Our Ideas for USDOT on Transportation Data Equity

Earlier this month, Cityfi’s Gabe Klein spoke with Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg as part of Miami CoMotion. During that conversation, Secretary Pete mentioned a Request for Information (RFI) that USDOT recently put out asking for input on how the department could incorporate equity into its project evaluation and prioritization processes. Cityfi responded to that RFI, and we’d like to share our ideas here with our blog readers as well.

Cityfi USDOT RFI Response

Access to transportation is one of the most essential factors in accessing economic opportunity and achieving a high quality of life. However, the transportation landscape in the United States of America is rife with social and racial inequities, and many people do not enjoy proper access to efficient, reliable, safe, and affordable transportation options. The transportation inequities we see span across race, class, gender, able-bodiedness, and other systems. It is racially marginalized people who are poor, women, LGBTIQ+, children, elderly, and struggling with disabilities who have the greatest need for better public transportation systems yet suffer the highest costs of poor service and infrastructure.

The country has a long history of transportation inequities that began with the construction of automobile-centric infrastructure that destroyed many Black neighborhoods and initiated a paradigm of urban sprawl, restrictive housing lending practices based on race, and low-quality public transportation. The dominance of private automobiles has led to many problems including high traffic congestion, poor air quality, and unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. As a result, marginalized communities continue to experience high economic, social and environmental burdens such as chronic diseases; diminished access to economic opportunity and essential resources like housing, hospitals, schools, grocery stores, and green space; and disproportionate transportation costs.

In order to address these issues and increase everyone’s access to quality transportation, utilizing data is essential in helping cities understand existing conditions and problems and the impacts of policy interventions, new services, and infrastructure. Quantitative data can be easily collected, measured, and analyzed, but an over-reliance on such data can perpetuate existing biases and inequities. Although collecting qualitative data is more time-intensive and requires a sensitivity to community context, history, and dynamics, it encompasses the narratives, lived experiences, and expertise of marginalized populations, who can illustrate the social inequities of the transportation systems in a more vivid and nuanced way, thus filling in gaps that quantitative data cannot.

To truly be of use, data must be harnessed through the lens of social equity to benefit the communities that require the most help. Data must be understood and utilized through the lens of intersectionality, or how different groups suffer disproportionately as a result of intersecting systems of oppression including race, class, gender, and able-bodiedness. Data collection and analysis in the context of these systems should inform decisions that will improve social equity and alleviate harms experienced by marginalized communities.

Existing Assessment Tools

Below are several examples of tools and methodologies that are used to analyze and assess equity in transportation systems in terms of how people access what they need.

Cityfi has been working on a methodology to capture and communicate the full impact of a public investment on the community it serves for several years now. The Social Impact Calculator quantifies impacts across a range of categories such as Equity, Economy, Environment, Fiscal Return (to gov), Happiness, and Health and Safety. The philosophy behind it lies in research, logic, transparency, and using visualization to clearly communicate relative costs and benefits. In this way, it serves as both a decision support tool and a communication tool for after the decision is made.

To perform the analysis, we begin with defining any real, experienced benefit or cost that we anticipate the investment resulting in, even if it is subjective or hard to measure. For example, in an iteration that we built with the Miami-Dade County Department of Public Works to look at possible investments at “mobility hubs”, “Decrease traffic accidents” is an impact within Health and Safety, but so is “Increase perception of safety,” as can be expected when pickup and dropoff zones are designated for rideshare along with lighting or potentially a crosswalk. Simply documenting these impacts and acknowledging that the cost or benefit is not zero gets closer to an accurate cost-benefit analysis than more traditional models.

For each anticipated impact, we then perform a quantitative analysis using available literature as well as subject matter expertise. To ensure transparency and account for the multitude of uncertainties in forecasting, we use round numbers where possible and include an explanation of our rationale for each number within the visualization itself.

The Transportation Happiness Metric is a tool that uses both quantitative and qualitative metrics to evaluate the user experience of passengers on different transportation modes. It was initially developed as a recommendation in the Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s transportation technology strategy, Urban Mobility in a Digital Age, in 2016. The tool is rooted in five key values known as the Mobility Bill of Rights:

  • Accessibility — having the freedom to get around
  • Reliability — having the freedom from disruptions
  • Safety & Comfort — having the ability to be free from harm
  • Culture & Community — having a sense of connection to the neighborhood
  • Equity & Transparency — granted freedom from being excluded

Each value or “mobility right” has its own designated metrics and KPIs. The tool builds off of new and existing data from sources like customer surveys, smart city sensors, third-party private sector data resources, public sector transportation agency data, and academic research institutions.

Ex. Mobility Bill of Rights for the Transportation Happiness Metric.

TransitCenter designed the Transit Equity Dashboard, which assesses the level of social equity in transit systems in some of the country’s largest cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. The tool measures the reliability, efficiency, affordability, and service intensity of transit systems for marginalized communities (low-income, people of color, essential workers, transit-reliant). The tool also measures how accessible different resources are via transit including jobs, grocery stores, health care facilities, parks/green space, and universities/colleges.

Blueprint Denver is the City of Denver’s primary transportation and land use strategic plan. In the plan’s 2019 update, it uses a social equity framework to assess the city’s performance in terms of access to opportunity, vulnerability to displacement, and housing and jobs diversity. Access to opportunity directly connects with transportation equity, as the plan measures access to opportunity by looking at access to transit, which looks at the location of housing within 0.5 miles of high-capacity transit and within 0.25 miles of the city’s frequent transit network, as well as access to corridors and centers, which looks at the ease of access to local/community centers and corridors within a 10-minute travel time. The framework also includes an Equity Index within access to opportunity, which looks at a variety of areas including the percent of residents within 0.25 miles walking distance to a grocery store and the percent of living units within 0.25 miles walking distance to a park or open space.

The OakDOT Geographic Equity Toolbox is a tool to illustrate the racial disparities between Oakland neighborhoods. The tool identifies priority neighborhoods for social equity-based interventions based on factors like the amount of low-income households, seniors, people with disabilities, single-parent families, severely rent-burdened households, and people with low educational attainment. It then places the priority neighborhoods in the context of how local populations are affected by urban displacement, environmental injustice, and traffic safety. For traffic safety, the map highlights high-injury intersections and corridors, which significantly overlap with equity priority neighborhoods.

The Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, published by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, is a tool that measures the affordability of an area by using the combined costs of housing and transportation. It sets the benchmark for affordability at a maximum of 45% of household income, where the benchmark for housing is 30% of household income and the benchmark for transportation is 15% of household income. It also provides a variety of other indexes related to transportation equity including transit connectivity, transit access shed, annual transportation costs, and annual VMT costs among others.

Conclusion

We at Cityfi believe that assessing transportation equity should be done in a holistic and nuanced manner that /accounts for both the quantifiable and experiential dimensions of a transportation system. We are here should the opportunity arise to help USDOT customize and implement its framework, either with the tools we have developed or others that exist. We look forward to staying informed and involved as the process unfolds.

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Cityfi advises cities, corporations, foundations and start-ups to help catalyze change in a global, complex urban landscape. Twitter: @teamcityfi