We Need Antiracism in Transportation

Transportation professionals need to better address the relationship between transportation and racism.

Transportation professionals have taken an important step by beginning to talk a lot about equity. Recently, departments of transportation have created new positions of Equity Directors, promising scholars have written dissertations on equity, and our annual international conference for tens of thousands of transportation professionals held by the Transportation Research board convened a theme including an “equitable future” in 2019. Important work. But this isn’t enough.

Racial equity is one type of equity that is often considered and analyzed by transportation planners and advocates. We should be specific and intentional about what types of equity are being addressed and make sure that race is one of them. Transportation scholars often analyze racial demographics; discuss gentrification; and sometimes even conduct in-depth equity analyses. However, none of these actions is the same as acknowledging and fighting against racism with antiracism.

Fighting racism is hard. The gap between policy that is “not racist” and policy that is “antiracist” is a topic of frequent (and vigorous) debate in the social sciences and humanities, as well as in activist circles. Have transportation professionals and institutions thought much about what it takes to move from one to the other? Even professionals explicitly in the field of racial equity seem sometimes at a loss. One of the most powerful and sad statements I have ever heard on addressing racism in Atlanta came from Nathaniel Smith, the founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity – an organization that promotes racial equity and helped Atlanta’s mass transit system (MARTA) expand for the first time in 40 years. He was speaking on a panel on transportation and equity at the then brand new National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and was asked by an audience member how to address the racism keeping public transit underfunded in the Atlanta region. His answer was to keep trying to fight it, but that ultimately, we may need to wait for new generation to rise up in order to see change.

It’s hard not to respect Smith’s cynical honesty. Coupled with the unending and repetitive violence against African Americans on streets and sidewalks, however, it offers little optimism for change. Yet Smith’s cynicism also implies hope, especially when recalled in the context of today’s protests. Many, if not most, of the people raising their voices in the streets are, after all, the next generation of policy makers – if we give them the opportunities and demonstrate that the current generation of transportation professionals has crossed the policy bridge to anti-racism.

In the field of transportation, we can take individual and personal action but also have the power to take institutional and structural action. We must continue to address equity considerations but also focus on the specific problem of racism in every analysis, implementation and assessment we conduct.

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