Measuring What Can’t Be Measured

Not all critical transportation goals lend themselves to quantitative analysis. Despite my background in transportation equity analysis, or because of it, I believe equity is among this group of vital yet challenging goals. 

Equity is a pluralistic concept that can be interpreted differently in various contexts. The Executive Order on Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations (EO 12898) and subsequent guidance from the USDOT built upon Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to define equity in the transportation context. Nearly thirty years after EO 12898, there is greater clarity around what “equity” means. Equity is behaviors, actions, concepts, beliefs, and policies that result in full human rights for those furthest from justice. Equitable outcomes meet everyone’s needs allowing them to participate fully in society. We will achieve equity when aspects of a person’s identity or group membership – such as race, ethnicity, income, age, ability, gender, and language – no longer predict their life’s outcomes.

Given the industry’s direction towards data-driven, performance-based decision making, it is necessary to evaluate equity along with other transportation goals if we intend to prioritize it in planning and investment decisions. At present, USDOT and others across the industry are working to establish standards to measure and evaluate equity quantitatively. To this point, a year ago, the USDOT put out a request for information to the public for data and assessment tools to analyze transportation equity.

Analyzing equity most commonly looks like developing demographic maps and assessing the geographical distribution of population groups. From here, “equity areas” or “priority communities” may be delineated and impacts of investments in those areas may become a part of planning discussions. There are limitations to this analysis method, but beyond that, there are limitations to relying on analysis to understand equity issues.  

Equity itself cannot be measured. Rather, transportation system outcomes, such as accessibility and safety, can be examined within an equity framework to measure disparities in these outcomes. As we monitor transportation system outcomes, rather than setting arbitrary performance targets, we can evaluate improvements for the most disadvantaged and decreases in disproportionate impacts. 

Additionally, there is not a finish line for equity. Equity cannot be “accomplished” in one, or even ten, planning cycles. It took centuries to create and perpetuate inequalities, and our systems are built to uphold these inequalities. Our status quo is not neutral – a history of unjust and racist policies shaped how we allocate benefits and harms today. Achieving equitable outcomes requires continual effort to address the cumulative impacts of past decisions that compound into present-day effects. 

To evaluate equity, we must consider not only the present circumstances, but also the ways past actions manifests in disparate outcomes today that harm people who have been excluded, marginalized, or have otherwise faced discrimination from our transportation policies and practices. Our current approaches to equity analysis neglect the temporal component of equity. 

To realize an equitable transportation system, we must take the time, effort, and resources to understand and document how past discriminatory policies and investment decisions have led to an unequal landscape, identify who is experiencing these results, and the extent of their impact. A part of this analysis is quantitative, involving Census data, spatial demographic analysis, and modeling of system impacts. Another part is far from it. 

Analyses of current conditions need to be grounded in the histories of the places they evaluate and the stories of the communities that are there or were there. We can start by asking questions such as:

  • What major projects have shaped the community? 
  • What people were impacted by transportation projects? And were the impacts different based on race, income, ability, or other demographic factors?
  • Who has been excluded or marginalized in decisions for this area?
  • How does this history effect the current conditions, the decisions being made, and the impacts on residents?

An equity analysis is a part of a more comprehensive equity framework that directs policies, practices, and programs towards equitable outcomes. An equity analysis should not be expected to measure equity and answer the question “is this equitable.” It should be integrated into our processes to identify disparities and help develop thoughtful actions to address these disparities. Equity analysis should be used with historical information to dismantle embedded inequities in our transportation system. In the end, full participation in society is a product of lived experiences, and even the most advanced analysis cannot reveal someone’s lived experience, therefore, equity analysis must be used in concert with the stories of the communities that we are planning for and designing in.

Stefanie Brodie is a senior researcher who specializes in transportation planning and policy. She believes that research should help public agencies make informed decisions and focused her doctoral and postdoctoral research on performance-based decision making in transportation, especially how to incorporate equity and other social sustainability considerations into decision making. Stefanie completed her BS in Civil Engineering at the University of Maryland and obtained a Master’s of City and Regional Planning and a MS and PhD in Civil Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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