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Addressing Climate Change and Equity: Prioritizing Resilience in Transporation Planning

Addressing Climate Change and Equity: Prioritizing Resilience in Transporation Planning
Written by Kim Rhodes
Posted May 16th, 2023

Photo by John Shea. Dutchtown, MO. March 20, 2008

As recent flood and heat events have shown, climate change has brought significant vulnerabilities and risks to transportation systems across the United States. Climate-related events not only damage infrastructure and increase maintenance needs, but also interfere with the normal operations of roads, bridges, railways, and vehicles (Climate Resilience Toolkit). Because of this, transportation planners at all levels of government are working hard to better understand and prepare for the future impacts of climate change.

At the same time, the emergence of policies concerning the integration of equity into transportation planning has also become a national priority for planners. However, at the federal level, past transportation investments and available federal dollars have often failed to address inequities or even made them worse. Procedural, distributional, and structural inequities often perpetuate exclusion and exacerbate in justices, particularly when considering long-lasting physical infrastructure projects.

The built environment constructed by one generation remains the built environment for the next (Storper).

In addition, racist housing policies and targeted housing subsidies caused a major divide between white middle-class suburbs and urban/inner cities where people of color predominantly reside (Glaeser). This has led to unequal transportation outcomes for individuals from marginalized communities. People of color and those with lower incomes, who are less likely to own cars and live in areas well served by transit, experience worse transportation outcomes, often having to travel farther and experience more difficult trips to access employment and other critical services. (Wennink and Krapp).

In the face of current and future climate-related challenges and these historical mistakes, there is a strong interest and need to identify and prioritize “equity-centered” resilience actions throughout the transportation planning industry.

How Equity is Defined & its Role in Transportation Planning

Each Federal agency is directed by Executive Order (EO) 12898 to develop a strategy for identifying and addressing disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on low income populations and minority populations.

The term “equity”, as defined by Executive Order (EO) 13985 is:

“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, 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.”

Two federal mandates dictate the inclusion of people of color and low-income populations in the agencies’ definition of marginalized populations. These requirements are Executive Order 12898 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The purpose of these mandates is to prevent discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in federally funded programs (Wennink and Krapp).

Historically, minority communities and low-income communities have been left out of the planning process. They have faced discrimination and exclusion when it comes to suburban development, housing policies, and zoning practices. As a result, transportation infrastructure in urban areas have been neglected, leading to unequal access to jobs and critical services. The impacts of climate change are making these challenges even more difficult.

Challenges to Achieving an Equitable and Resilient Transportation Project

Data pertaining to equity and transportation exist independently and is often robust. However, combining this information into something meaningful that considers both equitable outcomes and climate resilience presents challenges during project identification and prioritization.

Currently, there are two commonly used analytical approaches to address equity concerns in transportation planning and programming processes:

  1. performing Environmental Justice (EJ) assessments to analyze the impacts of the strategies and projects included in statewide and metropolitan long-range transportation plans and transportation improvement programs on different segments of the community, and
  2. including an equity criterion in their project selection methodologies to prioritize projects based on their impacts to historically marginalized population groups (Wennink and Krapp).

The The Federal Highway Administartion (FHWA) provides guidance for incorporating resilience at various stages of transportation planning to meet requirements under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. This law was enacted in December 2015. While the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) and FHWA provided guidance for state departments of transportation (DOTs) and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) on performance-based programs, these targets are primarily focused on automobile use of the system.

Performance measures include roadway pavement condition, congestion, traffic safety, non-single-occupant vehicle travel, and other similar metrics. The shortfall of these measures is their ineffectiveness in considering the quality of life for historically marginalized populations.

Our team approaches this challenge with a unique analytical technique: a network analysis that evaluates access to critical services under different hazard scenarios. We combine this with census data to represent historically marginalized neighborhoods. This screening level assessment helps identify key areas of focus within a region and guides further in-depth analyses, ultimately helping planners target their resources to achieve equitable and resilient transportation projects.

Strategies for Achieving an Equitable and Resilient Transportation Project

Our team works closely with transportation planners to understand their existing processes, as well as current conditions in their community or region. We begin by making recommendations for climate conditions that should be assessed and identified by using local information. The vulnerability and risk assessment of the transportation network is then tailored to include equity-related metrics, ultimately informing the prioritization process.

Achieving an equitable and resilient transportation project considers:

  • Is the current infrastructure currently compromised during extreme weather events? Will this same infrastructure withstand changing climate conditions based on the lifecycle it is designed for?
  • If the infrastructure, as currently designed, serves all, but especially minority and low-income, populations? And, if there are unintended consequences of changing it.
  • If and where are there opportunities for accessibility to critical services to be improved for historically marginalized populations under current and/or future conditions?

We recognize that equity challenges cannot be fully addressed without targeting the current and past procedural, distributional, and structural inequities during the planning process (USDN, Wennink and Krapp):

  • Procedural equity focuses on the level of of involvement from a diverse set of stakeholders and the establishment of transparent, fair, and inclusive processes when developing and implementing programs, plans, or policies;
  • Distributional equity is focused on impacts across geography and space;
  • Structural equity addresses the underlying structural and institutional systems that are the root causes of social and racial inequities.

Equity-Centered Resilience: Paving the Way for Climate-Proof Transportation Systems

Transportation planners are faced with two major challenges: reconciling the current and past, structural, procedural and distributional inequities in transportation planning while considering a resilient system in the face of a changing climate.

Climate-related events have exposed vulnerabilities in transportation systems, requiring a proactive approach to enhance community resilience. However, past transportation investments and policies have often perpetuated inequities, particularly for marginalized communities.

The historical exclusion of these communities from planning processes and discriminatory housing policies have resulted in unequal transportation outcomes, limiting access to essential services and employment opportunities.

To address these issues, an equity-centered approach is required. However, integrating equity considerations into transportation planning requires overcoming challenges in data integration and analysis. Although two analytical approaches to address equity concerns exist, they fail to consider how climate-related events not only affect transportation systems themselves, but also the quality of life for historically marginalized communities.

To fill this gap, our team developed a framework that combines local transportation information, hazard data, and equity-centered metrics into one assessment. This will help transportation planners not only identify vulnerable areas, but also prioritize resources for equitable and resilient projects - essentially contributing to a more just and inclusive transportation system that benefits all individuals, regardless of race, income, or background.

Ready to learn more? Stay tuned for the next article in this series where we will take a deeper dive into our process and tool. In the meantime, feel free to send us a message here.

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