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Beyond Black History Month: Making Mobility Equitable

Black History Month is behind us, yet it’s important to reflect on how to carry forward celebrations of Black achievement and actions that support and uplift the Black community today. While there is much to celebrate throughout history, Black communities still experience deep-seated, systemic racism and inequities that are woven into all of our institutions – including transportation.

Be sure to check out Part 1 of this blog if you are interested in learning more about how transportation has been used as a tool for – and against – the freedom of movement for Black communities throughout U.S. history. 

For part 2, I asked Black transportation professionals and advocates what the transportation industry, or transit agencies in particular, could better do to support Black communities. In other words, how can we create a transportation system that is truly just and equitable? One in which the mobility of Black people is afforded the same accessibility, high quality experience, comfort, and convenience as the mobility of white people. 

It is important to note that this piece is intentionally centering Black thought and experience. While systemic racism and oppression impacts many communities throughout the U.S., anti-Blackness is the core organizing principle of racism. Seeing and understanding the world through the Black experience is crucial to addressing institutionalized racism and actually moving towards an equitable future. 

It is also important to note that this blog alone is not comprehensive of Black experience and thought. There are many voices missing, including Black transit drivers whose perspectives on the industry are vital. While incomplete, we hope that the statements below contribute to a larger dialogue about what actions industry leaders, planners, engineers, advocates, and others can take to support the freedom of mobility for all. Here’s what contributors had to say: 

Jeffrey Sullivan – Community Outreach Manager, Chapel Hill Transit 

The short answer: listen to the Black community. Don’t just listen to the people who show up to meetings, but to the people walking over a mile to get to their bus stop, to the people huddled in transit shelters in the cold and rain, and to the people riding in the middle of a global pandemic risking their health for their livelihoods. If the industry wants to support communities of color better, transportation professionals can’t just work in the office making decisions or hold a couple of information sessions to present ideas to people. We need to be in the field, learning riders’ names and their stories. Then we must act on what we hear. Our measures of success need to expand from boardings and trips per day to encompass the question, “whose life did I make easier today?”.

Samone Bullock Dillahunt – Director of Marketing & Community Relations, Advance Community Health 

Public transit agencies can better support Black riders by eliminating the notion of “dependent riders” vs “choice riders.” This distinction often equates “choice riders” with high-income and/or white, and “dependent riders” with low-income and/or Black. The priority of choice riders is deeply reflected in transit investments across the country, where we’ve seen billions spent on light rail in predominantly white communities with low ridership, while at the same time seeing huge disinvestments in bus service in Black communities with high ridership. This notion of “dependent riders” perpetuates the idea that because a person relies on transit, they are willing to accept and deserving of the bare minimum we have to offer, while “choice riders” need to be wooed and provided with a superior transit experience. 

While people’s reasons for utilizing transit may be different, the quality of their experience should be the same. This means investing in more and higher quality bus stops so people feel a sense of pride as they wait, investing more into bus service which continues to be a core piece of transit operations, providing every community with the newest bells and whistles such as free WiFi, electric buses and comfortable seating, and ensuring Black communities can utilize and benefit from newer infrastructure such as rail and BRT. As we celebrate Black History Month and continue to push towards transit equity, let’s move away from harmful categorizations of our riders and focus on creating an exceptional transit experience that not only empowers our Black riders, but ALL the communities we serve.

Kevin Primus – Transit Advocate in Durham, NC 

Transit authorities can catalyze the economic and political empowerment of Black people by facilitating on-ramps to blockchain tokenization for marginalized communities. In 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters organized as the first all-Black union through the leadership of A. Philip Randolph. With job security, a deep understanding of the breadth of Black experience, and the opportunity to interact with both traveling people and one another, a new type of community organizer emerged to tackle the economic and political disenfranchisement inherent in centralized financial systems created in the image of white supremacy. Transit authorities today can recognize the historic role transit workers have had in the Civil Rights movement and empower their employees to take on similar leadership roles to ensure Black people are not left behind in the transition to decentralized finance.

Arthur Cashwell IV – Senior Transportation Planner, Gaston-Cleveland-Lincoln Metropolitan Planning Organization 

From the bus boycotts of Montgomery, Alabama, to Robert Moses’ design of the Parkway Bridges, Black and brown people have consistently been persecuted by the transportation sector. Fast forward to 2022, new age discriminatory practices continue to exist, such as the State of Alabama’s refusal to fund any public transit projects. Public transit services throughout the U.S. often run on a deficit. This requires creativity from local and state governments to implement policies that allow their funds to stretch and reach as many people as possible. I believe public transit agencies and transit operators can better support Black riders by: 

Adjusting Hours of Operation

Limited hours of operation for public transit services are a huge barrier for Black people. For instance, in Gastonia, NC, the bus system operates between 7:30 am and 5:30 pm. However, many Black people, low-income individuals, single mothers, and young people work 2nd and 3rd shift jobs. More often than not, these jobs are non-salaried or pay minimum wage,meaning the most disadvantaged individuals in the community are not able to utilize their community’s public transit system nor afford a private automobile. One solution is for public transit services to operate on block schedules rather than one continuance schedule. For instance, the agency can operate during peak times such as 5am – 7am,11am -1pm, 4pm – 6pm, 8pm – 10pm, and 12am – 2am. These block schedules will help keep labor hours down while still offering maximum coverage.

Taking a More Data-Driven Approach

Transit agencies can take a more data-driven approach by:

  • Defining and identifying the large employers in their community
  • Discussing ways the business community can align their various shifts with the public transit schedule
  • Better identifying where the most disadvantaged people are living and working
  • Better identifying who is using public transit services and how often they use it
  • Better identifying why people are using public transit (e.g., to reach employment, entertainment (if so what time is this most used), healthcare, etc.)
  • Identifying where inadequate bus stop shelters are and replacing them
  • Invest heavily in public outreach efforts

Partnering with Large Employers for First or Last Mile Transportation

Transit agencies can partner with large employers to provide either first- or -last-mile transportation through shuttle services or a fee paid in-lieu-of offering the service on their own.

Anonymous – Transportation Planning & Design Consultant 

Since the events of 2020, a lot of industries, including transportation, are finally realizing that there is a problem. However, I honestly do not think they understand or know why Black

communities do not trust the industry. 

Let’s use bicycle facilities as an example. Bicycle facilities are mainly placed in areas that benefit white bicyclists. When they are placed in a Black community, our first thought is gentrification. We are not against development (if it doesn’t cost us our home) but we are against being pushed out of our neighborhoods. When mobility improvements are made, in most cases gentrification soon follows. It is vital that the industry start building trust with the Black community before development begins. Don’t wait until the trust is broken then say that the community does not support development. Every community is different, but the key is

communication and respect. 

Danny McPhaul – Manager of Client Services, TransLoc 

The transportation industry can better support Black people by having more Black voices in their leadership. The unfortunate truth is that there isn’t a lot of representation in the roles where important decisions are being made. Only Black people know Black experiences, and only Black leaders can ensure that transit effectively helps the Black community by making sure that transportation is widely available in predominantly Black neighborhoods, and making sure that other Black voices are being heard and hired in all levels of the transportation industry.

Anonymous – Public Transportation Leader 

Representation matters. Transit agencies need to make sure that they start with diverse leadership on their boards of directors. When you have a diverse board, you get diversity of thought and perspectives that have not been historically represented in a boardroom. Much of the core ridership for transit agencies are from Black and brown communities. As you matriculate through an organization, you will often see Black and brown employees at the operator and mechanic level, then as you go up it gets whiter and whiter. If you look across at the boards of directors of transit agencies across the country and compare that to their ridership base, I would be willing to bet that the leadership is not reflective of the core rider demographics. Diverse boardroom leadership will bring about diverse leadership teams and diversity throughout the entire organization; your organization will have more empathy with your ridership base because they can relate to them. By nature, the organization will start to consider things that aren’t normally thought about, such as the mother that has to travel with a stroller to get her child to daycare then go to work. 

It’s also interesting to me that here we are in 2022 still having to be intentional about racial equity. I’ve been affiliated with the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO)  throughout my career of 24 years in this industry; COMTO was founded in 1971 with the premise of getting more people of color into leadership roles with transit agencies. COMTO has been around for over 50 years and yet we are still faced with a lot of the same challenges. Why is that? I think as we continue to diversify the workforce we can address a lot of these concerns simply because people will bring perspectives to the room that haven’t been considered. That’s really where you start. 

I challenge people all of the time when they want to start talking about equity to first take a look at their organization and see what they have done to make sure they are diverse and are addressing the needs of Black and brown people. What about your organization? What about your board? Where is your representation? You have to start with your own organization. How can you address racial equity in transportation if you haven’t figured how to address inequity within your own organization? 

Tanya Adams, Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity, WSP USA

If we’re really going to do what we say we’re going to do as an industry, there are many meaningful actions that we need to take; all of them go together and we can’t just do one or two in hopes of making a real impact: 

Commit

It’s not an easy fix.  We can’t just say “we’re going to do X, Y and Z and it will change everything.” It’s not enough to hire X number of Black people, give money to one group, or put up a sign or banner. It will take time to see change so we must act with intention now. We all need to see progress to keep faith, so let’s continue our efforts to do the right thing. 

Provide exposure to students of color

When I started in this industry, I knew nothing about transportation. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned about this field. I’m not a first-generation student in my family so college wasn’t new to me but the field of engineering and transportation was. It would have made a world of difference if I had been exposed at an earlier age. We need to enhance the opportunity for internships, invest in scholarships and attend community events where we can explain career options and promote what we are doing in the community. 

Give DBE firms opportunities

The industry must make sure disadvantaged business enterprise firms are getting meaningful and plentiful opportunities. When you offer a DBE firm the opportunity to work on a project with a large proportion of the work from beginning to end, it helps the firm build capacity to lead with confidence and successfully bid on other projects. It’s also important that DBE firms have the resources to succeed and access to help when they need it. For example, if a DBE partner needs help with invoicing, take time to train and share resources. Additionally, many times a new business owner may have mortgaged their home or made a substantial personal investment toward the new business, so be sure your DBEs are paid on time so they can pay their bills and make payroll. 

Support DBE vendors

Sometimes people say, “We don’t have any work, so we can’t support DBE firms right now.” In fact, there are things you can do. Include an emphasis on DBE when you are searching for vendors, from your IT technicians, to your copiers, to your caterers. By making this a regular practice, using a variety of DBE suppliers and vendors, you’re helping the Black community, women-owned and other minority-owned businesses. 

Think critically about projects you are doing

It’s easy for us to come to conclusions about what a community needs. We say, “Oh, we think you need a ramp closed here and a bridge over there for commuters coming through.” But did we consider the community at large? If we close that ramp, drivers won’t get off to go to the gas station or grocery store and that’s impacting a crucial revenue stream for those businesses. We can’t do everything for everyone, but we can make sure we consider all impacts of our decisions and invite DBEs to the table to discuss options. We may have to bargain with one another to attain meaningful outreach and consensus in the Black community. 

Hire, pay and champion employees of color.

Make sure entry-level employees see an opportunity to grow. Make sure they see people of color at all levels within an organization so they know that similar opportunities to advance are available . Be a mentor and give young employees motivation to aspire to leadership roles. That doesn’t mean people of a certain race/ethnicity should automatically be promoted. If a person doesn’t have everything they need to succeed, help them get it. Mentors are needed and they should continue their role as a champion. For example, when an intern you hired goes back to school, check in on them. Continue those connections. I’m in the positions I hold now—vice president of Inclusion and Diversity for WSP USA and first vice chair of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO)—because of great sponsorship, support and care by mentors and leaders before me. I’m hoping that I can inspire future leaders. 

Design transportation systems for the needs of the community.

I’m talking about equity! We must make sure transit options and operating times meet the needs of the entire community. If your agency stops running at 9 pm, that doesn’t serve third shift workers. When a bus stops two miles from a job location and an employee has to walk on the side of the road at night, we are not supporting fair and accessible mobility. We need to look at the “last mile” and amenities around transit stops. Is there a bus shelter where someone can wait? Can a person with a disability get to where they need to be to use the service that will get them to that job they need to support their family? 

Collaborate with other fields to improve overall quality of life.

From healthcare to housing, to education and the environment, transportation impacts everything we do. If we want to have diverse engineers, we have to make sure that our schools have high quality education and everything needed for students to succeed. That includes convenient modes of travel to and from our schools and universities. Another consideration is access to healthy food—so important for kids and our under-served communities. I should not have to travel into another community to find fresher vegetables and a better selection of meat. Meeting all of our needs–whether housing, food, education, employment and more, through better mobility–is key to thriving and surviving. 

To truly support the Black community, the industry must recognize how interconnected transportation is with all other aspects of life and, beyond recognition, the industry must incorporate these elements into plans, decisions, policies, programs and partnerships. 

Nick Neptune – Vice Chairman, City of Raleigh Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission; Board Chair and President, Oaks and Spokes; and Associate Director of Advocacy and Education, WakeUp Wake County

I was introduced to public transit as a young Black American through my grandfather in Washington, D.C. My memory is rooted in the joy of his personal mobility and personal freedom in taking me all around his city – our nation’s capital – where he had lived and worked for over two decades. It was embedded in me then that public transit was about public access and opportunity – an investment in the public good. An idea that has only been solidified and strengthened by my own lived experience as I’ve come into adulthood – realizing that as both a rider and advocate, expanding and improving our public transit systems is about investing in all of us, so that people of all ages, all abilities, and all backgrounds have expanded access and opportunity to participate in, benefit from, and contribute to our community and our country.

Mikki Taylor-Hendrix – Communications and Public Involvement Specialist, WSP USA

I’d like to start with a couple disclaimers. While I love doing these things and being able to share my perspective, anything I offer here is just that, my perspective. I cannot and will not attempt to speak for all Black people. We are diverse, multifaceted, and don’t all have the same lived experiences.  While this sounds simple, it’s very important I lead with this. Secondly, some of what I’ll say isn’t necessarily specific to transit but applies to transportation as well and is from my experience moving through life as a Black American. 

First, the transportation industry should reflect on its relationship with Black America. Factual history is important. It’s not pretty, no, but to get better and make the progress that is desperately needed, we must be honest about the past. This includes everything, from highway development and its impact on Black communities, to infrastructure needs and funding, to policies around driving such as car insurance rates and car registration fees. We must understand how these things are racially driven and result in disparate impact for Black people. You can’t fix something that’s broken if you don’t know where it’s broken. We also need to understand some things were built without Black people in mind or to the detriment of Black people in mind, so while it may not be “broke” it definitely doesn’t work.

Second, I’ll say people in the industry must actively listen to Black people. This is the big one that goes beyond transportation. I can’t tell you how many times people question me and my “opinions” about my experience as a Black woman or dispute facts and data that they’ve not taken any time to review. This is an even bigger issue for me personally, as we see Black people continuing to be racially profiled while driving, or walking, or biking and at risk of losing their lives due to police brutality. Not to harp on something I’m very ready to be over, but I didn’t need to see the video of George Floyd to believe he should be alive. Listen to how these things impact Black people today, right now, and places. Do not assume everything works for every situation. While car insurance rates didn’t impact me as much when I drove in Kansas City, Missouri, as it does now in Detroit, Michigan, my fear of Driving While Black was much higher. 

Next, the industry must hire Black people, develop Black talent, and get out of the way! (I’m kind of kidding but not really). If a company says they’ve done things to improve in the space of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), the org chart should reflect that and not just by having a person of color as the director of DE&I. Diversity at all levels is important, but it is particularly important to have diversity in leadership. If Black people aren’t in leadership, Black voices may not be heard as well as they should be. If you are struggling to diversify your organization, whether it be a mobility start-up or a state department of transportation, re-evaluate what you have to offer Black candidates. Regarding compensation, the racial wage gaps are still grossly unacceptable and Black men and women are often very underpaid. Sometimes, Black people aren’t in certain rooms because those rooms don’t seem worth it. A room’s worth can mean a lot of different things, but money, development opportunities, and a healthy work environment are often part of it. 

The final thing the industry can do to support Black people is to do what you say you’re going to do. My background is largely in community engagement and when the public says things like “well, they’re just going to do it anyway” or just stops showing up to engagement opportunities there are usually reasons for this. Don’t just do engagement for the sake of Title VI or because your company added equity to their mission and vision statement. You say you’re going to improve the transit system? Then do it. You’re doing a  Planning and Environmental Linkages (PEL) study to consider if this highway needs to be here? During the process make sure you address the community that was ripped up to build it. Adding bike lanes? Examine bike policy while you’re at it and ensure existing bike riders are part of the effort. 

There’s work to be done and I’m happy to support and be part of it.I really look forward to seeing change and improvements across the transportation industry for a more inclusive, successful built and natural environment. Here’s to continual growth and progress.