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Study: Civil Rights Protections Lack Teeth When It Comes to Transportation

American transportation policy has a woeful history of civil rights abuses. For a good part of the 1950s and '60s, using highways to level black neighborhoods was a matter of national policy. And the white flight and segregation that those highways engendered have left a legacy that continues to shape much of America in the present day.

Wisconsin is sinking billions into highway expansion projects while city transit service languishes. Photo: Milwaukee Business Journal

Out of those chapters in American history came a few key protections. Laws like Title VI of the Civil Rights Act aim to safeguard people from discrimination by federally-funded agencies.

But are these protections shaping a fairer transportation system? Not according to a recent study by researchers at the University of California-Davis published in the Journal of Transport Geography [PDF]. Authors Alex Karner and Deb Niemeier say that most metropolitan planning agencies are simply going through the motions, not making equitable decisions.

Right now, "basically anything goes," Karner told Streetsblog. "You can make anything look good from a civil rights perspective" under current law, using conventional metrics to demonstrate compliance.

As a last resort, civil rights activists can use federal laws to take action in court. Black and Hispanic community groups in Wisconsin, for instance, are suing the state Department of Transportation under the National Environmental Policy Act for shortchanging transit with the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange project, outside Milwaukee. But Karner and Niemeier say the whole federally-required "equity analysis" process needs to be reformed if it is to have a meaningful effect on decision making.

Here's what Karner and Niemeier recommend to give civil rights protections some real teeth when it comes to transportation investments:

1. Perform Equity Analyses Early in the Planning Process

Metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs, are agencies that play a big role in distributing federal transportation dollars. They generally decide what they want to do first, then spend a lot of time developing plans, and then at the very end perform the required equity analysis.

"After all the major planning decisions have been made, it’s a pro forma thing," says Karner. "They just kind of check a box."

Karner and Niemeier say in order to meaningful advance equity, it's important to consider who will be affected very early in the planning stages or -- better yet -- in the project selection phase.

2. Planning Agencies Need to Understand People, Not Just Geographic Areas

Most MPOs begin equity analyses by examining "communities of concern," or geographic areas that have a concentration of low-income or minority households. This is less than ideal, Karner says, because poor people and people of color living outside those areas are ignored for the purposes of the study.

Additionally, MPOs do not typically consider race as a factor in transportation modeling, even though they track a range of demographic characteristics like household income.

3. Positive Projections Obscure Current Inequalities

Planning processes require agencies to project decades into the future, to predict things like air quality impacts and traffic volumes. But predicting what will happen 20 years from now requires a great deal of guesswork, and assumptions made by planners about the long run can mask real effects in the present day.

"The forecasts always show things getting better," said Karner. "In these conditions it’s very easy to show that it’s equitable -- everyone is better off."

What advocates for low-income and minority groups in the Bay Area have requested is that planning agencies take a closer look at current and near-term conditions, which can offer more meaningful insights.

The Federal Role

Karner said he isn't optimistic that MPOs will reform these practices on their own. Many MPOs fear that changing the way they measure equity could make them vulnerable to litigation, if the new method shows past investments were distributed unfairly.

A more hopeful scenario is that U.S. DOT will become "more prescriptive" with the way it handles the issue, Karner says. Currently, the federal government forbids discrimination but is extremely vague about what transportation agencies must do to avoid running afoul of the law. The Federal Highway Administration, for example, does not specify how agencies "should assess the incidence of benefit and burden" with respect to protected groups.

The result is that, in practice, any equity analysis completed by MPOs "is considered sufficient for compliance," Karner and Niemeier write.

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