Just Transportation

Just Transportation for All

Bill Barker, AICP

February 3, 2018

In 2000, Dr. Robert Bullard spoke here in San Antonio at a luncheon that was one in a series sponsored VIA Metropolitan Transit intended to highlight issues in transportation. Dr. Bullard, who is called the “Father of Environmental Justice”, is a prolific author and, a couple of years before his San Antonio appearance, had published Just Transportation: Dismantling Race and Class Barriers to Mobility.

It is easy to think about situations where transportation expenditures seem unjust. A San Antonio Express-News editorial recently noted, “It seems unfathomable that in this day and age, people in an urban county are living on unpaved streets so treacherous that first responders have a difficult time navigating them.” Of concern in the editorial was Highlands Oaks in south Bexar County.

The San Antonio City Council has decided that the past policy of property owners paying for sidewalks in front of their property is unjust. “…[A] majority of City Council members, mindful of their stated commitment to redress historical inequity in how the city distributes funds, believes the charter provision is unfair and should be changed. For decades, it ensured that only neighborhoods whose homeowners could afford sidewalks got sidewalks, they said.”

Both of these situations can be described as inequity in the distribution of public investments but also in transportation options. Thomas Jefferson noted that, “Freedom is the right to choose.” An urban transportation system should provide freedom to the residents so that they can adapt to inevitable changes in circumstances and in their lives. The average commute time is similar in U.S. cities of various sizes simply because residents have transportation and housing choices that allow them to maintain a reasonable journey time to work.

While it is common in transportation planning and policymaking to perform some type of benefit-cost analysis to select the best measure, less common is the consideration of who pays and who benefits from the measure. This is made more difficult due to a limited appreciation of the positive and negative externalities of the project under consideration. (“Externalities” are the effects on other parties, who may not be direct users of the transportation project under consideration.)

At a time in human history when it is clear that fueling transportation with fossil fuels is contributing to a change to the world’s climate, consideration of externalities has become a major issue. With the exception of the U.S. under the current Administration, all the nations of the world have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from various sources including transportation. In the U.S., some states and many cities, including the City of San Antonio, have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainability issues, such as climate change, highlight the need to be mindful our individual and collective actions. The key measure of the sustainability of our transportation system is vehicle miles of travel. More vehicular travel translates to more travel expenditures, fossil fuel use, pollution (including greenhouse gas emissions), traffic crashes (including fatalities), impervious cover, urban heat, obesity and stress. No wonder that it is national policy to reduce vehicle miles of travel and that a sequence of San Antonio plans has called for such reductions.