Why intersectionality is vital to sustainable transportation

    Written by: Madelyn Collins

    Source: Photo by Tim Jamieson on Unsplash

    People need transportation to function, but what is transportation doing for the people? 

    Unfortunately, the answer is not comforting. According to the US EPA, in 2019, transportation accounted for about 29 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making transportation the largest contributor of U.S. GHG emissions. The following year in 2020, despite COVID-19 affecting driving patterns, still saw the harm of the transportation industry at work. Passenger cars were the biggest source of emissions that year, accounting for 41 percent of global transportation emissions.

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    The work of sustainable transportation has become vital for the fight against climate change and the necessity of cleaner air, but can the sustainability movement succeed in creating meaningful change? Here is an introduction to intersectional sustainability and how it will play an important role in greening the transportation industry effectively and equitably.

    What is intersectional sustainability?

    To understand intersectional sustainability, we must first understand what intersectionality is. 

    ‘Intersectionality’ is a term first coined by American lawyer and civil rights advocate, Kimberlé Crenshaw. Intersectionality “is the acknowledgment that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression and we must consider everything and anything that can marginalize people – gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc.” 

    So for example, as a Black woman, I experience racism and sexism due to the color of my skin and sex, but as a person with able-bodied privilege, I will never experience forms of oppression that persons with disabilities will experience. Oppression is not just a one-fit-all kind of experience. There are people in our society that will simultaneously experience unjust treatment dependent on their identity, environment, and other factors of their lived experience. 
    So why does intersectionality need to be applied to sustainability? Environmental issues are not just about things like saving the polar bears or learning how to recycle. It is also about how it connects with other injustices. What is happening to the earth directly correlates to the health of our most vulnerable populations. As you can see below, people of color more broadly are exposed to more pollution from nearly every source.

    Although Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) experience the effects of environmental issues at a higher rate, they are often not thought of or even at the table when it comes to thinking of solutions to these issues. In a 2014 Green 2.0 report, people of color comprise 36 percent of the U.S. population but for decades they have only accounted for 12 to 16 percent of the staff of environmental organizations. A 2019 report showed a dip in recent years as well. Environmental groups are mostly able-bodied, white, and male, which means a limited point of view on an issue that calls for every person on earth to work together. 

    This limited point of view has brought about change, but not meaningful, impactful change for everyone. Look at the reusable straw movement. Many resources and time was pooled into getting rid of plastic straws and trying to switch to a strict no-straw policy. Not only was this not very impactful, as according to Stanford experts, “plastic straws are only a tiny fraction of the problem — less than 1 percent,” but it also ended up hurting a whole community that needs straws to be able to physically consume liquid. If persons with disabilities were included more in the sustainability conversation, they would have been able to voice the harm this straw ban could do. 

    Intersectionality has to be applied to sustainability to make equitable changes, especially in an industry like transportation that’s responsible for so much greenhouse emissions.

    Intersectionality examples in transportation

    Below are some short example findings of how multiple injustices intersect to create an inequitable transportation experience.

    Sex and Race in Active Transportation

    Sex and race both have their own dilemmas when it comes to transportation, but for some, oppression is felt from both. 

    A study found that Black girls are actively discouraged from engaging in active transportation compared to Black boys who were encouraged to do things like biking for transport. Black boys are also more likely to express enjoyment in biking, compared to Black girls who reported more of a fear of crime and stranger danger. 

    Black girls not only face the dangers of being Black while walking down the street through policing and other institutionally racist actions, but they also have the added discrimination of sex and the higher rate of assault that comes with it. Sex and race work together to create a unique form of oppression for Black girls and women using active transportation than Black boys and men.

    Disability and Class in Mobility

    According to the National Council on Disability (NCD), people with disabilities live in poverty at more than twice the rate of people without disabilities, and of the nearly 2 million people with disabilities who never leave their homes, 560,000 never leave home because of transportation difficulties.  Income is directly linked to access to transportation. In a study from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the decision between a home a person with disabilities can afford and a neighborhood they can navigate with ease is a difficult decision due to income. Often a lack of funds forces people with disabilities to choose environments that limit their ability to live out a productive and safe life. Although it’s worth noting persons with disabilities are already at a disadvantage with this decision, as 65% of curb ramps and 48% of sidewalks are not accessible for people with disabilities in the US.    

    The intersection here is people with disabilities not only have the disadvantages of not being able to afford things such as accessible neighborhoods, but they also have the added oppression of transportation and infrastructure in general not being accessible enough. This in turn affects their ability to get jobs, receive education, and do other things that require reliable transit options. An intersectional approach tells us that fixing infrastructure alone would not be enough for the average person with disabilities day-to-day transit experience. Things like income level and what that means in terms of access would have to be considered as well.

    Class, Age and Mental Health in Mobility

    Being older in the United States can come with lots of disadvantages from various sources. People aged 80 and older have a higher poverty rate than other aged people. Older adults are also at an increased risk for experiencing depression due to things like social isolation and physical conditions like stroke, hypertension, cancer, and chronic pain. The combination of lower-income and a higher risk of mental health issues directly corresponds to use and access to transportation in older generations. 
    When people are depressed they are less likely to reach out to others and seek opportunities to move about. Add the cost barrier the older population has to reliable transportation, it causes a situation where their mental health cannot be adequately cared for and use of transportation is lowered. An intersectional approach would take these factors in hand when trying to make a change. For example, researchers in the UK found that increased eligibility for a free bus pass led to an 8 percent increase in the use of public transportation among older people, and a 12 percent decline in depression symptoms among those who started taking the bus when they became eligible for the program. The key to improving the transit experience of older people in this situation was to not only take their access to transportation into account but their willingness to use transportation as well when it came to mental health and affordability.

    Sexuality and Gender in Public Transportation

    Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law found that LGBTQ people are nearly four times more likely than non-LGBTQ people to be victims of violent crime. Studies also suggest that around half of bisexual women will experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes. For LGBT+ women, finding safe spaces to move in society can be a taxing and dangerous task, especially when it comes to public transit.

    Transport for London found that LGBTQ passengers were three times more likely to encounter unsolicited sexual behavior on public transport in London compared to heterosexual people. For lesbians, trans people, and bisexual women, it was reported that there was a higher preference for traveling in a group or at a different time of the day than it was for gay men. Not only does sexuality play into the safety of traveling, but gender and gender expression add to the unique experience members of the LGBTQ community face when commuting.

    The use of intersectionality

    Although intersectionality does a better job at showing the idiosyncrasies of lived experiences in people, what it still does is categorize people in a box through identity markers. It’s important to still remember that each person and community will have its own distinct characteristics and oppression that go beyond the intersectional approach. 

    So how do we start making our sustainability work for everyone? We need to listen to the voices that are telling their concerns. Look at the state of the EV industry and how it’s already alienating and harming communities. Persons with disabilities have already made known their issues with electric vehicles and how EV vehicle design has left them with no seat to drive in. Indigenous peoples have made known their anger and grief over the planning of lithium being mined on their sacred land. Black and Hispanic communities have voiced their concerns over the EV revolution leaving them behind as they sit in charging deserts. Communities and people are not voiceless, and they shouldn’t be treated as such. 

    Sustainable transportation has to apply to all of us, not just the select few, and although not perfect, an intersectional approach will help towards making sure the movement is equitable and just.


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