder at this point if you could tell us a little bit more about your work when you’re thinking about transportation planning and specifically longer reign trip lanes transportation planning, which can be relatively amorphous to the community. It may be something not as tangible as a project itself, such as what John just described. Tell us about the challenges and the approaches that you bring to integrating the community into the process and then having them shape the results of that plan.
Danielle: Sure. Erin, to your point, it’s certainly a challenge to discuss a planning effort that may be more long-term with the community just simply in general and especially with a community we’re working with closely here in the greater Washington DC area to update a long-range transportation plan. There is a specific emphasis on engaging voices of the community that have traditionally not been represented in the planning process. Taking this technical work that can be not as tangible as a specific project and creating relatable content, tailoring that content to identify how this plan is even relevant to me as an individual, and then making sure that we engage people where they are, and establish an inclusive process that is reflective of the full community can be a challenge. What we have sought to do with this specific project is really tried to be inclusive and leverage some existing relationships in the communities.
A couple examples I’ll get into are community champions, identifying people who have established relationships in the communities and leveraging those existing trusted relationships and fostering those community champions as trusted advisors for our process, and essentially equipping them with the content and some of the technical information talking points and bringing them on the project as a champion and an advocate for the process, if you will, and facilitating that relationship between the jurisdiction and the community. One thing that we have to be mindful of is that when we’re trying to bring in the traditionally underrepresented communities, some of those who were the vulnerable populations are experiencing an extra burden to participate in the process. That burden is disproportionate to that vulnerable community. And in many cases, because of their other priorities, that may rise above participating in a long-range planning effort.
We have to be intentional and mindful of how we’re thinking input. And I think recognizing that there are barriers between us and the community when we’re trying to facilitate that relationship or foster the relationship is important and acknowledging that the exchange of information we’re essentially as a project team seeking input, seeking feedback on some ideas. We want priorities identified, strategies developed, but it’s really an exchange for the community sharing their personal experience, whether it’s an individual or as a unit. And that ask can be a lot on a community that’s already experiencing some disproportionate burdens. I think we have to be mindful when we approach any type of engagement of that, of those limitations. and try to minimize those burdens or those obstacles as best as possible.
The community champions would be the ones establishing a relationship with an already existing trusted advisor in the community and harnessing them with some content and equipping them in a manner that will help them be an advocate for the project. And another thing is that through focus groups, we have found that establishing focus groups in different formats or different mediums, whether it’s in person or online and, and establishing those formats appropriate for the groups that we’re seeking to engage with. Maybe the online format is not appropriate for a group where you want to have an in-person, intentional conversation, but it may be appropriate for the working parent who would like to provide feedback. But for some of those in-person meetings where we’ve been really intentional, we’ve staged them around where people are in their lives. And some of the shared experiences they may have.
Some of the unique groups that we’ve all thought out are specifically high school students, because they are the future of the community. Like how do you want to live in experience? How do you currently experience moving around your community and what do you see that experience like in 10 years from now? We’ve also sought out potential conversations with persons with disabilities and people in the more senior group of the community. We’ve had special focus groups or intentional conversations with individuals solely in Spanish. We’ve tailored our content and facilitated a discussion specifically in Spanish so that we can create dialogue and an environment where we’re not just having a translator communicate to individuals in their native language. But we have members on our team who are native Spanish speakers, and they’re facilitating the conversation. They are also transportation planners.
They have this inherent comfort level with individuals. Those are a couple ideas with the focus groups, another element that we’ve employed. It has been successful. In pop up meetings, I’ll take it a step further. I think in some of our planning efforts popping up at a bus stop or a transit station is common, but we’ve thought to go to where people are in in their day to day life. Whether we’re meeting you at the grocery store, whether it’s an international food market, so that we can meet you where you are living your life and be intentional about how we’re bringing the technical context. I think sometimes as practitioners, we can get l bogged down with all of our jargon, but really making sure that our material is prepared and packaged in a way that it speaks to the individual and it’s relevant, so that I have a reason to want to participate in your process, or even share with you my lived experience, so to speak.
We’ve been to grocery stores, soccer games, laundromats, essentially being in the community and being where the people are to eliminate that barrier or that challenge of coming out and providing feedback. Those are a couple ideas of what we’ve done to really try to increase the number of data points we have, recognizing that we’ve missed a lot of data in the past on some projects, that there’s a missing piece of data that represents the lived experience or the desired experience from vulnerable communities. We’ve tried to be intentional and mindful about how we’ve sought out input.
Erin: Thanks, Danielle, I have witnessed firsthand the passion that you bring into strategizing how to make those connections and preparing for those connections. In terms of the who, what, when, where, but I wonder if you could share a little bit about the how and specifically the mindset you bring when you’re going to a public engagement or having a conversation with an individual, how you prepare yourself to have that conversation with those individuals, what your approach is to that? Because I think that you have one that is just really real and genuine and really embraces that person and brings them into the fold. If you could share with us a little bit of what you do there, that would be great.
Danielle: Thank you for that question, I appreciate it. I appreciate the compliment and also the question. I will say that this could just really be natural and just unique to me as a person. But I think that being authentic and genuine about your intentions is really important. People can sniff out if you’re not right. If you really are there to seek out or hear from an individual or a group, you have to really come and be fully present. But before you arrive, I think it’s important that you do your homework. Because we have to acknowledge that there is a difference between us being the technical team or the practitioners and the individuals were seeking input or participation from. Acknowledging those differences however they may appear and knowing that you need to do your homework to enter a space.
You should not just show up and think that because you’re here, someone’s just going to talk to you, but being intentional about preparing whether it’s the material, the content that you’re drafting, or preparing that technical content, sifting through it and pulling out what is relevant and what will speak to the individuals and the communities you’re talking to. Because if you’re giving me your time, I want to make sure that I am speaking to you as an individual. I think that relevancy and context is really important. That means doing your homework, making sure that you come prepared, and that technical content is in a manner that is digestible to whomever you’re speaking with. Also, recognizing that once you arrive for you to have intentional dialogue, and this is just me personally, like in work or not, if I’m communicating or engaging with someone they are likely sharing with me some personal part and for them to provide that, I need to create an environment where they’re comfortable to do that.
I think being present, being genuine and authentic, those are things that you have to be mindful of because as planners, we want to be good stewards of the information that they provide us. But I don’t think we’re going to get that information if we’re not coming at it from an authentic perspective. So showing up is one, but I think you have to be intentional. Once you get there, if you’re fully present and honest and just transparent as best as possible, and then you’ll get to a place where you can have that dialogue.
Erin: I appreciate you sharing a little bit more about your own approach there. Amy, I’m curious if you have any reaction in the context of your role with Dimitri House, to the point that Danielle just made about the ways in which she is preparing to have communication with members of the public and the approach she brings to those conversations.
Amy: Yeah. I loved hearing the focus and the goal of engaging the community as a whole and engaging not just government, not just transportation experts, but really engaging and listening and discussing with the people that this effects on an everyday basis. I think that it’s important that we look at the history of each situation here in Rochester, specifically looking at the history of the Interloop project that we’re all focused on today. You know that history matters here in Rochester in order to implement the Interloop back in the late ‘50s, they raised hundreds of houses and really took out a large swath of an entire neighborhood. There were churches and businesses, and although the late 1950s, and it might seem like a long time ago, there are still plenty of families that were displaced and who lost some connections within their community. You have to really listen to them and hear them and understand what it is that has affected them and how it has affected them. I expect that my role within the greater discussion is really to advise, to advocate, to sort of educate both myself and others. My coming from the not for profit side of the house, I’m considering equity and transportation in a different way than government or an engineer or someone who’s driving a car every day. I’m trying to think of it and look at it from the context of folks who are pedestrians, who may ride their bicycles, who are pushing strollers or grocery carts who are trying to accomplish some different things than maybe folks driving in from the suburbs to get to downtown are trying to accomplish. I think the project team here is focused on taking into account some of the history and I think we phrased it, the intergenerational trauma that existed from the project as a whole, and really listening to people and finding out what the needs are today, what sort of things we are lacking in our community and how the Interloop project specifically can address some of those needs, but can also address and be respectful to the history that comes along with the project.
Bringing those voices of the community forward, understanding where they’re coming from, and really including as many people with the most diverse backgrounds that we possibly can, racial, gender, all sorts of different voices and perspectives, I think is really important. I think what’s important for us in my view is that we’ve put together this committee that includes a ton of community members, which is great. I think that we’re getting a lot of input. We have, additionally within the inner loop project, we have established a racial equity subcommittee. And that committee that I am also a part of has really been discussing how we address the historical wrongs that were done within our community. How do we address them? How can we? What’s the right answer? How much can we address? And things like that. So far, it’s going very well.
There’s been a lot of homework that everyone has done. We’ve learned a tremendous amount about the history of my own community that I lived in and never even knew, and it’s been great. I think one of the things that I am hopeful that we can focus on moving forward is giving some tangible, measurable suggestions and bringing those to the overall team to say, “hey, here’s three things that we think would be very impactful. This is how we would measure the success of those suggestions, and this is why we think those are important.” I think that so far, it’s been great here in Rochester. And I think hearing transportation engineers look at projects from a more social aspect, from a racial diversity aspect, and equity aspect, is something that is, I would say new.
It is not something that necessarily occurred, certainly didn’t occur in years past when these projects were being brought into communities. I think that so far, it’s going really well. Dimitri House has been a part of some of these conversations in this planning, really focused around our clientele and how these projects are going to affect our clients, and those folks that we see and work with every day.
Erin: That’s a really helpful perspective. John, taking us one step back, give us a little bit more background and understanding of what that project is.
John: It is officially called the Rochester Interloop North Transformation Project. So, it’s one step beyond transportation; it’s transformation. It is, as Amy said, a project to overcome what was done in the fifties and the early sixties, and the communities that were there. It is a classic example of a pre-NEPA transportation project decided upon by decision-makers that took the path of least resistance and aligned a freeway in a downtown area, predominantly through neighborhoods that were predominantly Black. The project began in 1952 and was finished in 1965. It was a 13-year construction period, and back then, the early ‘50s, the city had something like 350,000 people in the city. They even had their own NBA team, and the city was predominantly white. The Black population was about 5%. Most Black people lived in either Corn Hill, which is just in south of downtown or on the northeast part of the city. Well, the alignment for the Interloop went through both of these areas.
The Interloop Freeway was intended to do what other urban renewal and urban freeways back in the ‘50s and ‘60s did: focus on the automobile. It was an auto centric solution to transportation since back then people thought it was all about the automobile. People are going to live in the suburbs and come into the city and what better way to get around than this freeway? Well, over time for a variety of reasons, the population of Rochester has declined. Those freeways aren’t needed anymore. The volume of traffic on this freeway is akin to a minor arterial, so there is this opportunity to transform those old transportation facilities into something else. And that something else really should be reconnected to neighborhoods that were, as Amy said to the point, where there is trauma. There’s intergenerational trauma in those communities where friends, neighbors, aunts, uncles, cousins, had to move away from others who could remain or churches or schools were lost.
It has adversely affected the community to the point where they have formed that subcommittee that Amy is on. The city leaders are very keen on making amends, on hearing voices from the community, hearing a diverse set of voices. That’s why there is this racial equity subcommittee that Amy is on, and this community advisory committee that Amy is also on. It’s really cool that my friend, Amy Edwards, is part of this project. Amy and I and her husband have gotten to know each other because our kids went to high school together, and that’s how we knew each other in this community.
To be able to work together this way is very rewarding and part of this Rochester Interloop Transformation Study, this north part, is building upon the success of the east part of the loop. This eastern segment that has already been completed. That segment was transformed into land that is being developed today. There are bike trails, there are parks, there’s open space and active recreation space sidewalks. The parcels that have resulted from that project are being developed with housing for all income levels, retail, office, you name it, and people are moving into that area. The vision for the Interloop North project is the same: to transform that corridor back to a community that everybody can be a proud of.
Part of the effort involves building trust with the community. A huge part of the effort on the part of the transportation planners is to build trust. Well, that starts with hearing from the voices of the community like Amy, and bringing those folks into the discussion so they can share their ideas and share their stories, and make sure that that history is understood. We learn from the past and we apply those lessons learned as we move forward to transform that corridor. Amy, I really appreciate you being a part of that project, and I look forward to seeing where we end up with the plan and what the recommendations are. If anyone’s interested, there is a project website and it’s simply: innerloopnorth.com and there is lots of good information on that project website.
About the Speakers