Transportation remains the largest source of air pollution across the United States, but the burden of its consequences is not distributed evenly among the Nation’s population. Low-income communities of color disproportionately experience the environmental and health implications of the current transportation system. In order to tackle the nationally-found problem, the implementation of clean transportation must encompass a holistic approach that incorporates mobility equity.
Triangle Clean Cities’ intern Florencia Loncán had the opportunity to speak with Hana Creger, Senior Environmental Equity Program Manager at Greenlining, a research and policy nonprofit that advocates for racial equity and economic justice across various areas, including transportation.
Creger’s work focuses on the development and implementation of policies and mobility investments in California that follow a mobility equity framework. While her work focuses on the West coast, the issues addressed encompass a national problem. To address transportation equity issues in North Carolina, they first had to discuss the various ways inequities may manifest.
“People face a multitude of transportation disparities and injustices,” Creger said. “Whether it’s having lower rates of car ownership, longer and more costly commutes or disproportionately breathing in transportation-related air pollution.”
Additionally, policies such as redlining, which have fueled the racial wealth gap, have limited people of color’s job and homeownership opportunities, making it harder for underserved communities to build and keep wealth.
Why does access to transportation matter?
According to the North Carolina Justice Center, over 50,000 North Carolinians name lack of transportation as their primary barrier to their ability to work. Mobility access, whether it is public transportation, bike share programs or electric vehicle charging infrastructure helps people get to work, school, grocery stores and family and friends, among many other things.
When asked what the main barriers limiting the implementation of equity in transportation, Creger did not hesitate in her response:
“You can’t just throw money at the problem. You can’t just allocate resources to these communities,” she shared. “These are underserved, under capacity communities where even if they are able to get a grant, they have to provide match funding, which they may not have available.”
Match funding refers to reimbursement-based grants, where communities and organizations must have the funds upfront to support a project, which will be paid back after its completion. This method of fund distribution excludes communities that immensely need transportation solutions and historically don’t have the means to finance these projects.
“Even when you fix these initial barriers, the administration issues, the financial barriers, there is also just a lack of willingness oftentimes in government to move away from a prescriptive approach.”
A prescriptive approach is a one-size-fits-all method often used in legislation addressing mobility equity, even if it does not address community-specific problems. For example, funding the implementation of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations in a community that lacks vehicle ownership overall, let alone EVs.
In contrast, Greenlining addresses transportation equity with a community-driven approach.
“We [California] have now developed programs that are much more community-driven from the beginning, where we’re asking folks what they need and then finding the appropriate mobility investments and then finding ways to integrate that into climate adaptation, workforce development and anti-displacement,” Creger said. “They’re just more holistic programs, and they’re much better targeted.”
The growing acceptance and application of green transportation programs is a huge feat, but not all clean transportation funding programs are created equal.
“It’s not enough to just reduce emissions if you’re not reducing emissions in the areas that suffer the most air pollution.”
ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, created a map that identified over 30 air pollution hotspots in North Carolina, which have led to elevated risks of cancer for individuals living in these areas. Of these hotspot areas, only two are in neighborhoods comprised of white and higher-income residents. The rest are in low-income communities of color.
According to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ), ground-level ozone and particle pollution are the biggest air quality issues in North Carolina. These pollutants can be attributed mainly to vehicle emissions and coal-burning power plants, which supply a vast amount of electricity for our state.
How do we address these issues?
“We know what works,” Creger said. “We know how to target our investments better, and our challenge is educating our legislature on why it is important to shift funding to these more equity, community-driven programs.”
She added that private investments shouldn’t have to be the default solution to implement more clean transportation options in underserved communities.
“It’s not that crazy for government to permanently subsidize a community-owned mobility program that is serving the community, that is meeting folk’s needs, that’s keeping costs affordable.”
We cannot discuss clean transportation without addressing mobility equity. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Support for communities will look different depending on their specific needs.
When asked if there was anything else interested stakeholders should know, Creger paused before she answered:
“Equity is now becoming a standard. The federal government is now promoting this. This is a trend that is not going to go away anytime soon… People have been working on this for decades, even if this is a new topic for you, so just tap into existing resources. We’re all kind of growing in this evolution of equity.”
Explore additional resources on its mobility equity framework on the Greenlining website, and contact Triangle Clean Cities for assistance on finding and applying for grant funding that best suits your communities needs.