II: Today’s inequities
How today’s policies and decisions inflict damage and perpetuate past harms
The transportation or land-use professionals and policymakers practicing today are not the ones responsible for the mistakes made decades ago, nor for the racial inequities that were literally built into our communities.
But two other things are also true:
First, the problems created by the kinds of decisions outlined in Part I—like neighborhoods with poor transit access, divided by a highway, or lacking basics like sidewalks— do need to be solved by today’s professionals.
Second, the current approach at all levels consists of ingrained, decades-old transportation policies, funding systems, models, and measures which have their roots in that same history. Today’s current approach inflicts similar damage and fails to address the damage of the past. This means that, absent major changes, today’s professionals will be using an approach that cannot adequately address these issues. Today’s professionals and policymakers must grapple with the ways in which the current transportation program repeats these past mistakes and perpetuates and exacerbates their consequences.
Part II is long, covering two distinct areas (click to jump to either)
- Part A: How today’s models, measures, and policies make things worse
- Value of time, delay, and congestion
- The failure to measure or account for induced demand
- Level of service
- Forgiving street design, but only for drivers and passengers
- Setting speed limits to accommodate speeders
- Part B: The inequities that result from today’s approach
- Car-orientation leaves people vulnerable
- Deadly roads for people walking
- More traffic = more pollution = worse health outcomes
- Unaffordable homes in locations with low transportation costs
- People repeatedly dislocated by road expansions
- Expansion steals money from repair
II-A: How today’s transportation models, measures, and policies further inequities
Our current approach to transportation in the US—modeled by our national surface transportation program and mirrored in state departments of transportation and other transportation agencies—prioritizes fast, freeflow vehicle travel above all else and treats the people walking, biking, and riding transit as afterthoughts.
This focus on freeflow car travel is embedded in our transportation policies, funding structures, design and operational standards, and performance measures. It contributes to a feedback loop that results in disconnected, sprawling land uses, displaces economic development in favor of car movement and storage, creates significant congestion completely by design, and causes Americans to drive more and further every year.
The same standards and regulations first adopted during the construction of the national interstate system are still in use today and are applied on many types of roads.
Intended for limited access highways, these woefully out-of- date policies are now applied in some form to all types of roads, including in contexts where an emphasis on free-flow traffic simply doesn’t fit: commercial corridors with lots of development on either side of the road, local main streets, and residential neighborhood roads. Designing all roads primarily to keep cars moving as fast as possible creates unsafe and unpleasant conditions for people walking and further propels our national reliance on car travel, privileging certain people over others. And our current standards and designs do not make it easy for transportation engineers and planners to take the experience of nondrivers into account.
The practices of the 1950s aren’t truly behind us either, with new or expanded highways still being planned through or near low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, including I-49 in Shreveport, LA and the Southport Connector in Poinciana, FL. But this section aims to explain the current rules, guidelines, and practices that continue to create the same kinds of inequities. The damage these measures and rules inflict may not be as intentional as that of building highways directly through Black and Brown communities, but it can be just as profound. Here are specific ways that existing, widely accepted transportation measures and processes are exacerbating the same inequities.
Value of time, delay, and congestion
When moving vehicles quickly on all roads is the number one goal for transportation agencies, congestion relief becomes paramount and agencies focus on time savings to drivers at the expense of nearly every other type of user or activity. One widely used federal measure that creates more damage and inequity is known as “value of time” guidance from the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, enthusiastically supported by the Office of Management and Budget.
This video above, adapted from this section of Divided by Design, explains how value of time guidance is used to justify costly, damaging, divisive highway projects.
When modeling for time savings, agencies focus on only one thing: getting and keeping vehicles moving. As long as vehicles are moving faster, agencies predict that their new project will save time, which is nearly always assumed to be a net positive with economic value.
The USDOT specifies a percentage of hourly income that should be used to determine the hourly rate of time savings, down to the imaginary dollar, and then they multiply this by the number of commuters, resulting in huge but ridiculous numbers. But these are not “real” dollars, and do not result in commuters seeing actual cash returned to their pockets. After all, if you save a handful of seconds a month or a year, you do not receive actual cash in your pocket—it’s just theoretical money. And it doesn’t matter if, to speed up vehicles, daily trips end up being longer and taking more time overall.
Whether or not the value of time guidance succeeds at saving commuters time (it often does not), there are very specific inequities baked in.
It places an explicit bias on saving richer households time, allowing the benefits of time savings to be scaled to household income, putting additional barriers in the way of those in poverty and with lower incomes. It puts more value on a business trip taken at rush hour, which is more likely to be white collar, than off-peak work travel or other trips, like picking up a child from daycare or a doctor’s appointment, claiming that the costs of being late to those destinations are hard to calculate. However, the costs of these delays are very real. Parents may be charged per minute when late to pick up a child from daycare, and doctors’ offices often have policies that charge patients for missed appointments.
Another key measure in this system of performance measurement that transportation agencies use is delay, which is separate from the value of time but closely related.
Under current federal law, all state departments of transportation and metropolitan planning organizations are to set targets for reducing “delay” on roadways—but only for vehicles. “Delay” is the difference between how quickly vehicles move on a corridor in free-flowing traffic conditions (e.g., the middle of the night) versus rush hour. Value of time is how we quantify and measure the economic impact of the time lost to delay.
This rudimentary, outdated approach ignores the fact that travel time is a function of speed and distance. Put another way, this delay measure only considers the delta between your speed of travel and free-flow speeds. It never considers how long or far you are traveling, which is why, for example, a short 20-minute commute in heavy congestion would rate “worse” than a 45-minute trip at the speed limit or above.
Any benefit-cost analysis for competitive federal funding (grant programs, etc.) will include the value of time for drivers while neglecting the impact on the value of time for all other people, like people walking, biking, or using transit. The value of their time is never even considered. These estimates are related solely to vehicle speed of travel along a particular stretch of a corridor.1
In looking at only speed in this way, the federal government allows a project sponsor to take credit for saving travelers’ time even if the project:
- Lengthens the distance of travel for drivers on the corridor and adds to travel time (e.g. disallowing left-hand turns, requiring a roundabout trip);
- Creates delay for people traveling across the corridor (e.g. creating gaps or disconnections in the adjacent street network);
- Creates delay for people crossing the corridor on foot or bike (e.g. removing crosswalks or intersections producing longer trips on foot, increasing the road width.)
Considering that in most urban areas, a greater share of people walking or taking transit are more likely to be lower- income or people of color, it’s easy to see how this value of time measure prioritizes certain people over others.
The failure to measure or account for induced travel demand
The transportation modeling used to predict higher travel speeds after an expansion or widening is often unreliable or inaccurate and fails to account for a well-known rebound effect called induced demand.
Watch the four-stage cycle of induced demand in this gif above.
This is where people drive more (or more at peak times) when extra capacity is added to a roadway. USDOT recognized this idea in its rulemaking on fuel efficiency standards, assuming people will drive more if they are buying less gas. But they do not acknowledge or provide guidance on how to measure induced demand for roadway widening. In fact, USDOT allows for the increased driving and congestion to be disregarded so that project sponsors can make the time savings benefits (again, largely for drivers coming from distant suburbs) look better while ignoring the increased traffic, congestion and pollution that will be generated by the project.
There is ample evidence indicating that expanding highways induces more driving and ultimately more congestion and emissions, but the current modeling fails to account for this truism. This is why after decades of highway building, congestion has only gotten worse. It has gotten worse in areas with growing populations and shrinking populations. It has gotten worse even as homes, often owned by Black and Brown people, are demolished to make room for new lanes.
Level of service
The assumptions contained in the value of time and delay can also be found in a basic design measure that is used to assess the performance of most roadway projects called level of service or LOS.
LOS is the most important way of measuring transportation that everyday people are unaware of. It is a qualitative measure of the operating conditions for motor vehicles on a roadway based on quantitative factors like speed, maneuverability, and delay. A roadway is given an LOS score ranging from LOS-A, which means fully free-flowing open traffic, to LOS-F, meaning stop and go. Every agency or jurisdiction has a target LOS level, often a C. But some areas have lowered it, recognizing that a fully utilized road will, at times, have traffic.
Like the value of time, LOS considers only vehicles and the speed at which they are moving, rather than the number of people moved or the distance of the trip and completely ignores the context or purpose of the street or road. For example, a downtown street through a busy area has a completely different purpose than a highway on the edge of town, yet LOS treats both the same way, with the goal being free-flow traffic. Level of service has been used (and still is) to justify costly widenings that make local travel more difficult in order to speed thru traffic through the same area.
These slippery economics that place a tangible dollar value on every second of time savings allow transportation agencies to claim increased speeds from improved level of service as an unqualified economic benefit, even though a person saving two or three minutes in a year doesn’t receive any actual, tangible money back in their pocket. Increasing speeds on a local main street or commercial area can also harm local businesses, especially small businesses that more heavily rely on customers walking and biking—impacts which are not measured or considered.
Projected harm to LOS is used as an argument against so many of the features that make streets safer for everyone who needs to use them, including more pedestrian crossings (because drivers will have to stop more frequently), narrower lanes (because it will slow down overall vehicle speeds), and sidewalks or bike lanes (because these will take space from drivers).
Improving LOS (i.e, faster travel through a corridor) is also consistently claimed by transportation agencies as a safety intervention, even though higher vehicle speeds lead to less response time, more driver error, and more deadly crashes.
They overlook that traffic also decreases speeds, and crashes that occur at lower speeds are less likely to be deadly, especially when they involve a pedestrian. (Some of the increase in fatalities during the first half of 2020 when congestion disappeared can be attributed to this fact.) Low-income, Black, and Native Americans have lower rates of access to vehicles, are more likely to live near higher-speed roadways, and as speeds increase they are more likely to be killed.
Forgiving street design, but only for drivers and passengers
The focus on providing the driver the ability to move faster, many jurisdictions and transportation agencies require a buffer area on the side of the road called a “clear zone” so that when a driver loses control and runs off the road there is space to accommodate them.
But engineers will make deliberate decisions to put people walking in this so-called clear zone. In the exact same area where (an often substandard) sidewalk exists for people to walk, road design standards emphasize setting buildings back from the road and designing utility poles and stop signs that shear off or give way in a crash so that people in vehicles will be less likely to be harmed. Instead of slowing vehicle traffic to eliminate the need for this clear zone, jurisdictions and agencies redirect the risk away from drivers and toward all of the people outside of a car.
Setting speed limits to prioritize those who would speed
The nonsensical way we set speed limits also favors the perceived convenience of those inside a vehicle and leads to hostility for travelers outside of a vehicle. Agencies design roads to accommodate driver error (eg, wider lanes so that a driver can go fast comfortably), which usually sends the message to drivers that they are supposed to drive faster. Then agencies observe the speed that drivers choose and set the speed limit at the 85th percentile, the point at which most people would drive at or below the limit. The faster people go, the higher the speed limit.
Beth Osborne of Smart Growth America explains the dangerous way that speed limits are typically set using the “85th percentile rule” in this video created by the Wall Street Journal.
Transportation agencies are primed by existing policies as well as political pressures to respond to congestion primarily by widening and building new roads. These pressures also create disincentives to put anything in place for non- drivers, especially if that infrastructure creates a perception of problems for drivers.
The approach turns city, town, and village roadways into highways. And in doing so, those streets do a poor job of serving local homes and businesses, supporting people moving outside of a car, or reducing fatalities. We are left with a system that favors people traveling through a community over the needs of the people who are living, moving, and working in that community.
This cycle comes with heavy costs.
It leads to unsustainable increases in infrastructure spending from all levels of government, and it raises household expenses through increased transportation costs. It also forces communities already disadvantaged by past highway projects to once again face the social and economic burden of highway expansions in their neighborhoods. All of this means that, by design, many of the accepted transportation policies, standards, manuals, and procedures help create new inequities and perpetuate existing ones.
Land use and housing policy
While this report focuses most heavily on transportation, it’s worth briefly describing the policies that govern local land development decisions, and how they contribute to this feedback loop, thus producing more spread- out, car-oriented development. Most local zoning ordinances follow the same basic formula, separately designating residential areas, commercial areas, and industrial areas, and keeping them apart.
This formula is based on an early 20th- century model from the last time the federal government provided significant zoning guidance: the Standard Zoning Enabling Act of 1925. By separating these different types of development, traditional zoning codes increase the distance between daily needs.
Combined with the transportation policies that prioritize vehicle movement above all else, zoning standards result in more driving and effectively ensure that new development will prioritize the movement of vehicles.
Today, government-mandated zoning requirements prevent the market from adding to the supply of walkable, transit-served communities to meet growing demand, driving up property values in these areas dramatically, making them unaffordable to those who could benefit the most. Despite the market and consumer demand for more housing (and housing types) in built-up areas and in walkable, connected neighborhoods, it is illegal to build anything except single-family detached houses on roughly 75 percent of land in most cities.
These laws have profound negative impacts. Artificially limiting the supply of housing in walkable, transit-served areas directly leads to a lack of access to and displacement of lower-income residents, exacerbates inequality in the process, and redirects growth into sprawling areas.
As with the zoning codes noted above, these results force people to drive further for everything, cut off people without a car from necessities too far away or too dangerous to walk to, generate traffic congestion, and create the counterproductive call to expand roads to accommodate the additional traffic.
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Part II-b: The inequities produced by these policies and practices
The previous section described the current policies and practices that ensure our communities and roadways are designed to move cars as quickly as possible. Many of these practices have been inherited from the early interstate age, crafted in many cases by intentionally racist leaders who controlled the decisions about new highways and whose needs would be prioritized by the system overall.
Today’s approach is shaped by the past, and it leads to many inequitable and harmful outcomes, including less opportunity for physical activity, increased traffic crashes, increased exposure to air pollution, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and higher household transportation costs. These negative impacts are particularly severe for the most vulnerable populations. To end this cycle, transportation agencies and elected leaders—at all levels of government—must start by understanding and acknowledging how the current policies and standards that guide their decisions are still damaging communities.
They need to understand how their current approach prioritizes certain people and harms others in order to transform that approach.
Car-oriented communities leave millions of Americans vulnerable
The characteristics of our transportation infrastructure and development in many areas across the country create conditions where driving is the only viable option for anyone able to do so—yet this leaves a substantial portion of our population vulnerable. Approximately 28 million Americans (about 9 percent of the population) do not have access to a car, and lower-income people and people of color are more likely to be carless.
Households with an annual income of less than $25,000 are almost nine times as likely not to have a car than households with incomes greater than $25,000. In fact, some 20 percent of households in poverty don’t have a car. Just 6.5 percent of white households did not have access to a car in 2015 according to the National Equity Atlas, compared to 19.7 percent of Black households, 13.6 percent of Native American households, and 12 percent of Latinx households.
People without access to a car do not just live in urban areas; more than one million households— or 6.2 percent of all households—in primarily rural counties do not have a vehicle.2 In fact, the majority of counties in the U.S. with high rates of zero-car households are rural. Carless residents in rural areas also face other unique challenges— for example, while many rural communities have created transit programs that play a critical role in helping people reach healthcare and other needs, fewer communities have the type of scheduled, fixed-route transit that residents can use to get to work every day, making it especially hard for people without access to a car to access employment. The design of our communities can also negatively impact other residents who cannot drive, including older adults and some people with disabilities.
A 2018 survey from the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center found 40 percent of adults over age 65 cannot do the activities they need to do or enjoy doing because they cannot drive. 40 percent of the survey respondents cited access and availability of affordable transportation as a barrier, and respondents regularly described feeling dependent on others, frustrated, isolated, and trapped after giving up driving. An estimated 25.5 million Americans have disabilities that make traveling outside the home difficult, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, and people with travel-limiting disabilities are less likely to have jobs.
Our roads are deadly for people walking, especially for already-disadvantaged populations
In many communities, traveling outside a car can be a matter of life and death. Our policies and practices have created a system that prioritizes high-speed car trips over all other modes, and people of color and low-income communities pay the price.
Pedestrian fatalities began steadily rising in 2009, and the trend has not slowed down. 7,341 people—more than 20 per day—were struck and killed while walking in 2021, a massive 12.4 percent increase over 2020. Comparing 2021 to 2019, when travel behavior was more similar to 2021 than the shutdown-laden year of 2020, that increase goes up to an astonishing 17 percent. This record high also marks an astonishing 79 percent increase since 2009.
The design of our roads produces these dangerous conditions for people walking: wide lanes, large distances between traffic signals, and long unobstructed lines of sight make it feel safe to drive fast—often significantly faster than the posted speed limit—and drivers unconsciously follow these visual cues. For people on foot, the likelihood of surviving a crash decreases rapidly as speeds increase past 30 mph.
Because highways were and continue to be intentionally placed through communities of color, and because this placement often results in less economic opportunity in these areas, the burden of dangerous street design is not shared equally. People of color and people walking in low-income communities are disproportionately represented in pedestrian traffic deaths.
Even after controlling for differences in population size and walking rates, drivers strike and kill older people, people of color, people over age 50, and people walking in communities with lower median household incomes at much higher rates.
Too often we rely primarily or exclusively on enforcement to manage speeding instead of addressing the causes of speeding like roadway design to change driving behavior. This overreliance on police enforcement disproportionately imperils Black motorists and other demographics subject to profiling and violence. Automated enforcement mechanisms, disproportionately placed near communities of color and often enforced through fines, also disproportionately impact drivers of color.
Growing traffic, more pollution, and poor health outcomes
Car-oriented development, embedded in our status quo approach, has had other negative consequences for American communities: more driving means more transportation emissions, more traffic, and often poor health outcomes. People of color and low-income communities experience these impacts at disproportionate rates.
Transportation can both positively and negatively impact our health, as research continues to show. Active transportation, for example, can lead to positive health outcomes. However, as destinations spread further apart and communities of color are divided, these modes of transportation become less convenient and safe, leading to more car travel, which is going up by nearly every available measure. From 1980-2017, annual per capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT), a measure of how many miles each person drives every year, increased by 46 percent. In absolute terms, VMT increased by 57 percent in the top 100 urbanized areas between 1993-2017, significantly faster than the 32 percent population growth in those areas. Driving, which requires travelers to sit idly, does not have a positive impact on health.
All of that driving also results in higher emissions. Transportation accounts for the largest share of carbon emissions in the U.S., and those emissions are rising, even as emissions have decreased in other sectors. Emissions have risen despite increases in fuel economy standards and the beginning of electric vehicle deployment.
The vast majority of those emissions—83 percent—come from the cars and trucks that people drive to the grocery store or school or that deliver our Amazon orders. Between 1990-2017, we saw an 18 percent increase in overall fleet fuel efficiency brought on by the implementation of CAFE standards. But even as the fleet overall got far more efficient, emissions still rose 22 percent over the same time period. Our increased driving overwhelmed all of those improvements in fuel efficiency.
Combustion in vehicle engines causes other forms of pollution as well, including fine particles (particulate matter) 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, known as PM2.5. These particles are small enough to get deep inside the lungs and cause cardiovascular disease, asthma, diabetes, and other health problems. Pollution from PM2.5 is responsible for approximately 3.15 million annual premature deaths worldwide. In a recent study that mapped PM2.5 exposure from vehicles, the Union of Concerned Scientists found that people of color, more likely to live near highways and other busy roadways, are exposed to significantly higher levels of PM2.5 than white Americans.
Our current approach to transportation is not only causing health issues—it presents a major barrier to accessing health care. Before the pandemic, approximately 3.6 million people living in the U.S. missed or delayed essential, non-emergency medical care because of transportation barriers. A number of studies have shown chronically ill residents, non-white residents, women, the elderly, and low-income individuals face the largest transportation burden.
Failure to supply the growing demand for walkable, transit-rich communities price out those who most need affordable transportation options
While most communities across the U.S. are primarily car- oriented, demand has clearly pivoted. Six out of 10 people said they drive because of a lack of other options in a 2017 survey, 62 percent of Americans reported that nearby transit would be important in choosing where to live and 54 percent cited nearby bike lanes and paths. Companies of all sizes are also relocating to or deciding to start up in walkable downtowns and communities with transit to ensure access to a high-quality workforce, as younger talent flocks to transit-connected, walkable communities.
In spite of this demand, zoning laws and transportation agency policies often do not allow for this type of dense, walkable environment. As a result, the market has not been able to respond to the demand for walkable communities, making them more expensive. Americans today are forced to pay a premium for housing in walkable communities and accessible transit.
Due to the growing deficit of affordable housing in cities and walkable communities, low-income families and individuals have been pushed to the suburbs, further away from jobs and services and with fewer options for traveling without a vehicle. A study by the Brookings Institution found that residents in low-income suburban neighborhoods with access to transit can reach just four percent of metro area jobs with a 45-minute commute. In other words, many people without access to a car are also unable to get to work without a car, creating a cycle of poverty.
People dislocated by past highway projects are dislocated again
To reduce delays and increase speeds, decision- makers are willing to spend billions of dollars on new roadway lane-miles in an effort to solve congestion. This effort has failed repeatedly, and communities of color are paying the price. In the 100 largest urbanized areas in the U.S. the number of freeway lane miles grew by 30,511 between 1993 and 2017, an increase of 42 percent.
That rate of expansion significantly outstripped the 32 percent growth in population in those regions over the same time period, yet annual hours of delay (a standard measure of congestion) grew by a staggering 144 percent. In fact, congestion increased in every single area, including those with stagnant or declining populations.
This has not stopped urban areas from continuing to expand highways. In the last three decades, more than 200,000 people nationwide have lost their homes to federal road projects. The overwhelming majority of people forced from their homes are people of color.
It is likely true that, as transportation planners maintain, highway expansions are less destructive than building new highways through cities. However, because highways were historically placed in communities of color, expanding these same roadways can only result in displacing members of these communities again.
A focus on road expansion draws attention (and money) from repair needs in disadvantaged areas
Transportation for America has exhaustively covered how road and bridge repair needs are routinely neglected in favor of costly new road expansions, with no requirement that states prove they can care for the new assets long term. But these repair needs are also not uniformly neglected.
Poor road conditions are more likely to occur in communities of color than in affluent, white areas. A 2022 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that even when controlling for conditions that impact pavement wear (like climate and traffic density), interstates and highways are more likely to be in a poor state of repair in census tracts with higher percentages of people of color, higher family poverty rates, and in urban areas. For example, a road in a community of color has a 7 percent chance of being in good condition. A road in a community that is almost entirely white has a 22 percent chance of being in good condition.
A 2021 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that worn, rough pavement can decrease traffic safety and potentially lead to increased vehicle operations costs (such as increased fuel expenses and increased vehicle maintenance due to damage from crashes and collisions). However, as outlined above, the models that guide road spending heavily incentivize building new lane miles, which happens at the expense of basic roadway maintenance.
Each additional lane mile also adds to the nation’s ever-growing repair needs. In 2017, the backlog of existing roadways in need of maintenance was slated to cost the country $63 billion per year over the course of a 6-year long federal transportation bill.
That estimate didn’t include the cost of upkeep for roads in good and fair condition at the time—$169 billion per year. Between 2009 and 2017, 223,494 lane miles were added to the full public road network, and maintenance needs for just these miles amounted to $5 billion per year. Despite all the rhetoric about the 2021 infrastructure law being primarily about “fixing roads and bridges,” even if all of its funds were devoted to repair and maintenance—which is absolutely not the case—there would still be an enormous backlog.
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