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Blog: City Hall flunks three simple equity litmus tests

Everybody loves talking about 'Equity' and everybody seems to be getting it wrong.

Redwood City's 2021 big equity plan is called IDEAL - it's a play on buzz words: Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Leadership. Moreover, the council's strategy is all about Transportation, Children, and Youth. It's several years later and time to run some simple Equity Litmus Tests.

County wide plans provided by MTC, SMC, C/CAG, and SMCTA repeatedly mention a particular group of people, which they call Communities of Concern (CoC). Since 2021 they are also known as Equity Priority Communities (EPC). We will also find references to Equity Focus Areas or Equity Priority Areas. These are different names for vulnerable and disadvantaged neighborhoods with particular census features. It's basically about finding predominantly low-income neighborhoods, and those that have many zero-vehicle households, senior citizens, people with disabilities, and cost-burdened renters.

While all residents in these communities have the right to self-transportation, not everyone has the money or ability to own and drive cars. And some just don't want to. According to MTC data, 17% of people riding bicycles don't even own a car; this number is even higher in COCs. Not owning a car or needing only one car might be a financial bonus to many. A recent Forbes article puts the lifetime cost of ownership for a small car at around $700k and for a bigger car at >$1M. Not owning a car frees up money for other important expenses, like rent or food. Using a bicycle is also better for personal and community health and negates the need for a gym membership. The poorest households are often those run by single moms. But if the mom is working, how do the kids get to school safely? This requires school buses and very strong Safe-Routes-To-School (SRTS) programs. This would also help with chronic absenteeism; kids that know their way to school have fewer anxieties.

Walking is the most basic way of self-transportation, a few months into our lives we start walking. We could be using crutches, walkers, wheelchairs, knee scooters and legally still be regarded as pedestrians. We could be blind, deaf, mute, senile, or a member of Mensa, and legally we must be allowed to walk. And just for health reasons, hopefully we do it a lot.

Litmus Test 1: Walking is really the only mode that can be called All-Ages-and-Abilities (AAA). That is why standard pedestrian accessibility must be planned and built into every transportation project. But IDEAL doesn't account for that.

Litmus Test 2: Cycling comes in a close second. What is true for pedestrians is also true for cycling. Even if somebody loses their driver's license they still need to be able to keep riding a bicycle or tricycle. And city planners need to account for that too, but IDEAL does not.

Litmus Test 3: For longer distance or bad-weather days, CoCs need good local transit. This requires buses, shuttles, streetcars. However the recent "Reimagine SamTrans" project shifted local east-west services to more regional north-south routes. And there are hardly any bus shelters with benches in San Mateo County. Bus shelters with a roof and a bench is the absolute minimum accessibility requirement when it comes to public transit - but IDEAL doesn't take that into consideration.

These low-income neighborhoods - even more so than others - need safe bicycle infrastructure, covered bus stations with benches, and well-maintained sidewalks. Kids and seniors from EPCs deserve Safe-Routes-To-School (SRTS) just as much as the kids in Menlo Park or Palo Alto do. But IDEAL never even mentions Transportation Equity or related topics.

Every morning, several hundred kids along El Camino Real need to get to Roosevelt ES, Ford ES, Kennedy MS, Woodside HS. Every afternoon they need to be able to get back home safely. Mobility Plans, Climate Action Plan, and School Closure Plans, all promise these CoCs better infrastructure. So far, these Redwood City schools are bare of bike lanes.

A 15-year-old California law to implement 15 mph safety zones around schools has been completely ignored. Could Redwood City be doing any less for our Priority Focus Areas on the transportation front? Despite having a city strategy of "Transportation, Children and Youth" for a long time now, not one bike lane was added for these kids and their families. Building these bike lanes is usually called Transportation Equity. And it doesn't matter how much money the city spends on their IDEAL advertising campaign; flunking on these basic equity litmus tests is still referred to as Systemic Racism in Urban Planning.




Gerd Stieler

About the Author: Gerd Stieler

"Peeking at Plans" is a captivating blog that delves into urban planning and transportation strategies. Join us as we explore mobility plans, transportation equity, climate action plans, and more
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