I almost continuously find myself thinking about our transportation system, as it exists now, and wondering, how did we get here? How did we get to a car dominated city, where the lives of people who walk and bicycle and take transit are valued less than those who drive? How come our sidewalks are in poor condition, and the city insists that it is not their problem to solve? How come we spend nearly all of our transportation dollars on freeways and interchanges, and relatively very little on streets? How come people outside cars don’t feel safe, both from traffic and from concerns about personal safety? How come the police don’t enforce laws against driver behavior which endangers people walking – specifically, egregious speeding on streets, and failure to yield to people in crosswalks? How come the city is so spread out that many people feel it necessary to drive? How come?
Well, the answer is obvious for those who care to look, and to think. We have a transportation system that was built around racist and classist values. The City of Sacramento (and Caltrans) built freeways through low income neighborhoods, on purpose. The freeways were built, not for the benefit of the communities they run through, but for commuters passing through, on their way from single family houses to jobs. The freeways don’t even serve freight and commerce very well, because they are congested with commuter traffic through which trucks must crawl. The city and Caltrans are further widening these freeways, as we speak.
The city approved developments, from World War II onward, that did not have sidewalks. Of course there are some neighborhoods, high income, that don’t want sidewalks because they want to preserve that rural feeling, but I doubt there was ever a middle income or low income neighborhood that didn’t want sidewalks. The city did not require them because leaving them out made for a higher profit for developers, less space taken up by sidewalks, and lower street construction costs. (I am not against developers, but governments routinely cave to developer requests to reduce infrastructure costs, rather than ensuring good infrastructure for all citizens).
And where there are sidewalks? They are often in poor condition. I live in the central city, where sidewalks get repaired, or at least patched. But I also walk in other neighborhoods populated by lower income people of color. There, the sidewalks are not in good condition. Many are too narrow for people to walk side-by-side, and certainly too narrow for people with mobility devices to pass. Curb ramps are scarce. Root heaves go unrepaired. People park blocking sidewalks, and the city does not enforce that. Most city parking enforcement is focused on the central city, where there is metered parking and therefore easy-to-write tickets. The outlying areas, where sidewalks are much more frequently blocked by illegal parking, not so much.
The city has started to pay more attention to low income neighborhoods and people of color. There have been projects completed, and awarded but not constructed, that start to address the past inequities. But it is too little, and too slow. The city is still focused on maintaining the speed and flow of motor vehicles, and not on the people who live here.
The city is also making progress on allowing a greater density of homes, both infill in the central city and incremental densification of single family house neighborhoods. But they are also encouraging and supporting greenfield developments at the periphery, which exacerbates all of these problems.
You might think I’m picking on the City of Sacramento. No. All of this is true of every other city and unincorporated place in the region. But the city is where I live, and where I experience this every day.
I am a white, male, older, middle class person. I am not the person against who these harms were directed, other than being a walker, bicyclist, and transit user.
Why is this history important? If we don’t recognize the racist and classist nature of our existing transportation system, we can’t undo the damage done in the past, and make sure that it never happens again in the future. I think the recognition of this should part of every discussion on transportation, of every engineering and planning action. In the same way that an acknowledgement of native lands helps us remember the harms of the past, the need to address these, and the people still living here, an acknowledgement of the racist and classist transportation system can help us to a better system.
These concerns fall under the category of equity, but I’ve not used that word here. Equity has largely become a checkbox for transportation agencies, and when it is taken seriously only says “we’ll do better in the future”, it does not recognize the damage to be reversed.
Since I’d like this to be part of every discussion and decision, I welcome your input on how to make this statement more succinct and powerful.