February 6, 2024 BY Tiffany Smithin News, Webinars

Equity in Action: Forging Inclusive Vision Zero Safety Strategies

To achieve Vision Zero, we’ve got to recognize and address the disparities in who faces the greatest safety risks on our roadways, sidewalks and bikeways. Today, Black people are killed in crashes at a 30 percent higher rate compared to the white people and those living in low-income communities experience a fatality rate 35 percent higher than the national average. To change these grim outcomes, good intentions alone won’t suffice. Increasingly recognizing this truth, communities are exploring ways  to more intentionally and systematically address equity disparities in roadway safety. 

In our January 31st webinar, we heard from on-the-ground safety leaders about how they are taking concrete actions for more equitable and inclusive transportation safety work, including developing frameworks to operationalize and infuse equity into their everyday roadway safety efforts. This builds on Recommendation 2 (Developing a Framework to Operationalize Equity in Safety Planning) of our new resource, Prioritizing Health Equity in Vision Zero Planning.

Watch the recording of our one-hour discussion with panelists Vanitha Murthy, Diversity & Inclusion Committee Member for the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE); Christine Baker, Vision Zero Program Manager for Arlington County, Virginia; and Mica Amichai, Safe Streets Coordinator in Oakland, California. See below for our key takeaways. 

Develop Shared Language as Part of Your Equity Strategy

One of the reasons that reducing safety risk disparities can be challenging is that people are often at very different levels of experience, understanding or, even, acceptance of the inequities some communities face. Plus, demographics – and experiences –  often vary across communities, and these inequities are dynamic and layered in nature.

Recognizing this, more communities are working to develop shared language and understanding as a foundation to more equitable roadway safety work.For example, Oregon Metro developed a set of key equity related terms as part of their strategy to advance inclusive safety planning. Similarly, Jersey City’s Vision Zero Action Plan defined communities of concern in an effort to characterize the unique socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of their community. And in Nashville, they’ve developed and defined a list of vulnerable populations, using 13 indicators ranging from income to language proficiency. 

ITE recognizes the benefits of developing a glossary of key equity-related terms to cultivate shared language and understanding of equity priorities. Vanitha Murthy, of ITE, acknowledged that this effort was new for many, so they held a series of listening sessions to learn more about developing intentional common language and easily accessible references to inform transportation equity work & discussions. ITE formed a Common Terminology Subcommittee to lead the glossary development, which references various resources and existing definitions on equity-related terms from public institutions, advocates, and leaders from across the country. Along the way they incorporated input from ITE members to ensure it would be both an accessible & robust resource for their intended audience and considered the organization’s existing priorities and efforts.

Vanitha emphasized that while it was a challenging and time intensive process, the glossary development has been valuable in helping ITE members in the following ways: 

  • Raising awareness of key equity concepts and the nuances within transportation
  • Encouraging consistency in discussions around equity challenges in the transportation profession
  • Building a knowledge base that served as a resource for practitioners to continuously reference
  • Empowering more thoughtful action on what strategies or actions are helpful towards addressing inequities. 

Identify Equity Priorities Specific To Your Community Context

While identifying and mapping your community’s High Injury Network is considered a best practice, you’ll want to use an equity lens to more fully assess who is being disproportionately injured and killed and what underlying issues are relevant in those communities. Safety disparities do not exist in a vacuum nor are statistically random. Specifically, many BIPOC & low-income neighborhoods, due to a history of underinvestment in safety-centered infrastructure are often over riddled with major arterial roads built to speed through people who do not live there. 

And looking beyond the data, be sure to ask questions and develop your analysis in ways that also consider who is underrepresented in forums for community input and engagement? 

In Arlington County, Virginia, initial analysis in their 2021 Vision Zero plan did not paint a clear picture of the relationship between serious crashes and race and income levels, so they decided to strengthen their understanding of disparate safety risks by developing a far more robust and comprehensive Equity Analysis & Report

At first, they planned to utilize their MPO’s - Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) - data on equity indicators to shape their equity analysis, but found this regional data on disparities did not reflect the situation in Arlington, as the county is more affluent relative to the DC area. In response, they tailored MWCOG income threshold to capture neighborhoods with lower incomes in Arlington in order to paint a more nuanced picture of how inequities show up in their community.

Comparison of Arlington’s equity emphasis areas (left) with MWCOG’s equity emphasis areas (right). Limited information on disparities in Arlington shows up in the regional data, figure on the right.

In addition to police crash data, Arlington’s Vision Zero planners also analyzed data on driver origins, systemic risks, community risks, and hospital data to inform their work. They found that all crashes occured twice as often in their refined Equity Emphasis Areas, which include households with a median income of $50,000 or less. Many of these same neighborhoods were also underrepresented in requests for transportation-related safety changes. 

This important analysis effort helped Arlington to then identify potential root causes and opportunities to mitigate these inequities in safety. Christine Baker, the County’s Vision Zero Program Manager,  encouraged using strategies and setting up processes that bake in equity needs – finding ways to work equity considerations routinely into internal processes, rather than relying on champions to intervene for equity in regular decision-making. Working to operationalize equity into their everyday practices, Arlington is prioritizing the following steps:

  • Creating a system to strategically prioritize safety projects in historically underserved neighborhoods
  • Increasing the awareness and accessibility of Arlington’s community request system safety improvements so that all community members, particularly those underrepresented in community requests, are aware of the changes they can request on their streets. 
  • Being proactive in addressing infrastructure needs with an equity lens (see below)

Arlington County’s equity lens, used to help prioritize projects and think through unique infrastructure needs and to assess upcoming projects.

  • Tracking progress on the proportion of completed projects, community requests, outreach events occur within their designated Equity Emphasis Areas and to track reductions in vehicle speeds and serious or fatal crashes in Equity Emphasis Areas

Translate your Analysis Into Specific & Measurable Actions

Similarly to Arlington, the Oakland Department of Transportation developed a robust equity analysis for its roadway safety efforts. This includes a Geographic Equity Toolbox (see below for a still of the toolbox) that identifies “Priority Equity Communities,” based on  race, ethnicity, language, risk of displacement & gentrification, pollution exposure and other factors – all layered on the city’s High Injury Network, or HIN, (represented by the yellow lines). 

A snapshot of Oakland’s priority equity communities (those with the highest priority show up as darker shades of purple). These priority communities also overlap with the High Injury Network (shown as yellow lines) which often overlaps & intersects with areas showing up as darker shades of purple.

Building on this base of information, Oakland is taking specific and measurable actions to advance equitable safety outcomes through the following strategies: 

  • Incorporating Equity in Project Prioritization Metrics: Recognizing that 95% of the city’s HIN falls within Medium, High and Highest Priority Equity communities (highlighted in darker shades of purple in the figure above), the Geographic Equity Toolbox serves as the crux of their prioritization process. While there are many layers, some are weighted more, including race, ethnicity, and income levels. These are most important in not only determining where to scale safety projects, but across all programming, planning & implementation efforts. Oakland also prioritizes funding for Capital Improvement Projects based on an internal scoring system that weights equity significantly, at similar levels as general health and safety considerations. 

A snapshot summary of Oakland’s Project Prioritization Metrics that weighs equity impacts – along with health and safety impact – heaviest when designating funding for Capital Improvement projects.

  • Prioritizing community voices & relationships: In addition to the data-informed scoring system described above, City staff conduct targeted outreach to residents in High and Highest Priority Communities, to make sure their perspectives are reflected and included in the Capital Improvement Projects list. And while it can be challenging to balance community input with more data-informed approaches, Mica Amichai, Oakland’s Safe Streets Coordinator, emphasized that developing lasting relationships with community members has fostered community trust and understanding in what safety strategies are shown to be the most effective for the long-term. 
  • Evaluating both safety & equity implications: In developing the action plan for the Safe Oakland Streets Initiative, the DOT’s Department of Race & Equity evaluated how evidence-based, race conscious, systematically aware, institutionally focused, and equity advancing each strategy was. And after actions are adopted, they are evaluated using a scoring rubric to determine their safety and equity impacts.

A sample of the efficacy vs equity framework that Oakland DOT (CA) uses to analyze safety strategies based on existing research on safety & equity impacts and long-term potential of speed or risk reduction. Based on the analysis, strategies are ranked as high quality or low quality.

  • Tracking & measuring progress on equity priorities: Oakland DOT reports annually and publicly on progress made on equity-related projects. Since the start of their Safe Oakland Streets initiative in 2018, 68% of the 28 Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs) have been in high and highest priority equity communities and on the High Injury Network. And 77% of near-term projects, or quick builds, have been built in high and highest priority equity communities. 

This pie chart on the left shows the proportion of Oakland’s Capital Improvement Projects completed in High or Highest Priority Equity Communities, while the pie chart on the right shows the proportion of quick-build projects completed in high/highest priority equity communities in 2022.

  • Deprioritizing traffic stops for non-safety related violations: As with other strategies, enforcement was assessed (using the framework highlighted above) for its safety and equity impacts. Oakland’s evaluation found that enforcement for vehicle equipment violations, also known as pretext stops, have little-to-no proven roadway safety benefits, but yield high equity concerns, as they are more prone to racial bias. Recognizing the equity implications of using enforcement, Oakland DOT, in collaboration with the local police department, have made a concerted shift to deprioritize traffic stops for equipment violations. Instead, the city focuses enforcement on the most dangerous driving behaviors and locations and publishes stop data to track equity impacts. (Read more about our recommendations to consider the appropriate role of enforcement in your Vision Zero work.)

This graph shows the percentage of moving violations compared to equipment & non-moving violations in Oakland, CA.

Watch the recording of the full discussion to learn more about systematizing equitable safety planning.

Read about more strategies and examples in our new resource: Prioritizing Health Equity in Vision Zero Planning. And we encourage communities to consider deeper dives into equity planning – as Arlington and Oakland have both done. Safe Streets & Roads for All (SS4A) funding offers a timely opportunity to further this important work.

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