Articles in the April issue of METRO Magazine deal with two very hot topics of late: electric buses and economic development through transit investments such as streetcars. The goals of both of these are fundamentally the same — sustainable economic growth — but how they are pursued can sometimes undermine social equity, also an aspect of sustainability, as I’ll explain below. Fortunately, good planning that takes into account all of these complex concerns can help avoid trading one desirable goal against others.
Streetcars are mainly about revitalization
Perhaps more than any other public transportation mode, the renaissance in streetcar investments has been about redevelopment and revitalization of neighborhoods. This has led to catalyzing growth in a growing list of communities, from Tucson and Tempe in Arizona to Cincinnati, Ohio to Portland, Oregon. In these projects, however, success often comes with concerns about gentrification, which can lead to rent and home price increases being unaffordable for some whose families have lived in these neighborhoods for many decades.
Most project owners are sensitive to these threats, and have strategies that require affordable housing along with new market-rate units. Key to achieving a good balance is fostering collaboration among the public, private, and also nonprofit sectors, which must recognize each sector’s different needs, constraints, and project schedules.
Equity concerns must be part of electric bus projects, too
Although not thought of as an issue for electric bus projects, equity concerns have been raised as transit agencies plan to shift their fleets to zero-emission propulsion. For example, how and when the new battery-electric buses will be deployed to replace older, noisier buses with higher emissions, and what garages get the modifications first in the network, could help address any legacy social equity concerns.
Boston, Seattle, and Los Angeles have undertaken Title VI “disparate impact” and environmental justice analyses as part of their transition plans and commitments to an all-electric fleet. In some cases, improvements to the power capacity of a maintenance facility could even help improve power distribution and electric-grid resiliency for the whole surrounding neighborhood. On the other hand, if more affluent neighborhoods are the first to receive fancier, newer vehicles and the nearby garage gets quieter while those in less affluent places have to wait their turn yet again, such decisions will only inflame any long-standing resentment.
Continued rising inequality must not be the price we pay for sustainable growth. Equity must be remembered as one of the three components of sustainability’s triple bottom line.