Making equity matter in transportation
When he was Transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx says knew he was heading into a disadvantaged neighborhood. The highway cutting it off from the rest of the city was the tell.
Stephanie Jones still remembers a comment then-Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx made as the two rode through Orlando in 2014.
“We’re going into the Black neighborhoods now,” he observed, spurring Jones, then a senior counselor to the secretary and chief opportunities officer at the DOT, to wonder how he concluded that.
For Foxx, a former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., who grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood isolated from the city by the highways built around it, it was obvious: The highway cutting through the neighborhood signaled a socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood.
It was the urban planners’ version of a “tell” — this neighborhood, isolated from the rest of the city, would be where the disadvantaged live.
That reality helped shape Foxx’s four years at the helm of DOT, inspiring him to pay attention to how infrastructure could keep disadvantaged communities isolated from economic opportunity.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize all that he did to really set the table for a lot of conversations we’re having now,” Jones said of Foxx.
Now a new secretary, Pete Buttigieg, aims to pick up where Foxx left off, prioritizing equity in transportation in many of his public comments.
Conversation on race
Much has changed since that trip to Orlando: The nation is now in the midst of a complicated conversation about systemic racism, one that touches on how institutions such as law enforcement and the government have intentionally or unintentionally disadvantaged communities of color.
For Foxx, equity issues are deeply personal. He grew up in a neighborhood walled off from the city by highways — one so isolated that, as he told the liberal Center for American Progress in 2006, “I could not even get a pizza delivered to my house.”
As a child, “it didn’t register to me that I was occupying spaces that were designed for people like me,” he said in a recent interview. It was only later, as he began to learn about the history of infrastructure and redlining and urban renewal, that he realized that Black and low-income populations were often sacrificial lambs for decision-makers who craved the growth and interconnectedness of an interstate highway system.
Black and low-income populations were less likely to fight back or to organize, and some of the highways were planned before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “Many of these communities lacked a voice at the table,” Foxx said.
“I still don’t think our system has fully recognized those wrongs,” he said, saying many generations lost their houses and thus their greatest source of wealth. “It’s hard to capture in words the extent of the devastation.”
Correcting it won’t be easy.
“These divisions in our physical infrastructure happened a project at a time,” he said. “And undoing it is going to happen a project at a time.”
While Foxx was secretary, equity was a deciding factor in the decision to name Columbus, Ohio, the winner of the $40 million Smart City Challenge in 2016. The city won after setting a goal of reducing infant mortality through better transportation services that helped make it easier for expectant mothers to visit doctors.
Foxx fought a state decision to close and limit hours at driver’s license offices in Alabama by using Title VI, a provision in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to argue it had a disparate and adverse impact on Black residents. Ultimately, the state reopened these offices, doubling and in some cases tripling the operating hours in most of the affected counties.
Foxx’s department also approved federal dollars to cap a freeway in Pittsburgh, reconnecting a neighborhood to the rest of the city. The $19 million project, when complete as soon as November, will include a 3-acre public open space above the highway.
At the time, the decisions received some news coverage and helped change the thinking in the agency. But now, after a summer of Black Lives Matters protests and a national dialogue on systemic racism, Foxx, now the chief policy officer at rideshare service Lyft, admits there’s a more widespread acknowledgment of the issues he worked hard to raise.
“We were probably a beat earlier than the national conversation was ready for,” he said.
Part of the change is Congress. With a Republican Congress reluctant to give then-President Barack Obama a win, Foxx found himself largely working to effect change within the authorities of his department. Now he’s hopeful Congress can be a partner in pushing equity, particularly through the infrastructure bill now in development.
Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Ill., also said Foxx was somewhat hamstrung by the GOP Congress. “The political realities were stacked against him,” he said, but he credited Foxx for using administrative powers to effect change.
Buttigieg, he said, will have the benefit of a Democratic caucus supportive of the administration’s equity push as well as a national conversation that better understands issues of equity.
“We need to be bold,” García said of Congress. “We need to set a high water mark in terms of what we’re going to do. We should not be afraid of the slim majority in the Senate.”
Jones said one difference is that the conversations have become easier to have.
“One of the points of systemic racism is it’s set up so you don’t have to do anything to perpetuate it,” she said. “Well-meaning and decent people end up perpetuating the problem because it’s so ingrained. The only way to stop it is to disrupt it.”
Foxx said a key part of instituting change will be “teaching the system to do things differently.”
But a massive infrastructure investment, he said, could provide a window of opportunity, giving the federal government the chance, he said, “to take into account all of these things we talked about.”
Marc Scribner, a senior transportation policy analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, said he worries that some of the themes of the current conversation may be based on faulty assumptions.
For example, much of the debate has centered on a push for transit, but he said transit doesn’t always improve access. Citing data from a 2018 University of Minnesota study titled Access Across America, he said that in the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, “you could access 40 percent of metro area jobs within 30 minutes by car. Compare that to 8 percent of jobs accessible via one hour of transit.”
“The focus has been on these inflexible transportation technologies that can’t move people very fast to very many places,” he said, adding that the Biden administration “may want to reexamine their prior biases of thinking transit is a sort of silver bullet to equity when the data don’t really support that.”
Sam Fulwood III, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said while Foxx deserves credit for talking about equity in transportation, it took a confluence of issues, including the death of George Floyd, COVID-19 and the political landscape, to change the conversation.
But talk doesn’t always bring action, he cautioned, and policy change doesn’t necessarily create an attitude change.
Still, he acknowledges, “Joe Biden did something really remarkable. He talked about structural racism and white superiority from the White House. … That is acknowledgment at the highest levels of our government that we need an attitudinal change about race in the country.”