The good news is that two of the four groups received the correct information by phone and traveled to the service location. Within two hours they completed the assignment. They did not apply for social services. The other two groups, however, received the wrong information over and over again and unclear travel instructions, and were working on the assignment for nearly seven hours. The following day the class met to discuss their experiences, including their significant frustration. They noted that one social service location required taking metro, changing metro lines, and then either transferring to the bus or completing a mile-long walk. They opted to walk but indicated that a family with children, a parent with a stroller, or an elderly or disabled person would have to wait (in the rain) for the bus. Students also noted that they all had cell phones with unlimited calls, cash on hand, packed lunches, and they did not experience linguistic barriers.
In addition to what they learned about the subject matter for each topic (including the long waits, lists, and other hurdles), the students were struck by how long, expensive, and complicated it was to travel to many locations using public transportation.
A piece in today's The Washington Post made me think back to that student project. Robert Thomson, aka Dr. Gridlock, writes about the Mayor's Sustainable DC Plan. In the article Mr. Thomson directs readers to “look at the transportation part of the plan” and proceeds to explore what he identifies as the four main transportation goals in the document. In doing so, Mr. Thomson and the administration are confusing commuting goals with transportation goals. This is a long-outdated lens of transportation analysis. Rather than focusing solely on modes of transportation for commuting, as do many cycling advocates, contemporary progressive transportation planners look to the concept of urban mobility to understand how to best serve communities' transportation needs. This means considering all of the ways in which persons get around the city--to child care, grocery stores, medical appointments, to access social services, and to the place of employment. In fact, I was struck by the fact that the Sustainable DC Plan makes no mention of child care at all. There are brief sections on increasing Childhood Development Centers, increasing affordable housing near public transit, and increasing transit links for under served parts of the city so they may easier access economic opportunities. But where is the plan, Mr. Mayor? And why are major news outlets letting certain alternative transportation groups hijack the conversation?
Urban mobility, and indeed transportation equity, is more complicated than throwing around green catchphrases and laying bike lanes. And I say this as a casual Capital Bikeshare user.
For decades, the driving force of transportation planning focused on the economic: how well are people getting to jobs. Access to housing, hospitals, schools, and other locales were not a part of the equation. Some call this planning based on a male breadwinner model. In a two-parent, opposite gender family, the male commuted to a job in the central city and the female worked closer to the place of residence or within the home. This model of the family economy, of course, was not the case for many families, but it was the priority for federal highway spending, housing policy (what the federal government loses in taxable income from the mortgage interest tax deduction is greater than the cost of the entire HUD budget), and public commuter transit to center cities (hence our Metro radiates from the center to the suburbs). Highways, housing policy, and public transportation systems were subsidies for the middle class. This model was not sustainable, but the consumer spending that went along with it created incredible economic growth in the United States, and the chains these systems created have been hard to break.
As the country rightly shifts its priorities and with increased energy costs, sustainability has become en vogue in transportation planning, but that lens is often overly simplistic. Now, with two-income households becoming the norm, the dynamics of family residence location are changing. However, in the Washington metro area, a regional economy (and hence regional commuting patterns) has developed and those most in need of employment live far from the jobs for which they are qualified. Furthermore, there is evidence that even in two-income, opposite gender households with children based on an equality model, the female does the majority of the child- and family-related errands, such as grocery shopping, picking up children from school, and taking children to medical appointments. This trip chaining, as planners call it, makes it difficult to accomplish these errands via public transportation and work full time. With this issue impacting so many families in the District (and mostly women), I am disappointed that is was ignored in the Sustainable DC Plan. Aside from very important discussions about pedestrian and cyclist safety, there is next to no voice for the disabled, women, and those with alternative work schedules. I do not recall a social services accessibility audit as part of the Plan either.
I had hoped that when Mr. Klein left the city, the District of Columbia would finally ditch its Portland and Copenhagen fetish and search out truly equitable, progressive transportation planning based on our unique economy and neighborhood challenges. It still can but will it? And if you think this is not a class issue then try to complete the assignment I gave my students.
© 2013 East Bank DC.