Equity in Transportation, Part 2
About This Episode
In part two of our discussion about the importance of equity in transportation, Erin Murphy, AICP, leads a conversation about the responsibility planners have when it comes to renewal projects. She’s joined again by Kimley-Horn transportation planners John Martin, P.E., Danielle McCray, P.E., and Amy Edwards, Board Chair for Dimitri House, a not-for-profit group in Rochester, New York.
Erin: John, I get a little bit nervous when you say the word transformational, and I know that’s not a title that you applied to the project yourselves. But I worry sometimes that, as planners, we have this responsibility of applying our professional judgment in a way that does not recreate the past in a different way. Do we do not recreate urban renewal within the lens of what we think is correct today? I’m curious if you or Amy could speak to a little bit more of the empowerment of the subcommittee and then how the technical team plans to embrace that dialogue and really reflect it in the project. That transformational is a word that’s in the eye of the beholder, and we want that to be in the eye of the beholder that really it is advancing the communities that we need to make amends with rather than advancing financial interests, advancing our own personal perspectives that we bring to the table, et cetera.
Can you share more about empowering the community and how you’ll bring that into the project?
John: I guess I can start briefly and then Amy, if you don’t mind batting clean-up. Procedurally, our company is part of a team that is leading this transformation study. It is very much like a traditional transportation study, but it does bring in land use. It brings in a study of the market potential of the existing market and potential market. We’re very objectively doing our job as planners and engineers to make recommendations that would work for the community practically for moving people by foot, by bicycle, by bus, and their vehicles, and allowing the results of those physical recommendations for physical improvements to improve the economy and to improve the neighborhoods. As a part of the team, we’re working with other consultants and the prime consultant who’s based there in Rochester, as well as city staff who are participating in this project and leading the project. They’re passionate about what could be in this corridor and I don’t think they’re going to let the wrongs of the past repeat themselves. I think they’re going to do all they can to make sure that the resulting project is a fair and equitable solution for transportation and for the community as a whole.
Amy: I think that you did a really good job at a high level of what we’re after and what the subcommittee is focused on. The subcommittee is very focused on hearing what people within our community have to say, specifically people within our community that were affected adversely by the Interloop project back in the 1950s and early ‘60s in addition to those folks that have been impacted in the time between the completion of the Interloop and now. How has it changed the structure of some of the neighborhoods it has? What sort of things has it made less accessible to people? Is it more difficult now to get from point A to point B? Maybe point B is the grocery store. It has impacted the walkability of the inner city significantly.
It has changed the landscape of various parts of the city, specifically the fourth ward. It required an entire church community to relocate. It’s separated families generationally. Some could afford to move, but others couldn’t afford to move, and they ended up in different places. Then we’re trying to do some homework and really understand how the city and how the planners originally treated those families whose houses had to be lost in the process of construction. How did they quantify the worth of those people’s houses? We have found so far that almost categorically; African American families were given less value for their homes and their land. There are some stories in different articles about the Interloop itself being very popular with suburban folks, but very unpopular within the city by the residents who are going to be affected and impacted by it most.
The subcommittee’s goals are very specifically to bring the communities voice forward and to make sure that those voices are heard loud and clear in the planning process going forward. If we are going to create acres and acres of developable green space, fabulous. We lost a park in the original Interloop project, Franklin Square, that was one of the oldest parks in Rochester. How do we create green space? How do we ensure that some of that developable land is made to be affordable for folks that need housing? Within the city proper, affordable housing is a significant challenge here in Rochester. That’s one of our focuses as well. I think the focus of the racial equity subcommittee is to make sure that we understand the history of the project itself. We understand the impacts and how those impacts affected people within our community and how can we maybe not make up for them, but how can we address them and make sure that we take them into account moving forward. We don’t want to repeat some of the mistakes from our past, and we must do a better job listening, hearing, and representing the entire community as a whole.
Erin: I really like the way you guys are framing the representation from a contextual point of view. Danielle said do your homework and then apply that moving forward so that those very important voices are represented in the project. That’s a really great example of how we should approach our plans and our projects moving forward. I wonder if we could transition to a couple of examples. Danielle, I know that you’ve had some conversations with the folks that really are our engagement practitioners across the company. There’s something to be said about how we incorporate our constituents in our conversations, how we’re asking something transactional with them when we’re asking them to share their lived experience, to bring their life to the forefront and give us information for plans and projects.
How can we extend elements of those projects to actually invest in the communities themselves?
Danielle: That’s a good question, Erin, because I think it goes beyond the simple dialogue or conversation. It certainly starts there with having intentional conversations and meeting people where they are seeking that input, but then incorporating it effectively and almost like making a return on the investment and realizing some of the benefits of that dialogue and that our relationship or the insight that we’ve gained extends itself into other programs. I have a couple examples that I’m going to share with you. One is from some of our partners on the West Coast. They have worked closely with a client on a transit project and this transit project will lead to significant construction efforts in a community and some of the funding is tied to, what in the RFP was vague and was general language that indicated an internship type program.
And the team really took that to heart and developed a framework and established a framework to set up an internship program, but it was not done with an isolated approach. It was leveraging some of the tools we talked about before: engaging with the community and identifying what type of internship program would be of most interest to the community that it would serve. The program is called Priority Populations Education Program and as I mentioned, it is an internship program, and it’s a work school program for school-aged individuals with the intent that the school-age individuals will grow in their planning, marketing, and program management experiences. By having this opportunity to participate in an internship program, they will develop skills.
Our team partnered with the client, the city, and also Job Corps to work closely with the individuals that would benefit directly from this program. Now, they provided feedback on how they would like to see the framework or the structure of this program set up. As I mentioned, they have a required number of hours, so once construction starts, the high school students will have an opportunity to participate. They will work closely with some of the project team members during the construction phase of the project and really see this infrastructure project come to fruition, which will benefit their community, but more directly benefit them as individuals because they’ll develop a skillset that they can take on to some other opportunity in the future. Who knows, maybe they’ll want to become transportation planners or engage in the space that we play in the future.
The other program that’s a part of that same project, is the Small Business Resource Program. This was a part of that construction project preparing for the construction that will occur in the future and understanding that there will be small businesses in this community that are adjacent to the construction project and being intentional to ensure that those small businesses are not negatively impacted. Our project team worked closely with the transit agency, the city, and other government agencies to identify the small businesses that have permits through the city and established a working group of sorts to develop an understanding of what the needs were for the small businesses. That was facilitated through a survey to really understand the priorities of the owners and what their biggest concerns were. Once construction starts, we’ll know how to mitigate those concerns or address those concerns as best as possible, whether that’s identifying agents for delivery trucks or alternative parking during construction.
In addition to the tangible things that we think about during construction, there’s also an element of business planning that we’ve integrated in this program so that the small business owners are getting support achieving some of their marketing goals. If they need any support with those business-related elements of running their small businesses, that’s part of this program as well. Those two programs, the Priority Populations Education Program and the Small Business Resource Program, are two tangible programs that we have worked closely with our clients to establish and take it a step further beyond the dialogue and really reinvest into the communities where I’m serving through a project.
Erin: Those are some outside of the box ideas, but there’s probably a lot of projects that if we seek intentionality about where we can invest in the community as part of the project, we could be part of that reinvestment in some of the constituents who are disenfranchised or underserved by the circumstances that we are finding ourselves in today.
Danielle and John, I know that there’s one project in particular where we’ve gotten to have this conversation about the benefits to our communities and making sure that we’re equitably extending the benefits of our community resources that you’ve got to have, beyond the places that we find ourselves on a day-to-day basis. Can you tell us a little bit more about that experience as it’s one that’s included a lot of local conversations over the last few years?
John: Danielle, I’ll tee it up and then you can bring it home. This is the last project we’re going to discuss in this session, and it’s a good one. It’s a good one because it’s a nationwide project. Kimley-Horn was fortunate to have a contract that allowed us to be able to serve the Fish and Wildlife Service on what they called an urban transportation connection study. That’s the study that’s moving into implementation in terms of the wildlife refuges that are close to urban areas. It’s a study that’s focused on the human communities near refuges, specifically 101 refuges that are within 25 miles of a population of a quarter-million people or more.
Examples would be Santa Ana in Texas near Houston, Detroit River Wildlife Refuge in Michigan, Bayou Sauvage in Louisiana, one real close to us here in Virginia called Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, just south of DC, Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and then Don Edwards in San Francisco. These are just a few of the refuges that are very close to urban areas. The plan was to collaborate with the Fish and Wildlife Service as a whole and with the local folks at the refuges, and to develop transportation plans, increase accessibility to and through those refuges, increase community awareness of the refuges, and to develop a web-based template to be able to collect and maintain data on all of those refuges so that each of those refuges can use a tool to replicate what we’re doing for the seven refuges.
All 101 refuges can replicate this urban program so that they can do the outreach and the planning that would allow more and more people to experience what are at these refuges. It’s really cool. I was fortunate to go on one of the site visits that Danielle went on. She went on all seven of them, bless her heart, and it was really cool to see the light bulbs go on with refuge staff and with the community. Your approach of saying we can bring more people here and we can show them what we’re doing. We can show them our mission. We can share the wildlife with them. We can educate them on what they can do to help protect wildlife and to carry that forward in their communities. Danielle, do you want to give us some specifics?
Danielle: Thank you for that, John. I think you captured the essence of the project very well. I will say that I did not go on all seven of the site visits; I only went on four. My colleagues attended the others, but it was a great experience, nonetheless. I think that those seven site visits were an opportunity, not only for our project team, to really understand what it’s like boots on the ground, to be at the wildlife refuge, but also to really embrace the communities that are adjacent to the wildlife refuge and really understand the opportunities for connections and facilitate some dialogue. In advance of those site visits, there’s some qualitative analysis that we took a look at. The demographics, understanding the socioeconomic makeup of the adjacent communities, and maybe mapping out or documenting some opportunities for physical connections.
I must say that the element of the process that was most rewarding or most eye opening for me, and this is just my perspective, but I think that a lot of people on the project team would share this, was the intentional discussions that we had, the conversations we had with the stakeholders on-site. Once we were on-site at any of the given wildlife refuge locations, there were two different stakeholder meetings that we offer to engage members of the community, and these were intentional. We identified the members of the community that we wanted to be intentional about connecting with. Of course, you had your usual suspects, the transportation department, or the state DOT, and the transit agency, but we went beyond that and really brought together some of the nontraditional organizations. We had faith-based organizations, schools, other natural resources or other cultural resources in the community, to understand potential connections and elevate the awareness of this unique wildlife refuge with other natural assets in the community.
Those conversations were really great to have everyone representing their own constituents in one room and to validate or confirm some of the qualitative data and quantitative data that we had completed in advance of the site visit and understand what the need was. This was a real example of the shared experience. While it may have been on behalf of the community, it was really great to hear from some of the schools that were represented in some of the educational curriculums that we’re seeking to really highlight conservation. The results of those site visits were certainly refuge access plans, which included physical opportunities, physical connections or transportation projects identified, and then later prioritize and carry through a technical process. But in additional to their physical projects, we identify programs or not physical infrastructure projects or programs that may elevate the presence or the awareness of the wildlife refuge, and also partnerships between the wildlife refuge and the community to really develop and cultivate some relationships and leverage existing relationships in the community.
That’s just the overview of what we sought to accomplish and I think those communities that were represented whether it’s their high school principal or the Boys and girls Club or business owners, we really got to understand the needs of the communities and the opportunities. And it was a space for us to not only share our technical experience, but also exchange that for the experience of the community. That project is definitely a highlight of us bringing it home, if you will, with engaging the community in an effective manner. We’re happy to say that some of the projects that we’ve identified have come to fruition; those refuge access plans have been used and have been successful boots on the ground. There are other staff that are employing those plans, so we’ve found that it’s successful.
John: Yeah, they sure have. Back to our theme of this of this podcast of equity and transportation, I think that the community that you reached out to there was intentionality in terms of reaching underserved communities, right?
Danielle: Yes, certainly underserved communities where maybe there’s limited English proficiency, or no access to a vehicle in the home. A lot of the demographic traits that we would look at to say that there are opportunities to connect with communities that have traditionally not been engaged or interested in the wildlife refuge of conservation, to be quite frank.
Erin: Thank you for that. That really is a great project and certainly something that I’ve seen your passion and enthusiasm for and the context in which you engage the public is great for the rest of us to learn from your experience. With that in mind, I thought that we might conclude with a couple of quick questions. Amy, I’ll ask you first if you don’t mind.
What is one piece of key advice to either agencies or transportation professionals from the point of view of the community as we embark on transportation projects? What would you like us to know or to consider?
Amy: That’s a great question, and I’m super glad you asked because I think that what is most important is including as many community organizations and individuals, neighborhood associations, not-for-profits, business associations, and things of that nature—including them as much as possible. I think doing that level of homework and hearing the input from all different people and organizations within the community can really help guide what the goals should be for the project.
Transportation planning, as I have come to learn, is a really wide range of issues and challenges, and there’s a lot to consider. When you take into account the history within some communities, there’s even more to consider. I guess my one piece of advice would be to get as much input and as much interaction and as much involvement as you possibly can within the community, because I think that that will help ensure that the outcome is a successful one and that as many people in your community as possible who have been involved will feel that it was successful and feel that they were heard along the way.
Erin: Thanks, Amy. I think that’s really valuable advice. John and Danielle, as transportation professionals, I wonder as you have thought about the context of transportation, planning, and equity today and heard what Amy just offered in terms of advice, can you tell us one thing that you plan to do personally to be a better transportation professional in service of advancing equity through transportation planning? John, maybe we can kick it off with you first.
John: Good question, Erin, and Amy, great answer. Thank you for that advice. I have tried in my professional experience to be as inclusive as possible, and open and honest and present and real. Personally, I would continue to be that way and maybe try even more to reach out and be present in communities and smaller groups to go where they are, where the people are that you want their input. I believe that if we conduct transportation planning properly, it will result in appropriate transportation solutions. If you arrive at those solutions with the input of as many diverse perspectives as possible it will forge up the appropriate transportation solution, but you’re also going to forge a more inclusive future in that system and in our society. In doing so, I think we’re going to be able to write the wrongs of the past.
We’re going to be able to transform communities and transform neighborhoods. What that means is there’ll be equitable opportunities for people for all types of access, multimodal access, eco-equitable opportunities for communities to have the same green infrastructure, the same opportunities to go to parks and to have passive space and active space. The right transportation solution for diverse communities would result in economic prosperity and better safety for all and more security for everyone. Transportation planning is a mission to accomplish transportation projects and solutions. The more respect we have to accomplish that mission, the more successful those projects will be.
Erin: Thanks, John. Danielle, what is your takeaway from our conversation today about the one specific item that you want to focus more on moving forward in terms of equity and transportation?
Danielle: I think this is a good wrap-up and I think that the dialogue and starting off with engaging communities is a starting point, but I want to take it a step further and I want to make sure that my partners and I are good stewards of the information and the relationships that we work so hard to cultivate, and that we are using the feedback and input that we are gathering and harnessing from the communities and making effective change to address any of the systematic injustices that have negatively affected the communities that we’re seeking to serve. For me personally, and I would also challenge my colleagues, to take the actions that we’ve talked about today and make sure that we’re fully engaging and fully representing the communities that we’ve been so intentional about engaging with.
I’m making sure that their insight or that their voices are represented through the full process. We are addressing policy or strategies where decisions are really being made, that we are fully representing the individuals that we have connected so well with or spent so much effort to connect with. I’d like to challenge myself and others to take that dialogue step further and make sure that we are being good stewards of the relationships we’ve worked so hard to cultivate. John, to your point, we will be able to, when we are making those decisions and in the transportation process, we will be able to fully see the economic prosperity and safety indeed realized for everyone in the community.
Erin: Danielle, I agree. I think we’re very fortunate to be in the position and have the opportunity to create momentum in our communities to advance equity and that comes with a responsibility. I’m going to recap some thoughts that I’ve taken away from the conversation that you all have been nice enough to engage with me today. A responsibility to be intentional and honest, engage in all voices in our transportation planning processes, to do our homework on the history of that community and the people that are there, and be present in the conversations that we have with them to really value that transaction of time and information, and truly use that in generating our plans and our projects, and also to seek to empower people and invest in communities in the means that they value that we really can only understand by having that conversation and listening to the things that are valuable to people that are members of our community and bring a different point of view, a different history, and a different perspective to the conversation. I want to thank all of you for your time today and to anybody who’s listened for your time and in sharing in our dialogue about advancing equity through transportation planning.
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