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Complete Streets as a Remedy for Racial Disparities in Transportation Planning

Complete Streets as a Remedy for Racial Disparities in Transportation Planning

In March of 2020, BPRC released a blog post titled The World of Bicycle Advocacy Has An Equity Problem. How Do We Fix It? which talked about the challenge of implementing Complete Streets projects in vulnerable and low income communities. This blog post expands upon this complexity by memorializing how historical practices in transportation have disproportionately impacted disadvantaged communities. It also discusses a series of recommendations on how Complete Streets policies provide a pathway to begin to rectify this disproportionate planning.

Today it is almost disturbingly easy to travel through cities and take for granted the bifurcated landscapes that stem from a history of racist policies and decisions, and most importantly, lack of community outreach to vulnerable populations. This blog post is the first part in a series of articles that will provide context to transportation planning and policies that have historically corroborated with racist intentions/outcomes; the second and third part in the series will address community development and housing, and urban design.

Transportation Planning History

To begin, it becomes essential to reflect on novel historical occurrences, in particular Robert Moses’ work in New York City, which included the unconscientious development of highways and the state’s park system. Moses’ concepts reached Portland in 1956 when the federal government invested 90% of their cash to build urban interstates under the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, which prompted the city to move forward with a series of elevated highways, including the construction of I-5 that runs from Canada to Mexico. Governor Mark Hatfield, in October of 1966, remarked that “this roadway has brought about a social, cultural and economic revolution which has not only benefited this generation but will continue to provide benefits for years to come.” However, it was this highway (particularly the section known as the East Bank Freeway) that split the majority African American neighborhoods of North Portland from the “valuable properties” of Downtown Portland, as a result of which what was once a ten-minute walk to Downtown Portland became nearly impossible to reach on foot.

In 2018, Joe Cortright in his City Commentary How a freeway destroyed a neighborhood, and may again, recalled how the Oregon State Highway Department demolished nearly 300 homes in Portland’s Albina neighborhood in 1962, following which the pedestrian connectivity and quality of the environment in the neighborhood kept eroding through the development of parking lots, car dealers, and gas stations. In 1990, the population of this two-third African American neighborhood was found to be 1,000, reduced from 3,000 in 1962.

In 1990s, the neighborhood was yet another example of an urban renewal project that employed a gentrification model and further replaced its residents. The project came as a result of Portland Development Commission’s 1962 Central Albina Study that found the area to be in a stage of “advanced blight” and need of “clearance.” Through disinvestment, the neighborhood became prevalent with absentee landlords, speculators, predatory lenders, and gang activity throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and it was the city’s 1990 response that sought to drive up property values by offering favorable mortgages to outside home buyers and businesses, driving out existing low-income renters and homeowners. Today, the Albina neighborhood is fractured into the neighborhoods of Elliot, Boise, Humbolt, Irvington, King, Overlook, and Piedmont, of which BlackPast.org reports that only 28% of the residents are African Americans.

The hostility of this section of I-5 continue until 2019 when the Oregon Department of Transportation announced plans to further expand this section of I-5 to be slightly over the Eastbank Esplanade, which is one of the only pieces of pedestrian and bicycle accessibility through the Central Eastside Industrial District that “hugs” this section of I-5.

Introducing Complete Streets Policies

The Dangerous by Design 2019 handbook put it best by articulating transportation policies, programs, and funding that prioritize higher speeds and convenience of cars over safety for all people. The National Complete Streets Coalition and Smart Growth America noted that this precedence was set forth throughout multiple states through top-down federal policies which aided the construction of state highways in 1916 and 1956.

One of the many examples of such unsustainable precedents is the notion of “acceptable deaths.” This statistical method of analysis was initiated in 2005, when states were required to set performance targets for traffic fatalities and serious injuries. However, the targets were set fairly low and were not closely monitored or penalized, which actually led to an increase in pedestrian fatalities as any number established as a target in this method is allowing for preventable deaths to continue or increase.

The Dangerous by Design 2019 handbook highlights such policies and offers a list of recommendations and alternatives focused on increasing the safety for all modes and communities. At the state level, it recommends:

  1. Holding state agencies accountable for making reductions in serious injuries and receiving penalization in terms of funding for failing to do so. This involves the ranking of states and metro areas using a new statistical term known as the Pedestrian Danger Index, which calculates how dangerous it is to walk in a particular state or metropolitan area based on the number of people struck while walking, while holding constant the number of people that live in the area and the number of people that commute to work via walking. This is most beneficial for areas with higher pedestrian fatality rates and percentage of people who commute to work by walking.
  2. Prioritizing the success of a street based on safety, instead of solely on vehicle delay.
  3. Turning complete street policies into action supplemented by the most up-to-date training and education.

The handbook includes the following recommendations for the local level, which is particularly crucial for allocating projects/funding in disproportionately affected areas:

  1. Incentivizing projects that benefit disproportionately affected areas, for instance, Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s selection process awards additional points to projects that improve bicycle and pedestrian safety in disadvantaged areas.
  2. Clearing up misconceptions that federal regulations continue to restrict street design thereby dis-incentivizing safety improvements. Whereas in 2016, the Federal Highway Administration released new guidelines that allow states, metro areas, and local communities to apply for federal dollars with the goal of improving safety along streets.
  3. Prioritizing safety over speed, where the National Transportation Safety Board acknowledged that 30 miles per hour is the recommended maximum threshold as any speed higher than this point dramatically increases the chances of not surviving a crash.
  4. Taking advantage of the National Complete Streets Coalition’s policy framework that provides element guidelines for constructing an actionable complete streets policy. These guidelines include, but are not limited to:
    1. Ensuring an equitable vision and intent for a street network that provides for at least four modes, two of which must be biking and walking.
    2. Directing projects so that they benefit a diverse range of users, particularly under-invested and underserved communities.
    3. Considering a community’s current and future land use and transportation necessities.
    4. Specifically outlining the next steps toward implementation.
  5. Eliminating the use of “acceptable deaths” as a measure of pedestrian fatalities and instead refer to all occurring deaths as “crashes”.
  6. Experimenting with low cost, short term interventions to create safer streets, so that these interventions may be easily transitioned into more permanent solutions.

Overall, localities are by far the most essential component of Complete Streets implementation through the power of communication with the public, applying for technical assistance and other grants, and prioritizing projects in disproportionately affected areas. Furthermore, straying away from traditional characterization of streets using “level of service” and designing thresholds using “acceptable deaths” is critical when implementing Complete Streets policies.

In summary, it is only a Complete Streets policy put into action that can begin to reverse the trend of inequity, as an ordinance is nothing more than a piece of paper unless acted upon. Furthermore, Complete Streets policies are more than just an immediate physical solution to meet the needs of current infrastructure, they are designed to address a multitude of social and cultural divisions. A Complete Streets policy that does not do so, is in fact incomplete.

 

Resources

Ackerman, Lauren. Albina, Portland, Oregon (1870- ). BlackPast. Published on March 19, 2016. Accessed on 05.28.2020. < https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/albina-portland-1870/>

Allen, Cain. Article, I-5 Now Completed throughout Oregon. Oregon Historical Society. Published 2003. Accessed on 05.28.2020. < https://oregonhistoryproject.org/articles/historical-records/article-i-5-now-completed-throughout-oregon/>

Cortright, Joe. How a freeway destroyed a neighborhood, and may again. City Commentary. Published on March 18, 2019. Accessed on 05.28.2020. < http://cityobservatory.org/how-a-freeway-destroyed-a-neighborhood-and-may-again/>

Cortwright, Joe. There’s a $3 billion bridge hidden in the Rose Quarter Project EA. City Commentary. Published on March 3, 2019. Accessed on June 5, 2020. <http://cityobservatory.org/theres-a-3-billion-bridge-hidden-in-the-rose-quarter-project-ea/>

Edwards, Chris and Roth, Gabriel. Federal Highway Policies. Downsizing the Federal Government: Your Guide to Cutting Federal Spending. Published on August 7, 2017. Accessed on June 22, 2020. < https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/transportation/federal-highway-policies>

Kramer, George. Interstate 5 in Oregon. The Oregon Encyclopedia. Last Updated March 17, 2018. Accessed on 05.28.2020. < https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/interstate_5_in_oregon/>

Maus, Jonathan. ODOT’s I-5 expansion would cast even larger shadow over Eastbank Esplanade. BikePortland. Published on March 29, 2019. Accessed on June 5, 2020. <https://bikeportland.org/2019/03/29/odots-i-5-freeway-widening-project-would-cast-even-larger-shadow-over-eastbank-esplanade-297725>

Portland, Vintage. Eastbank Freeway Construction, 1962. Vintage Portland. Published on June 8, 2012. Accessed on 05.28.2020. < https://vintageportland.wordpress.com/2012/06/08/eastbank-freeway-construction-1962-3/>

Smart Growth America and the National Complete Street Coalition. Dangerous by Design 2019. Published in 2019. Accessed on June 22, 2020.                                                                                              < https://smartgrowthamerica.org/app/uploads/2017/12/CS-Policy-Elements__2017.11.30.pdf>

Smart Growth America and the National Complete Street Coalition. The Elements of a Complete Streets Policy. Published in 2018. Accessed on June 22, 2020.                                                                                  < https://smartgrowthamerica.org/app/uploads/2019/01/Dangerous-by-Design-2019-FINAL.pdf>

Thompson, Gregory L. Taming the Neighborhood Revolution: Planners, Power Brokers, and the Birth of Neotraditionalism in Portland, Oregon. Florida State University. Copyright 2017. Accessed on 05.28.2020.

 

 


Image Source: Sightline Institute, Accessed on 07.02.2020 (A stretch of Division from Southeast 11th Ave to Cesar Chavez Boulevard that has seen considerable streetscape improvements in Portland, Oregon, Left 2007, Right 2017)