As the city of Boston prepares to develop a new transportation plan — aptly called a Mobility Action Plan — it has a fresh opportunity to consider all of the city’s residents in a broad context. The new plan should take into consideration the city’s most vulnerable populations — including the poor, the elderly and the mobility impaired. The plan should provide equitable access to the essential components of urban life; employment opportunities, fair housing, recreation, medicine, education and affordable, nutritious food shopping. In short, the city of Boston must ensure that this new mobility plan, which will guide transportation investments for the next 50 years, is sustainable by providing an excellent quality of life for all of residents.
Most people think of sustainability in an environmental context. But we must also strive for economic and social sustainability.
Economic sustainability requires that a transportation plan enable economic opportunity on an equitable basis for all residents. Our transportation system is the lifeblood of our economy, and must foster and enable economic growth for all stakeholders.
Social sustainability is at the heart of any transportation plan. Providing access to opportunity and improving quality of life are the foundations of good transportation policy. Making sure that each resident has equal access to these critical requirements is the task at hand.
Mobility For Equitability
At a recent lecture sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects, John A. Powell, professor of law, African American studies and ethnic studies, and executive director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley, highlighted just how hard it its to create an equitable transportation system. Pointing to the construction of the interstate highway system as a failed transportation policy, Powell observed that the program was intended to provide economic opportunity for all. But the results had the opposite effect: the interstate highway system spurred disinvestment in our cities, leaving the most vulnerable populations to fend for themselves, while wealthier, predominately white families moved to the suburbs.
Today, our poorest and most vulnerable populations have the least equitable transportation. They travel the furthest distances to employment. They are the least likely to have a car and the least likely to have access to rapid transit systems. And they are the most pressed for time, often working multiple jobs. As a result, these residents have less time to exercise, less time to do homework with their children, and less time to contribute to their communities.
Powell argues persuasively that our policies should focus less on our intentions and more on results. We intend for our policies to benefit everyone. But how do we ensure that they do benefit everyone? For instance, one result-based outcome of our transportation plan might be to ensure that all city residents can get to downtown for work within 30 minutes. Today, wealthier neighborhoods like Beacon Hill and Back Bay can meet this goal. Poorer neighborhoods such as Mattapan and Roxbury cannot. In this sense, the new Mobility Action Plan must strive to achieve results based on outcomes that are truly equitable — and thus socially sustainable.
Mobility For Public Health
In addition, research being conducted by John Auerbach, professor of practice and director of the Institute on Urban Health Research Department at Northeastern University points to another key outcome of the Mobility Action Plan: public health. Public health is at the core of social sustainability.
Auerbach’s research shows that 21 percent of Boston’s adult’s are obese. Hypertension and diabetes are most prevalent in residents who identify as black or Hispanic, well as for those earning less than $35,000 per year. These are clearly troubling trends that must be reversed.
The bottom line is our transportation policies do not support healthy choices. From a transportation policy perspective, the solution to our public health problem is less sprawl more walking and biking, and better public transportation. In addition, our transportation system should make it easier to buy fresh produce than it is to buy a hamburger at a drive-through.
The city of Boston is at a crossroads. As we prepare for the next 50 years of transportation policy, we must start by identifying what we need our transportation system to provide for us in the future and not on what the transportation system is today. We need to focus on outcomes that are equitable for all of the city’s residents. These sustainable outcomes must focus on equity in access to economic opportunity, fair housing, recreation, medicine, education and affordable, nutritious food. We must look towards measurable public health outcomes that demonstrate reduced incidence of diabetes and hypertension. In short, we must develop a transportation system that focuses on results to improve the lives of all the city’s residents.