Making the Link between Equity and Active Transportation in Oregon

Spring has sprung in Washington, DC and the streets are full of pedestrians and bikers. Seeing the frenzy of activity in the nation’s capital is a strong reminder of how important it is to make active transportation (walking, biking, wheel-chairing) accessible for all. This topic of accessibility was a main point of discussion at the recent Oregon Active Transportation Summit in Portland, where I delivered a keynote presentation on racial equity and transportation.

Talking about racial equity can be a difficult task in a place like Oregon.  After all, Oregon’s largest city, Portland, was recently listed as the “whitest city in America”. But persistent disparities in access to resources for Portland’s communities of color and low-income residents highlight the city’s need to ensure that their transportation investments are reaching everyone.

In a previous post, I lifted up a few examples of how advocates in Oregon are working to embed equity in regional transportation policy, such as recent efforts by Upstream Public Health and regional transit agency TriMet to embed health equity goals into transportation planning.  But there are many other ways that Oregon should consider advancing equity through its active transportation policies.

For example, advocates at the summit discussed the possibility of locally implementing Vision Zero — a framework for eliminating all pedestrian fatalities and accidents through improved road design and enforcement of traffic offenses. This framework has the potential to improve access to active transportation by making streets safer, but it must be accompanied by measures to ensure that enforcement doesn’t exacerbate disparities in policing and racial profiling that exist in many low-income communities and communities of color — a concern that has been raised by transportation advocates Adonia Lugo and Keith Benjamin.

Because many low-income communities of color across the nation lack the infrastructure necessary to make it safe and easy to walk and bicycle in their neighborhood, guaranteeing resource allocation to low-income communities and communities of color is another strategy for building equitable transportation policy. California’s Active Transportation Program is a great model of this. The program requires 25 percent of funding to be set aside for sidewalks and bicycle routes for low-income and disadvantaged communities.

Expanding access to bicycle sharing for low-income communities is another way to improve access to active transportation. While bike shares have become popular nationwide, enrollment in these programs often requires payment by credit or debit card as a form of insurance against stolen bikes.  For the many residents in low-income communities who do not have or use mainstream financial products like checking or savings accounts, this puts these bike programs out of reach. Several communities, including Arlington County, Virginia, are reducing this barrier by implementing programs that allow residents to pay cash for memberships.

Active transportation is a vital way for many community members to access jobs and other community resources, or enjoy outdoor physical activity. These examples illustrate how important it is to put racial equity front and center in active transportation planning, so that everyone can access these forms of transportation. Visit the Transportation Equity Caucus website for more resources and information on how to embed equity into transportation policy.