FORWARD: Issue #2: Transportation

Facing Challenges Addressing Equity in Transportation

Celebrating community stories, the Heart of Hyde Park mural is sited at a Metro Rail station in Los Angeles. Led by local nonprofit LA Commons with assistance from Metro Arts & Design, the mural began with area youth collecting stories from residents and business owners, under the guidance of lead artist Moses Ball. Photo courtesy LA Metro.

Moving Beyond the Aesthetics and Pageantry of Equity and Inclusion in Transportation

by Charles T. Brown, MPA, CPD, LCI

Intentional collaboration between artists and transportation professionals elevates the virtues of remembering, healing, and co-powering.

The Biden-Harris administration just appointed what is arguably one of the most diverse and talented United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) teams in modern history. They are a dynamic group of appointees with federal, state, regional, and municipal experience who have committed themselves, personally and professionally, to equity and inclusion in transportation and mobility. They are as close to a “justice league” as one could expect in the USDOT, and their arrival could not have come at a better time. Nationwide, communities of color—particularly Black and Brown communities—have been bearing the full force of Trump’s anti-environmental agenda, along with police violence and discrimination. And as if that were not enough, while they struggle with the racial and health equity implications of COVID-19, they’re also battling gentrification and displacement, underinvestment and disinvestment in infrastructure, and gross disparities in transportation-related injuries and fatalities.

Recently, many USDOT staff members have worked extensively with local artists to advance racial equity and inclusion in the creation of healthier, safer, and more livable communities. It’s this willingness to work with local artists that ultimately gives me hope and joy, because I believe intentional collaboration between artists and transportation professionals will ultimately lead to a new practice that rejects seeing equity and inclusion as mere aesthetics and pageantry, and instead elevates the virtues of remembering, healing, and co-powering.

Sited at the intersection of Crenshaw and Slauson in Hyde Park, the mural was developed to improve the experience of both locals and transit riders in anticipation of the Crenshaw/LAX Line, and was funded by Transportation for America. Community members and local businesses are featured prominently, including community activist Assata Umoja, center. Photo courtesy Moses X. Ball with LA Commons team, and assistance from LA Metro.

Here’s why:

Artists evoke and advance the communal power of remembering. Many transportation professionals feel burdened by, and ashamed of, past institutional and organizational decisions (e.g., highway widening and the destruction of BIPOC communities). So they prefer to avoid conversations about the past and to focus solely on the present or the future. Artists, on the other hand, recover important moments in the past and make connections between them and present times. This is most often achieved through their strategic use and placement of murals, statues, historic markers, and other creations. Murals, for instance, can be located on buildings to showcase social unity and local culture, history, and talent; or they can be installed at roadway intersections to reduce vehicular speeding, create unique pedestrian experiences, and improve the overall safety and security of residents and visitors. Similarly, statues and historic markers may be used to promote tourism and other contributors to economic vitality, and to support cycling and walking tours.

These efforts have broad implications for health. Not only do they improve the physical health and well-being of a community by encouraging outdoor activity, but they can also boost mental health by creating public gathering places where social connection defeats painful and unhealthy isolation. Unfortunately, while transportation professionals generally support these art-connected efforts, too often the projects are not prioritized and are categorized as “additional enhancements.” Artists dedicate their skills, talents, and imaginations to the pursuit of collective healing, whereas transportation professionals have often prioritized technical issues—what types of vehicles to emphasize or employ, how often trains or trams run, and so on—over broader and deeper community needs.

Charles Brown partnered on this street mural by artist Leon Rainbow at the intersection of Brunswick and Southard in Trenton, NJ. Top photo courtesy the artist. Bottom photo by Adam Nawrot.

This has led to economic, social, and public health, and environmental disasters (e.g., climate change) for many otherwise thriving communities around the country—particularly BIPOC communities. Yet, time and time again, it has been the collective work of artists, through artworks, film, food, music, and storytelling, that has done real service toward community healing.

To be sure, it’s not that transportation professionals care less than artists about community healing. It’s just that they tend to spend their time defending past actions that resulted in community harm rather than celebrating recent projects that advance community healing. At the same time, transportation professionals often fail to see the important connection between discriminatory policing and BIPOC immobility, pain, and suffering. My own work, #ArrestedMobility, is aimed at highlighting this connection, given the promotion in many communities of policies such as Vision Zero, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), and Safe Streets, which disproportionately increase the surveillance of BIPOC communities under the guise of “best practices.” Black and Brown transportation experts now challenge these practices because of BIPOC pain and distrust for law enforcement.

Voices of Remembrance by Valerie Otani, sited at the Yellow Line Max Expo Center station in Portland, OR, memorializes the site's role as an "assembly center" for Japanese American internment in 1942. Photo courtesy TriMet.

Artists have come to recognize the importance of co-powering with communities through intentional and meaningful engagement and involvement, while transportation professionals often struggle to work in these ways. The artists’ efforts can take the form of arts-based civic engagement, individual and community-level activism, or tactical urbanism.

Not long ago I was honored to partner with city officials, the Trenton Health Team, Street Plans Collaborative, residents, and a local artist on the installation of a roadway mural at an intersection near a local elementary school in Trenton, New Jersey. The overall purpose of the project was to improve personal and traffic safety along the corridor, as well as to highlight the importance of unity, community pride, and social cohesion. The bottom-up process brought together the grassroots (i.e., residents) and the grasstops (i.e., institutions and businesses) and resulted in a positive outcome for all parties involved. As one participant noted, “Art projects like this instill pride in the neighborhoods and are important for rejuvenating those who have been beaten down by the harsh realities that can come with living in cities.”

Given the all-star USDOT team working under the leadership of President Biden and Vice President Harris, there is no time like right now for better collaboration and synergy between transportation professionals and artists. It’s absolutely essential that racial equity and inclusion be at the center of transportation and mobility. Of course, the path forward will not be easy, but the necessary work can be done, if artists and transportation professionals join hands, heads, and hearts.

Every image in the Heart of Hyde Park mural came from community members. Photo courtesy Moses X. Ball, with LA Commons team, and assistance from LA Metro.

Watch this FORWARD conversation series roundtable

FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT: ART, CULTURE AND TRANSPORTATION IN 2021 with Charles T. Brown, MPA, CPD, LCI How are artists and the transportation sector collaborating to solve intractable problems and envision a more just future of mobility & infrastructure? Amidst a change in political leadership, our roundtable features leading voices at this intersection. With Charles T. Brown (Rutgers University), Naomi Doerner (Nelson/Nygaard), and Melvin Giles (community artist and organizer); facilitated by Ben Stone (Smart Growth America). This conversation took place on Thursday, February 18, 2021

Please consider a donation to make events like this possible.

WATCH more from Charles T. Brown


Exploring the Adverse Social, Political, Economic & Health Outcomes of Over-Policing Black Mobility in the U.S.



Charles T. Brown, MPA, CPD, LCI

Charles T. Brown, MPA, CPD, LCI, is a senior researcher and adjunct professor within the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and a fellow of the OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. As a "street-level researcher" and "pracademic," he has gained international attention for helping to create safe, healthy, and livable communities for all. His recent and notable contributions through research and practice include understanding barriers to biking and walking for women and minorities; analyzing the impact of crime on walking frequency and propensity; centering and prioritizing equity in transportation planning and decision-making; and analyzing barriers to accessing parks and open spaces. Follow him on Twitter: @ctbrown1911.


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FORWARD: Issue #2