The Connection Between Transportation Planning And Poverty

May 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

In the effort to alleviate poverty there are many areas of American society we can change and improve that will bring relief and greater support to the lives of poor and low-income familes. An option seldom considered is to reform the way planners envision transportation.  Where is it  placed? Where are its on/off stops? What does it cost? What restrictions do we attach to ridership?  But we need to do more than embed thoughtfulness and awareness in the transportation planning process we need to end its long history of entanglement with enduring poverty.

From it’s role in disempowering African Americans during the slave economy, when roadways were controlled by plantation owners and impassable and unsafe for most black people,  to “white only” ridership limitations on railways then busses in the early to mid 20th century, transportation limitations and locations have fueled poverty and disempowerment.  Planned site locations and designated on/off stops have historically hurt or not served minority communities from the building of Transcontinental Railways and the Interstate Highway System to today’s Light Rail and Metro bus networks. 

A main goal of transportation has always been to open up and facilitate commercial markets, expand real estate transactions and development and enable the strength of our transportation industries.  Often absent from planning discussions is the positive role transportation could play in the preservation and enablement of low income and poor communities.  One example of a missed transportation opportunity happened in Seattle, Washington with the building of Light Rail. Crosscut, a local web news source, asked why a planned station stop at Graham street, near low income and minority neighborhoods, was not being built. A Sound Transit executive said that the stop “didn’t add ridership…” and would only “serve the convenience of people already there.” You may be scratching your head about that statement as I was. Isn’t the convenience of people the reason for transportation?  But Crosscut saw the real goal. A stop at Graham wouldn’t spur development like other planned stops on Light Rail and that is how transportation fails to serve minority and low income communities. The people who anticipated the Graham stop now have to walk, if they can, significant distance for their transportation. Why are we neglecting the complete value of our transportation systems by stranding people who really need its service in favor of market expansion? Does that really make civic sense?

Programs that could aim to make transportation more accessible for poor and low income families, such as help buying cars, are also lacking at the Federal level.  In fact, A Los Angeles Times feature on the working poor notes that the Federal program, Cash for Clunkers, had the unintended consequence of making it harder to find low cost used cars by taking thousands off the roads.  How many people need cars? A 2006 Maryland Study found that 30% of the state’s low income individuals didn’t have a car and that lower income workers in general were more likely to walk, bike, or take the bus. Bus service is, however, expensive and inconvenient for many low income communities in urban and suburban settings. It is non existent for nearly 40% of all rural populations according to a report from the Community Services Network, “The Stranded Poor…” 

Where it exists good, reasonably inexpensive transportation allows people to get  to schools,  jobs, retail stores, meetings and so forth.  Transportation is needed to attend interviews for human services or to visit doctors. Good transportation also supports a healthy diet because access to grocers and healthy food can be difficult with limited mobility. When transportation planners and executives neglect or intentionally bypass service to low income communities they create personal hardship, cost society more through unemployment and illness, and fuel poverty. It’s time to re-envision transportation planning and make improved mobility for poor and low income families part of project goals.

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