By Sarah Trent
Streets are among the most used public assets, but for many in Najari Smith’s Richmond, Calif., community, those streets don’t feel like the safe, accessible public infrastructure they’re meant to be.
In 2012, Smith founded Rich City Rides as a way of taking back the streets and building human infrastructure — connection, community, and safety in numbers — where the built infrastructure has failed them. The organization and their cooperatively-owned bike shop offer repair workshops, a youth earn-a-bike program, and weekly group rides.
Smith has heard his local government talk about safety in terms of fixing potholes or providing bike lanes. His community, on the other hand, talks about safety in terms of being targeted by the police, who might stop them for a minor infraction like riding without a helmet or lights, and then pat them down. There is a disconnect between his community – largely people of color in this working class city – and the officials charged with assuring everyone’s safety on the streets.
After years of working to make his voice heard by participating in various planning committees in his city and the larger Bay Area, Smith realized that sitting at those committees’ tables wasn’t enough. For years, he says, “I was allowed to weigh in on decisions that were already made. Don’t come to me with something you’ve already determined to be an issue and look to me to cosign it. That’s tokenizing. And it’s hard because you have this idea that if only I brought more people like me to the table, we’d have some equality.”
“I didn’t realize until a couple of years ago that my trouble wasn’t with there not being enough people like me at the table, the issue was that it wasn’t my table,” Smith adds. “I didn’t get to determine what was on the menu. I want to be able to say, ‘This is what I want, and I want you to cook it up for me, experts!’”
A newly published transportation planning framework provides one possible blueprint to build that table. From The Greenlining Institute, an Oakland-based multi-ethnic public policy, research and advocacy organization, the “Mobility Equity Framework” is a tool for transportation planners and community advocates to assess, compare, and make decisions on transportation projects together.
“You don’t have to be an expert to see that our transportation infrastructure is really failing,” says Hana Creger, lead author of the framework.
Transportation planning needs to prioritize people over cars, Creger says. It especially needs to consider the day-to-day needs of people over the spectacle of a showy piece of new infrastructure. In order to get to that point, she says, “we need to prioritize equity and community power in planning and decision-making, especially in communities that are marginalized.”
Creger points to recent debate over a new Bay Bridge crossing between San Francisco and Oakland as an example of how not to approach transportation planning. Citing “intolerable” traffic, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and East Bay Congressperson Mark DeSaulnier in December urged the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission to build a second crossing between the two cities.
It would be a spectacle, especially standing next to the recently completed eastern span of the existing Bay Bridge (which at $6.5 billion cost $6.25 billion more than original cost estimates). It might serve a car-centric vision for the Bay Area, “but what are the needs of people where this new freeway would be built?” Creger asks. “How would it impact their health and lives? The community knows best what meets their needs. Do they need a new BART line instead? Or bus routes? They should decide rather than policy-makers advocating for a new bridge crossing.”
The Mobility Equity Framework offers a method to assess and compare different transportation modes based on positive and negative impacts on low-income people. It’s applicable in rural and suburban environments as well as urban, the Greenlining Institute says.
It also advocates for community planning processes like participatory budgeting to ensure that planners are actually addressing community needs.
While there are many ways to budget with community input, “participatory budgeting” refers to a structured process by which community members can make recommendations and direct decisions on public spending and planning. Growing in popularity, participatory budgeting was first introduced in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and has since been used in at least 46 jurisdictions across the U.S. and Canada, including Chicago, New York City, Seattle, and the Bay Area cities of Vallejo and Oakland.
Late last year, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) opened up $25 million in planning grants to regional and local transportation authorities with the recommendation that projects include participatory budgeting as part of their planning grant proposals.
Participatory budgeting is valuable in particular because of its proven success engaging historically disenfranchised communities in planning processes. These communities disproportionately rely on public transportation, are most heavily impacted by toxic smog and other negative environmental factors, and have long been excluded from transportation planning. Without taking these community’s needs into account by engaging them in planning and decision-making processes, public infrastructure fails to serve those who need it most.
The Greenlining Institute hopes that the framework will be adopted in whole or in part by government entities and included in transportation planning guidelines across California to ensure transportation truly benefits all.
“I really do appreciate having smooth paved bike lanes to ride on,” Smith says. “But what I value more is knowing that people in the community feel like those lanes are for us, that those bike lanes are my bike lanes, and those trails are my trails. That they were made for me.”