By Arpita Sharma, MPP/MPL 2017
For centuries, transportation in the United States has paved a way for people to connect with one another, achieve their goals, and fulfill their dreams. Whether taking a plane during the winter holidays to visit loved ones, driving to get to work, or launching a rocket to explore the moon, we are indebted to the amazing technological and mechanical feats of innovation in the transportation field.
But this innovation doesn’t just happen. It is the result of numerous experiments built on the diverse perspective, hard work, and dedication of a myriad of individuals who have dedicated their lives to transportation. These men and women come from every walk of life; they are Polish, Greek, Jewish, Hispanic, Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and African American. They may be your mother, your father, your grandparents, cousins, friends, or even you.
To celebrate this diversity in transportation, I will be sharing with you stories of the men and women who continue to shape the transportation infrastructure we use every day.
My first interview is with Jessica Meaney, the Founder and Executive Director of Investing in Place, a nonprofit focused on aligning public investments and policy goals to create walkable, bikeable streets and sidewalks with access to high quality transportation options for people of all resources and abilities. I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Meaney a few months ago in her office in Impact Hub LA, a co-working space in the Arts District neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles. Friendly and thoughtful, she was open about the experiences that have made her passionate about transportation.
There are a wide range of transportation organizations in Los Angeles. Investing in Place is unique; while other organizations contract with the city and county governments to help carry out projects, this nonprofit actively works to ensure that public investments in the build environment support middle and low income communities and people of color.
“When I moved to LA in the late 90s, I couldn’t afford to and actually did not want to own a car. My experience of taking bus and public transit has played a huge role in inspiring me to work in transportation. I strongly felt that a lot of investments were being made by people who only drove. There were a lot of concerns around safety, dignity, and options I faced as a person who didn’t have access to a car,” she shared.
Meaney’s experience of Los Angeles is not unusual in a county with vast disparities in means, and boasts the state’s worst income inequality. While she can now afford a car if she wants, many current transit riders still cannot, and rely on the public transit system for their daily transportation needs. The inequalities manifest themselves in the gaps in resources between the region’s wealth and low-income communities. Investing in Place, in essence, argues that place matters. Where people can afford to live affects their educational attainment, job access, health outcomes, public safety, environmental quality, and how they get around. Thus, a comprehensive approach must be taken from multiple stakeholders to create accessible and safe opportunities for everyone.
So, what changes could be made to the transportation sector to make it more accessible to all members of our community? One example is a series of projects in Vienna, Austria making transportation and urban space more accessible for women. A recent piece in CityLab details how government officials in the city planned around the way women use mass transportation differently than men. They considered the varied patterns of transportation use women had for taking children to school, helping elderly parents grocery shop, and picking up items from the pharmacy, for example.
For her part, Meaney wants to improve the way we invest our transportation dollars by changing who pays and who benefits with transportation networks. She points out that “We tend to divide our money on population rather than need.” Efforts are underway to modernize transportation budgets and make them more reflective of the existing needs of users. These include Metro’s Active Transportation Strategic Plan to make bus stops safe and accessible, the safe routes to school transportation efforts that make funding decisions based on need and not by council district, and Vision Zero. However, there is still much to do.
“I think we have a really long way to go to make sure our policymakers are reflective of our people’s demographics. One’s experience really influences one’s perception. We need to be very intentional about bringing more voices and leaders to the table”, Meaney notes.
She has come to understand this issue from her personal experience. “As a woman working on transportation, it is a field still dominated by traditional players, I have had many great colleagues who mean well, but we need to work hard to expand the voices and perspectives.”
Meaney is a strong advocate for a comprehensive approach to transportation planning. She argues, “Race and income are the biggest predictors of the way we travel. If we don’t look at that, we aren’t looking at the whole picture.”
Arpita Sharma is a dual Master of Public Policy and Master of Planning Candidate at the USC Price School. She is interested in issues of health inequities, sustainable land use development and active transportation. She expects to complete her degrees in May 2017. She can be reached at arpitasharma.net or at email@example.com.