by Nora Hanak
We were pleased to host a conversation in November 2020 aimed at better understanding and addressing transportation equity in Latino Communities in the U.S. Our knowledgeable and engaging presenters were Amanda Merck, of Salud America!, the Latino health equity promotion program at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio, and James Rojas, a national expert on how Latinos use and transform U.S. streets. Also founder of Place It!, a design – and participation-based urban planning practice.
Throughout the webinar we learned the importance of addressing transportation inequities in Latino and low-income communities. According to research cited in the report, Latinos in the U.S. are more likely to not have a vehicle than their white peers, (12% vs. 6.5%), and Latinos in urban areas are much more likely to rely on public transit (27% daily/weekly usage vs. 14%). At the same time, Latino communities often encounter built-in inequalities in the physical environment, including greater distances to essential destinations, unsafe streets, unsafe walking and biking environments, and limited access to reliable and frequent public transit. All of these factors, combined with barriers to affordable housing and food-security, make it more difficult for Latino and low-income communities to lead healthy lives.
Led by Salud America!, Merck and Rojas collaborated with a workgroup to develop an in-depth report and set of recommendations on how to build more equitable, healthy, and inclusive communities and transportation networks. We encourage readers to check out “Innovations in Transportation Equity for Latino Communities: Voices for Healthy Kids Grant Summary Report” and “How to Address Transportation Equity for Latino Communities: Salud America!’s Workgroup Recommendations.” And you can watch a recording of the 1-hour webinar presentation here.
Systemic Problems Need Systemic Solutions
The workgroup identified the following broad-based transportation-related issues that impact Latino health:
- The fields of land-use, planning, transportation, and transit lack racial and gender diversity, resulting in ethnocentric policies, practices, regulations, plans, and investments.
- Latino and low-income community displacement is an often unmeasured and overlooked consequence of land-use, planning, transportation, and transit policies, plans, and investments.
- Land-use, planning, transportation, and transit policies, practices, regulations, plans, and investments too often promote an auto-centric status quo.
- Land-use, planning, transportation, transit, and public health departments are siloed in most public agencies, which limits consultation between agency professionals in these fields and disconnects them from sustained and meaningful community engagement.
The report recognizes that a long history of systematic racial injustices contributes to these issues, which, in turn, contributes to poor health among Latino and low-income populations today. Acknowledging that individual improvements can only go so far (examples: improving individual transit connections, as well as walking and biking conditions, and building complete streets piece by piece), the report’s recommendations focus on the need for systemic changes to reverse decades of unjust practices and policies.
In the webinar, Merck calls out the importance of focusing on upstream change and taking a Safe Systems approach, which underlies true Vision Zero work. “The whole premise of Vision Zero is in changing the systems, going upstream,” she explains, noting that more meaningful, systemic change will happen by concentrating on policy change, rather than simply trying to influence individual behavior.
Merck shares that “there is a lot of lip service to safety, but there is not a lot of accountability…funding isn’t connected to failure or success to meet safety targets.” Taking a more upstream approach focuses on changing the institutionalized systems and environmental factors that influence behavior. In the case of traffic safety, for example, policy changes are likely needed to lower speeds and make safe, inviting space for non-motorized travel — community-wide, not just on a spot-basis.
Uniting Behind Strategies for Change
[pullquote]Underlying these calls to action are some underlying needs that those of us working in the Vision Zero space should particularly heed.[/pullquote] The report lays out clear and feasible recommendations for systems changes to promote safe, healthy, accessible transportation for Latino communities in the U.S. Underlying these calls to action are some underlying needs that those of us working in the Vision Zero space should particularly heed. These include, first, the need for advocates and decision-makers to better understand the experiences, needs, and aspirations of Latino and low-income communities, and their travel patterns and transportation expenses relative to access to opportunity. And second, agencies and policymakers need to develop and use better metrics to determine impact, establish targets, measure performance, and score and prioritize projects aimed at improving transportation for Latinos.
The report recommends priority focus actions, grouped within five broader categories: Community Engagement and Empowerment; Planning and Design; Funding & Investment; Policy & Regulations; and Land Use. Each of the calls for action, listed below, includes greater detail and examples in the report, which we encourage reading:
- Better engage Latino communities in the planning process and policymaking.
- Prevent biased decision-making through more rigorous and inclusive community engagement, trainings, and multidisciplinary planning approaches, informed by the needs of Latino and underserved communities.
- Update the community impact assessment process.
- Develop Latino design guidelines, planning principles, and development standards that accommodate Latinos’ approaches to placemaking and prioritize access over mobility.
- Integrate diverse measures for healthy, inclusive, and accessible communities into outcome evaluation of various strategic, comprehensive, and long-range plans.
- Funding and resources should put people first.
- Ensure local, regional, and state governments and transit agencies have the knowledge, tools, and discretionary power to adopt and implement more equitable laws and policies with consideration for health and equity.
- Better understand and account for Latino needs in land-use policies.
- Revise land use codes to be inclusive of Latino contributions and to prioritize mixed-income, mixed-use and transit-accessible development while preventing displacement.
Sensory Rich Mobility & Tactile Community Engagement in Action
The webinar also featured a presentation from James Rojas emphasizing that one does not need to be a planning professional to make a difference in the urban design of a neighborhood. He speaks of “Walking While Latino” as a form of sensory-rich mobility in which Latinos are transforming mobility patterns in the U.S. through their sensory experiences.
In Latino communities, Rojas explains, Latinos have taken matters into their own hands, creating their own environments and transforming the scale and functionality of streets. Community members transform alleyways with vibrant murals and shopping activity. Vendors line the streets with activity, including pop-up mercados at busy bus-stops. These are examples of ways Latinos transform their public spaces, promote walking in an auto-oriented landscape, provide access to job opportunities, and also connect communities through social interaction.
Rojas explains that in Latino neighborhoods, “streets act like plazas” to promote social interaction and “front yards act like courtyards to make people think about spaces in different ways.” Speaking from his experience engaging with Latino communities, Rojas illustrates how culture and immigration are transforming the American front yard and landscape.
In his work with PLACE IT!, Rojas offers participation-based urban planning, including interactive and model-building workshops that encourage community engagement in shaping their own neighborhoods. Through this interactive process, participants are able to demonstrate their ideas in physical form, often generating plans and recommendations for elected officials, municipalities, and nonprofit groups. Read more about Rojas’ work in this article, written by Amanda Merck.
Rojas notes that “it is important to realize that we need to use our bodies in designing these kinds of sensory rich spaces.” Interactive engagement creates opportunities for communities to envision their own plans and aspirations for the future of their neighborhoods. Rojas reinforces the fact that communities, especially communities of color, plan everyday both informally and formally. In order to bring value to planning, we must uplift people’s stories to turn their ideas into tangible plans. This includes using our senses to make the field of planning inclusive by engaging, actively listening, and bringing all voices to the table.
Challenging the Status Quo – Why is this important?
As explained throughout the report, Latino and low-income populations have been disproportionately impacted by “past and present policies, practices, and projects that have led to auto-centric and racially/economically segregated status quo.”
Let’s look back to the facts: Latinos in the U.S. are more likely to not own a vehicle than their white peers, and Latinos in urban areas are more likely to rely on public transit. In addition, resources related to land use, transportation, development, and planning have not been equitably distributed, disadvantaging Latino communities, including their health. With a lack of safe and reliable mobility options, families bear the burden of transportation, commonly the second largest household expense, and often cannot afford to invest in longer-term health- and wealth-promoting activities.
And now, COVID-19 has accentuated even more starkly the connection between health disparities and such transportation/land use-related systemic injustices. Data in the report shows that job losses are impacting Latinos at higher rates than non-Latinos; estimates suggest a 31% unemployment rate for Latinos.
From high rates of unemployment to social distancing protocol, it is essential for planners to engage and empower the voices of Latino and low-income communities in planning processes to move towards more equitable, healthy, and inclusive public spaces. The report urges, looking ahead: “As city leaders develop COVID recovery plans, they must challenge the discriminatory status quo, consider transportation expenses, and shift toward compact, racially/economically mixed development.” We encourage Vision Zero-focused leaders — both in the public sector and community-based groups — to join in this important work.
Thank you to Amanda Merck and James Rojas for sharing their time and knowledge, and to all of the workgroup members who developed this important resource.