Integrating Equity into Transportation: An Overview of USDOT Efforts
At its best, the American transportation network allows people to safely and comfortably walk, bike, roll, drive, or take transit. People use these transportation modes to access work, school, grocery stores, medical care, and community resources as well as to connect with loved ones. A well-planned, designed, and managed transportation system can improve safe access and mobility independence for people of all ages and abilities, while providing more opportunities for physical activity and connections to the nature and aesthetics of our Nation’s rural, suburban, and urban areas.
However, the transportation system may also create negative impacts on health and well-being, including fatalities and serious injuries from traffic crashes; air and noise pollution from vehicle traffic; greenhouse gas emissions; contaminated stormwater runoff and infiltration; and urban heat islands, and barriers to mobility and access through transportation infrastructure construction that has divided communities. Historically, many transportation decisions have disparately impacted individuals living in underserved, disadvantaged, and overburdened communities who have borne the burdens of the transportation system without realizing many of its benefits.
Today, transportation decisionmakers have the opportunity to redress these disparities and improve the transportation system for all people, particularly those who have been underserved and overburdened. America’s roadway network is a complex, decentralized system with multiple actors responsible for planning, designing, constructing, operating, and maintaining highways, roads, streets, and multiuse trails. State, Tribal, regional, and local governments manage many elements of this system with significant levels of autonomy and flexibility to make context-specific decisions. Such decisions encompass roadway location and design, funding and program administration (how and where funds are spent to build and maintain road networks and how roadway performance is assessed), and policy development and legislation (which laws should be enacted within their jurisdiction, and how they are implemented). Transportation leaders and professionals—and community members—at every level need to work together to create a truly equitable transportation system. This can be accomplished by critically examining existing practices and making intentional commitments to meaningfully integrate equity throughout the transportation process.
“Elected leaders and transportation professionals have unprecedented funding to redress past harms caused by the transportation system and access to data to determine the most effective ways to do so. But as we try to do this, we must recognize that government leaders will have to build trust and credibility with the community through engagement that demonstrates a willingness to do things differently and prioritizes different outcomes than the ones that created the problems we are dealing with today,” says Beth Osborne, vice president for Transportation and Thriving Communities at Smart Growth America.
This special issue of Public Roads brings together transportation professionals from cross-cutting fields, including civil rights, planning, safety, and operations, to provide an overview of ongoing U.S. Department of Transportation activities and highlight State, Tribal, regional, and local activities that are building an equitable transportation system.
What is Equity in Transportation
Executive Order (EO) 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, defines equity as “the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.”
Transportation equity refers to safe, accessible, affordable, reliable, comfortable, healthy, and sustainable mobility and access that facilitates social and economic opportunities and meets the needs of all community members—particularly those identified as underserved, disadvantaged, and overburdened.
According to Derrell Turner, director of Federal Highway Administration Field Services South, in his 2022 Public Roads article, “Equity in Transportation,” the long-term goal of USDOT efforts is to help grant recipients make more informed decisions that fully take into account equity impacts just as we account for other social, environmental, and economic impacts when developing transportation projects.
Disparities in Transportation Outcomes
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines health disparities as preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or in opportunities to achieve optimal health experienced by socially disadvantaged racial, ethnic, and other population groups and communities (https://www.cdc.gov/aging/disparities/index.htm#:~:text=Health%20disparities%20are%20preventable%
20differences,other%20population%20groups%2C%20and%20communities). Health disparities are a result of inequities in the distribution of the social determinants of health, which CDC defines as the conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play.
Transportation is a key determinant in influencing a person’s health, including access to public and active transportation, safe and health-promoting green spaces for exercise and recreation, and connectivity to economic and social opportunities. Social determinants of health are interconnected, and transportation infrastructure can play a key role in reducing health disparities.
Definitions in the USDOT Equity Action Plan
Underserved, disadvantaged, and overburdened communities are defined in the USDOT Equity Action Plan: https://www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/2022-04/Equity_Action_Plan.pdf.
“Designing communities to increase physical activity makes it easier for people to safely walk, bike, or take transit to everyday destinations such as workplaces, schools, healthcare facilities, and food outlets,” says CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., M.P.H. “Community design requires working with multiple agencies such as public health, transportation, housing, and economic development. Collaboration can lead to increased physical activity as well as better places to live, safer communities, and greater health equity.”
Transportation infrastructure can connect people to opportunities such as safe housing, nutritious food, physical activity, education, and job opportunities. Some transportation infrastructure decisions, however, have exposed some groups to disproportionate burdens—including poorer safety outcomes (i.e., fatal and serious injury crashes), higher noise and pollution impacts, and higher rates of displacement and impacts to community cohesiveness and economic opportunities. The disparities in transportation burdens and benefits are, in large part, a result of historic and present-day disinvestment in underserved communities and underrepresentation of disadvantaged communities in the planning, project development, construction, operations, and maintenance of the transportation system.
Many of the present-day disparities faced by underserved communities stem from decisions that were made through the construction of the Interstate Highway System that began in the 1950s. Under the Federal-aid Highway Act of 1956, the Federal Government extended funding to State transportation agencies to construct the interstate system. Planning decisions resulted in the destruction of many homes and neighborhoods in disadvantaged urban areas and facilitated car ownership and suburban home ownership for many white households, often in racially segregated developments. Communities living in urban areas were also disproportionately displaced for the construction of parking lots, major roads, transit hubs, and highways. Infrastructure for private vehicles constructed through residential areas created barriers to transportation by other modes, such as walking, bicycling, and transit.
Today, Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities, immigrant populations, and those with limited English proficiency continue to live, on average, in communities exposed to higher concentrations of harmful air and noise pollution, in part due to the transportation system. Additionally, people living in lower-income areas are less likely to have access to safe and comfortable walking and biking facilities. For example, sidewalks, adequate lighting, crosswalk markings, and other safety features are not as common in low-income neighborhoods.
Integrating Equity throughout the Transportation Process
Historic advocacy by underserved communities led to the enactment of several Federal statutes to prevent discrimination and promote opportunities for all. First, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs that receive Federal funding. In 1973, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (29 U.S.C. 794) prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in Federally assisted programs. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act expanded civil rights protections for people with disabilities. These watershed civil rights statutes were followed by the signing of EO 12898—Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations—in 1994, which directed Federal agencies to develop strategies to address disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations to promote equitable access and participation in Federal programs. FHWA implements EO 12898 by including Environmental Justice principles in the transportation planning and project activities of its recipients, such as metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and State departments of transportation (DOTs).
Despite these efforts, disparities persist for members of underserved communities. To address these disparities, President Biden signed EO 13985 on January 20, 2021, to direct Federal agencies to revise their policies to address racial inequities in the implementation of their programs and take a whole-of-government approach to advancing equity for all. (Note: This EO was updated on February 16, 2023, as EO 14091—Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government—to extend and strengthen equity-advancing requirements for agencies.) EO 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad (January 27, 2021), established the Justice40 program, which aims to deliver 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant Federal investments in climate and sustainable transportation to disadvantaged communities. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which includes a generational investment in transportation infrastructure, also integrated equity into multiple new programs, including the Reconnecting Communities Pilot (RCP) program and the Vulnerable Road User Safety Assessment. To implement these efforts, USDOT is working to advance equity for all, including developing a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Strategic Plan; Disability Policy Priorities; an Equity Action Plan; and Gender Justice Priorities.
In response to EO 14020 establishing the White House Gender Policy Council, USDOT facilitated a series of internal and external discussions to inform USDOT Gender Justice Priorities, and in the summer of 2022, submitted a Gender Action Plan to the Gender Policy Council. The Gender Justice Action Team and Gender Justice Advisory Group are working to advance USDOT’s Gender Justice initiatives, which include increasing incentives for transportation project partners to develop strategies that improve gender diversity in the trades and other identified segments of the transportation sector; addressing gender disparities in transportation safety; combating human trafficking through public private partnerships; improving USDOT utilization of small disadvantaged businesses that are both women and minority-owned; and increasing gender diversity within the USDOT workforce.
USDOT also developed Disability Policy Priorities which consists of four actions to advance accessibility which are earmarked for enhanced consideration due to their complexity and intersection with other Administration priorities. The four actions are: enable safe and accessible air travel; enable multimodal accessibility of public rights-of-way; enable access to good-paying jobs and business opportunities for people with disabilities; and enable accessibility of electric vehicle charging and automated vehicles. The Disability Policy Priorities highlight work that USDOT is undertaking to achieve disability-related goals, including addressing gaps in data on persons with disabilities and advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the USDOT workforce. This is noteworthy as it is a fundamental shift in how the Department views accessibility and ensures equal opportunity for all to use the transportation system.
In response to EO 13985, USDOT developed an Equity Action Plan which highlights key actions that the Department will undertake to expand access and opportunity to all communities while focusing on underserved, overburdened, and disadvantaged communities. The actions elaborated in the plan fall under four focus areas—Wealth Creation, Power of Community, Interventions, and Expanding Access. Each focus area advances a goal, highlighted actions, and key performance measures to track meaningful implementation of the plan.
Under the Wealth Creation focus area, USDOT will provide technical assistance to small disadvantaged businesses to increase their understanding of how to navigate the USDOT contracting process, gain awareness of upcoming contract opportunities, and enhance their core competencies and skills. This will enable small disadvantaged businesses to more effectively compete for USDOT contracting opportunities and build wealth.
The Power of Community focus area aims to empower individuals and communities, particularly those that are underserved and disadvantaged, to have a greater voice in the transportation decisions affecting them. USDOT is working to reinvigorate its programmatic enforcement of Title VI in order to proactively address potential disparate impacts on protected classes and empower communities in transportation decisionmaking. Under this focus area, USDOT also aims to increase the number of State DOTs and MPOs officially adopting a quantitative equity screening component and meaningful and representative public involvement processes into their Statewide Transportation Improvement Program and Transportation Improvement Program development processes. These equity-informed quantitative and public involvement processes will incorporate community vision and need into project selection and design processes. To support these efforts, USDOT has developed multiple GIS-based quantitative equity screening tools, including the Transportation Disadvantaged Census Tracts (https://usdot.maps.arcgis.com/apps/dashboards/d6f90dfcc8b44525b04c7ce748a3674a) and HEPGIS (https://hepgis.fhwa.dot.gov/fhwagis/). USDOT has also published a guide titled Promising Practices for Meaningful Public Involvement in Transportation Decision-Making (https://www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/2022-10/Promising_Practices_for_Meaningful_Public_Involvement_in_Transportation
_Decision_making.pdf) that provides examples for varied techniques of outreach and engagement throughout the lifecycle of a program or project.
|To implement these programs and further institutionalize equity across the Department, USDOT has established an Equity Council chaired by the Secretary and managed by the Departmental Office of Civil Rights and the Office of the Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy. Council members will guide the Department to further incorporate equity objectives into Department policies and operations.|
Under the Interventions focus area, USDOT will work to ensure that historically overburdened and underserved communities in urban and rural areas benefit from access to a generational investment in the Nation’s infrastructure through direct, hands-on technical support for transportation projects with local impact. USDOT will launch a national technical assistance center and shepherd the $25 million Thriving Communities Program to ensure that disadvantaged communities adversely or disproportionately affected by environmental, climate, and human health policy outcomes have the technical tools and organizational capacity to compete for Federal aid and deliver quality infrastructure projects that enable their communities and neighborhoods to thrive and not succumb to gentrification after transportation and community investments.
Finally, the Expanding Access focus area aims to increase social and economic opportunities for disadvantaged and underserved communities through the provision of affordable multi-modal transportation options and the development of a transportation cost burden measure. Multiple USDOT initiatives and discretionary grant programs focus on improving safe mobility, including the FHWA’s Complete Streets initiative and the $5 billion Safe Streets and Roads for All Program. USDOT is also shepherding the RCP program, which is dedicated to reconnecting communities that were previously cut off from economic opportunities by transportation infrastructure. RCP program funding supports planning grants and capital construction grants, as well as technical assistance, to restore community connectivity through the removal, retrofit, mitigation, or replacement of eligible transportation infrastructure facilities. In fulfillment of Justice40, USDOT is also working towards the goal that many of the USDOT’s grants, programs, and initiatives allocate at least 40 percent of the benefits from Federal investments to disadvantaged communities. For a list of USDOT’s official Justice40 covered programs list, visit https://www.transportation.gov/equity-Justice40. To quantify this, USDOT will work to develop a national transportation cost burden measure.
To implement these programs and further institutionalize equity across the Department, USDOT has established an Equity Council chaired by the Secretary of Transportation and co-managed by the Director of the Departmental Office of Civil Rights and the Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy. The Administrator from each Operating Administration will guide the USDOT to further incorporate equity objectives into Department policies and operations.
Anthony Boutros is the Equity in Transportation Safety Program lead in FHWA’s Office of Safety where he develops resources and delivers technical assistance to redress disparities in traffic fatalities. He holds bachelor’s degrees in sociology, public health studies, and international studies from Johns Hopkins University and is a Truman-Albright Fellow.
Sharon Field, Esq., is the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) Program team leader in FHWA’s Office of Civil Rights where she oversees the National ADA Program. She earned a Juris Doctor degree from the University at Buffalo School of Law and a B.S. degree in Management from Binghamton University.
Kevin Resler is an FHWA National Title VI Program coordinator who develops policy and guidance regarding Title VI and related nondiscrimination laws. He earned a B.A. degree from Indiana University (IU) and a Juris Doctor degree from the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
For more information, see https://www.transportation.gov/priorities/equity.