By Tabaris D. Smith.
Coming from the South, and not having to rely on public transportation made me take this asset for granted. Where I’m from we rely most on automobiles so I had no idea how central transportation equity is and how it intersects with so many issues we face in our culture today. As an organizer and scholar in the field of planning, I have heard repeatedly, in both my graduate courses and in my work in communities, that good transportation is an asset to the quality of life.
In my graduate courses at Alabama A&M University, I learned mostly about the three major categories of transportation equity: Horizontal Equity, Vertical Equity with regard to Income and Social Class, and Vertical Equity with regard to mobility needs and ability. The three types might overlap or conflict. For instance, with Horizontal Equity, individuals bear the costs of their transport facilities and services, but with Vertical Equity, there are often required subsides for distressed communities. Transportation planning often involves making tradeoffs between different equity objectives.
Instead of giving an in-depth lesson on Transportation Justice theory that I learned in my coursework, here is how I actually learned the importance of transportation equity. In the summer of 2018, I was a fellow at Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA). T4MA is a diverse coalition of more than 70 member and partner organizations working together to create safe, convenient, climate-friendly and affordable transportation for everyone. The coalition advocates for transportation funds to be allocated fairly and wisely, for transportation decisions that are transparent and accountable, and to ensure that our transportation system has sufficient resources to meet tomorrow’s needs all throughout the Commonwealth.
While interning with T4MA, I learned firsthand the importance of transportation equity for different reasons than my coursework emphasized. Transportation allows for an understanding of place, including place-based injustices, and thus a place-based understanding of solutions. Coming from the rural south to the Boston metro area, the summer of 2018 was an adjustment, to the say the least, as many residents and visitors rely on public transit rather than cars. Many times I found myself getting lost by trying to interpret the routes of MBTA.
The challenges of transportation in the state of Massachusetts are a combination of environmental barriers, health disparities, deteriorating infrastructure, traffic congestion, and proximity (or lack thereof) to major highways to name a few. In addition, transportation contributes to 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. An efficient and reliable transportation system is the backbone for a strong Massachusetts. Bike paths, transit, sidewalks, and street designs have a direct impact on all individuals, businesses and communities. The enhancement of a holistic transportation network could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by providing low/zero-carbon choices. Transportation options also provide economic opportunities for people without cars, such as youth, many seniors, and vulnerable populations. More transit choices can improve public health like adding and maintaining a network of bicycle infrastructure and sidewalks, and which help create walkable communities that connect to public transit.
Under the leadership of an Executive Committee and Director Chris Dempsey, T4MA is a coalition that suggests innovative solutions to fund transportation options and improve transportation policy. Some of the solutions proposed are Smarter Tolling, which would offer a toll discount during off-peak hours, Regional Transportation Ballot Initiatives, which would allow local voters to decide whether to fund transportation projects, responsible rollout of “innovative mobility” such as bike share, e-scooters, and autonomous vehicles, and a Transportation-Climate Initiative in conjunction with other states in the northeast.
This is where I realized the significance of coalition-based transportation advocacy. Each region, city, state, and community faces its own problems, and familiarity and collaboration on policies and initiatives helps build support and adds necessary intricacies to the work. Harnessing the power of diverse voices and avoiding silos in advocacy work, allows T4MA the opportunity to push innovative ideas and gain support for initiatives the coalition seeks to advance.
Tabaris D. Smith resides from Orangeburg, SC and is currently a 2nd year graduate student at Alabama A&M University studying Urban and Regional Planning with a focus in Community Development. As a student, Tabaris is working on many research topics including food insecurity, accessible, and increasing enrollment for minorities students in the field of Urban and Regional Planning; Tabaris has also worked as an organizer on number of local, statewide and national campaigns including that of North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and as a legislative aide for his local state representative in Orangeburg. Tabaris completed his undergraduate degree in Economics at South Carolina State University ’16. Tabaris plans to use this fellowship experience to aid in his understanding of the socioeconomic and environmental effects of transportation on low-income communities.