Social Justice and Transportation

Last week I received an announcement for the Cascade Policy Institute’s Wheels to Wealth conference, subtitled “the role of auto ownership in reducing poverty”. My immediate reaction was that owning a car might be more of a financial burden than a benefit for a low income person, but I also thought about my own situation. I’ve eschewed using a car in my daily routine, mostly as a statement of my own beliefs about mobility, but also as a way of reducing expenses.

But there’s no question that a car offers choices.

And I can’t kid myself that I’m without choices. I went mostly car-free to avoid adding a third car to our household when our teen got his license. If I really need a car, there’s one available. Worst case I just rent one from Flexcar.

What would it be like to not have access to a car at all? While I’m proud that our transit system is not just the ‘last resort’ that it is for the carless in many cities (we have a good share of ‘choice riders’) how good a job have we done in making sure our investments are balanced to serve the needs of lower income individuals? Does the hub-and-spoke nature of our system focused on downtown disadvantage someone who needs to get from suburb to suburb for a job? Do we have social justice metrics to assess these kinds of issues (I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that in two+ years of TPAC meetings)?

Serendipitiously I got another notice, this one for a seminar at PSU next week (Oct 14) titled “A Social Justice Perspective on Transportation Policies: Comparing Distributions of Welfare”. Unfortunately I have a conflict that day, but I plan to watch the archive of the webcast.

What do other people think? Do our transportation system design choices distribute benefits justly? How could we measure? How could we do better?

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