How L.A.'s Community Organizers are Mobilizing a Transportation Equity Agenda for All

By Vanessa Carter and Madeline Wander | February 13, 2014

L.A. in Motion, a series exploring transportation equity in Los Angeles, is produced in partnership with the California Endowment.


This article is based on a longer report "An Agenda for Equity: A Framework for Building a Just Transportation System in Los Angeles County" by Vanessa Carter, Manuel Pastor, and Madeline Wander.


Los Angeles: Reluctant No More

A leader in California's urban planning scene, Bill Fulton, once characterized Los Angeles as a "reluctant metropolis" -- unwilling to accept that sprawl had hit a wall, unable to see common connections between neighborhoods to create a cohesive region, and unlikely to overcome the social disparities and racial tension that twice produced civil unrest.

But as we witness a paradigm shift in how Angelenos move through the region, how Angelenos understand the interconnectedness of our region, how Angelenos are unifying across difference to fight for a more equitable region, we think that Los Angeles may be reluctant no more.

Talking with 40 advocates and organizations across the Southland, we have seen signs that the once disconnected and dystopian L.A. is fading away. With a new vigor, social justice organizers, policy advocates, government agencies, business leaders, and others are engaging in how to move us more sustainably through our region and, at the same time, how to swell the numbers of those supporting transportation equity. We call that last part movement building.

Last week, as part of this L.A. in Motion series, our director Manuel Pastor explained the "Just Growth" frame -- one that is big enough to encompass L.A.'s wide-ranging transportation equity movement -- asserting that social inclusion is the key to achieving economic prosperity and sustainability.

This week, we run through the agenda for transportation equity being brought together by our region's social-movement leaders. How is transportation equity defined? What does it entail? Who are some of the organizations innovating in the different niches of this work? If these questions pique your interest, read on.


What do we mean by Transportation Equity?

As we look ahead to upcoming articles in this series, it may be useful to define what we mean by "transportation equity." Indeed, this is a difficult concept to define, as it must capture a broad range of issues facing the Southland -- from transit-oriented development to bicycles to goods movement (we dig into these and some other issues a little deeper below).

But we believe the following definition does just this by highlighting outcomes (both benefits and burdens for our communities) as well as the importance of public participation in planning processes. In our view, transportation equity means:

  • Equitable access to quality, affordable transportation options and so employment, services, amenities, and cultural destinations;
  • Shared distribution of the benefits and burdens of transportation systems and investments, such as jobs and pollution, respectively; and
  • Partnership in the planning process that results in shared decision-making and more equitable outcomes for disadvantaged communities while strengthening the entire region.

In short: people matter.


Photo: Metro Library and Archive/Flickr/Creative Commons.

An Agenda for Transportation Equity in Los Angeles

Of course, making sure that we put people first means that we need to consider a wide range of things that also count in the overall calculus of achieving transportation equity in L.A. Below we outline specific areas that make up our region's transportation equity agenda -- as we see it -- and how social-movement organizers are leading the charge.

Two caveats: First, while we separate these concerns for the sake of clarity, the threads of this work are inherently intertwined, and we think that they should be treated as such. Second, there are so many excellent examples of campaigns and organizing in each of these areas that we could not possibly include them all. (So we ask for your grace and understanding!)

Without further ado, the top six issue areas that matter for a transportation equity agenda in L.A.:

  1. Money Matters: Disproportionately financing highways, failing to increase the gas tax, and continuing to subsidize cars (through practices like free parking) leaves alternative transportation modes, and those who depend on them, with few resources. So getting the financing mechanisms right matter for both increasing our region's sustainability and making it more inclusive, too.

    Amid dwindling funding from the federal and state governments, L.A. has actually increased opportunities for those without cars -- predominantly low-income people of color -- by becoming a "self-help region." That is, due to voter-approved propositions like Measure R, which organizations like MoveLA campaigned for, 67 percent of the resources of the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) come from local sources, like taxes.

  2. Mobility Matters: Disparities exist not only between motorists and non-motorists, but also between train users and bus riders, bus riders and cyclists, cyclists and pedestrians. Ensuring mobility for all Angelenos is essential to providing equal access to opportunities.

    In L.A., organizations like the Bus Riders' Union, the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, Safe Routes to School National Partnership, Multicultural Communities for Mobility, and others are working to level the playing field by holding Metro and other public agencies accountable to devoting resources to support bus line development, bike lanes, and better sidewalks -- particularly in low-income communities with less access to cars.

  3. Housing and Development Matter: Transit-oriented development (TOD) -- that is, housing and commercial development near and around transit -- can get people out of their cars and onto transit by locating housing and jobs closer to bus stops and train stations. It can also increase real estate values, which has the potential to displace low-income residents and small business owners.

    In response, coalitions like Alliance for Community Transit-L.A. (ACT-LA) -- including organizations like East L.A. Community Coalition (ELACC), Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA), Trust South L.A., and many others -- are working to implement anti-displacement policies and leverage TOD investments in order to benefit existing residents through the construction and preservation of affordable housing.

  4. Health and Environment Matter: Auto-centric development has led to dangerous levels of pollution and sedentary lifestyles threatening our environment and public health, and much evidence shows that low-income communities suffer the most. So, paying attention to not just mobility but what those modes of transportation do to our environmental and community health matters.

    In response, groups like the L.A. Collaborative for Environmental Health and Justice are working to lift up the issue and reduce the pollution associated with highways in our most vulnerable communities. Other groups like Community Health Councils are working to address problems, like obesity, through infrastructure and programs that encourage active transportation, like walking and biking.

  5. Jobs Matter: As one of the leading regions in making transportation investments, L.A. has the potential to bring good, green jobs to the region, with employment possibilities ranging from manufacturing to construction to operations. And the employment opportunities are not to be missed -- especially as our economy recovers!

    An example of this type of effort is that of the L.A. Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), which has figured out a way to leverage transit dollars to create jobs in the neighborhoods that need them the most, by inserting incentives for domestic hiring and building domestic manufacturing facilities into Metro's procurement policy.

  6. Goods Movement Matters: Toxic diesel emissions from trucks, railcars, and ships moving goods create particularly harmful pollution. Low-income communities of color disproportionately live adjacent to freight facilities.

    The good news is that innovative environmental-labor coalitions are working to lessen health, environmental, and other burdens, while improving workforce conditions. Alliances such as the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports and THE Impact Project are paving the way to address these inequities through innovative research, organizing, and policies (such as the Clean Trucks Program at the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach).

We're not just singing kumbaya, however; bringing together this many strands of work is complicated. Tension that keep this agenda from being integrated and adopted include the high degree of jurisdictional complexity in our multi-layered region, the depth of relationship required to foster genuine community participation in government plans, and identification of what "equity" means at the planning and implementation level. It means building capacity within government and community organizations to move the work, it means advocates and businesses partnering in the difficult work of urban development, and it ultimately means moving from having conversations to making change.

Photo: Doran/Flickr/Creative Commons


What's Next: A Shared Framework for Movement and Action, Together

What this confluence of activity across sectors and communities adds up to is a broader movement for transportation equity, as part of a vision for just growth -- investing with equity to build a better, stronger region for the long-haul.

And what these advocates and organizers understand -- due to the region's rich social-justice movement building legacy -- is that now is a crucial time for L.A. to invest with equity in transportation. After all, it's not often that a region's residents tax themselves to put $40 billion into a transportation build-out over the next 30 years.

These key investments will impact how people can easily and affordably get to their jobs, as well as determine the safety and healthfulness of their surroundings. The ripple effects of transportation equity will be broad and long-lasting for the whole region. Indeed, transportation may be where we can get the most equity bang for our tax-dollar buck.

As the collective voices in this L.A. in Motion series will show in the weeks ahead, it's the movement-building organizations that are tackling the complexities of what real participation looks like, who holds what power, defining metrics that matter for equity, building out government and community capacity, partnering with business -- to infuse equity into transportation planning.

If this framework for just growth, the agenda for L.A.'s transportation equity movement, and the inspiring stories from our communities can contribute to strengthening our region's ability to establish an innovative and inclusive transportation system, we've done our job.

__________


References:
See our report "An Agenda for Equity: A Framework for Building a Just Transportation System in Los Angeles County" for a full list of references that inform this article.

Benner, Chris, and Manuel Pastor. 2012. Just Growth: Inclusion and Prosperity in America's Metropolitan Regions. New York, NY: Routledge.

Brenman, Marc, and Thomas W. Sanchez. 2012. Planning as If People Matter: Governing for Social Equity. Washington D.C.: Island Press.

Fulton, William. 1997. The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Pastor, Manuel, and Michele Prichard. 2012. "L.A. Rising: The 1992 Civil Unrest, the Arc of Social Justice Organizing, and the Lessons for Today's Movement Building." Los Angeles, CA: The USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.


About the Authors:
Vanessa Carter is a Senior Data Analyst with the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.

Madeline Wander is a Data Analyst with the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.

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