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(Susan Bigelow / CTNewsJunkie file photo)

Mobility advocates explored the intersection of transportation planning and economic and racial justice during a wide-ranging panel discussion Monday as part of the third annual Multimodal and Transit Summit.

A more equitable transportation system begins on the planning level by shifting priorities away from car-based commuters and centering more on community planning, the keynote speakers of the summit said.

“In planning, the person we think of, the ‘normal’ person we plan for is a middle-aged man, probably, maybe a woman, that kind of guy that commutes in a car from a suburb on a highway to downtown. That’s who we’ve been planning for,” said Angie Schmitt, an author and transportation planning consultant who participated in the panel discussion Monday.

Schmitt, who is a mother and advocate for pedestrian travelers, suggested that infrastructure planners consider the needs of a more diverse spectrum of users. Mothers, for instance, tend to travel shorter distances with more complex travel patterns.

“A lot of mothers are not only low income but they’re responsible for other people so if you help a mom you’re helping two, three, four people not just one person,” she said.

Moderator Destiny Thomas, an anthropologist planner and founder of Thrivance Group, said economic situations often dictate how people utilize the transportation system. She said she wished she could give up her car and work close to home, but student loans drive her to chase opportunities to participate in the economy elsewhere.

“We have to step outside of the compartmentalized notion of transportation as its own entity, as being disconnected or disjointed from every other aspect of being,” she said. 

Thomas said urban transportation planners should try to engage in neighborhood planning and reevaluate priorities that have traditionally focused on moving people quickly out of their communities, rather than investing in those communities.

“Our argument is, we think it’s a good idea and most beneficial if we give this Black community, this brown community, this Indigenous community, this poor community transportation options that move them outside of their community,” she said. “Because there’s something about their community that is not desirable enough or worthy enough for concentrated investment that doesn’t benefit anyone that’s not in the community.”

Adonia Lugo, a cultural anthropologist and chair of the Urban Sustainability Department at Antioch University Los Angeles, said improving outcomes for underserved communities will require a more localized focus by the transportation industry.

“It’s going to take time for transportation to shift from seeing itself as an industry to—not quite a service provider—but an active part of local economies. Part of that shift is going to be recognizing where there needs to be interconnection with other kinds of local economic activity including, how are people accessing housing? How are people even making money to put food on the table?” she said.

Schmitt suggested that planners focus more on delivering baseline quality of life and safety projects rather than flashy, career-making “silver bullet projects.”

“A lot of our neighborhoods are missing street lights where they need street lights. They’re missing curb ramps where they need curb ramps. They’re missing bus shelters. This is not flashy stuff and it’s just missing. I think there should be more attention to filling these gaps and the more humble sort of improvements that do have a big impact on safety and quality of life but aren’t as flashy,” she said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Coverage of the 2020 Multimodal and Transit Summit, as well as a follow-up series on related transportation issues, is being partially underwritten by the Transport Hartford Academy at the Center for Latino Progress.

Underwriting is funding for journalism that will be reported and produced independently, without prior review by the funder before publication.