How Transportation Contributes to the Oppression of BIPOC
[A note from the author: This article has been in the works since September 2020. I have been prepared to post it multiple times yet it seems that each time, a horrific event pops up in the news. The murder of Daunte Wright during a traffic stop on Sunday is yet another one. I am sharing this article now in hopes of educating others and fostering a conversation, especially among my road safety activists and peers. Racial justice in the world of traffic safety is not discussed often enough. But as one of my close friends and fellow road safety colleague noted, there will never be a "right time." As a community, as a country, and as a society, we need to continue educating ourselves and speak up when crimes are committed.]
In New York City, COVID-19 highlighted the extreme inequalities in the access to transportation between white communities and minority groups; Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Eric, a friend of mine, worked as an essential worker over the summer during the earliest and one of the most critical stages of the pandemic. Along with thousands of others, he was forced to keep working in order to support himself and his family. This was on top of being a college student who was also paying off his student loans. Despite working hard to keep the city alive and running, Eric was left at the mercy of an inequitable system which pit individuals against each other in mobility, race, health, wealth, and more.
With limited services from the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), the riding conditions in the infamously crowded subway remained the same, forcing those reliant on the system to deal with an unsafe environment, exacerbated by the pandemic. Transportation, while often seen as a helpful tool or service for society, has been used as a tool of oppression for BIPOC.
How could this be true? The analysis of this connection is visualized in the two circles which highlights the interconnections between transportation, specifically private car use, wealth, race, health, and the environment. The first cycle rotates through four elements; transportation, money, race, health, and then back to transportation. The second has only three elements; environment, transportation, and race.
Cycle One: Transportation, Wealth, Race, and Health
In the first cycle, I focus on the analysis between transportation and wealth. Buckle up because this section is largely made up of numbers! In 2016, white families had a media net worth of $171,000 and a mean of $933,700. During the same year, Black families had a median net worth of $17,600 and a mean of $138,200. Similarly, 9% of white families had zero or negative net worth in 2016, while Black families had the rate of 19%. This may not be surprising due to the systemic racism that is embedded in our country’s history (this phenomenon clearly still exists today).
So how does a family’s net worth and rate connect to transportation? It goes without saying that people with more wealth are more likely be able to afford a car and thus have access to better mobility. And that is exactly the case for a family’s net worth, rate, and race. Adding to this, the Federal Reserve also notes that 90% of white households had a vehicle asset compared to 73% of Black households. Today, Black families still suffer from greater financial disadvantages than white families. This situation defines the connection between access to mobility, wealth, and race.
Now onto wealth, race, and health. It may not come as a surprise that wealth and health are deeply connected, particularly in terms of access to healthcare in the United States. But according to Norman B. Anderson, a former director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the connection between health and wealth goes beyond just a simple correlation; socioeconomic status drives etiological factors of health. Let me clarify; if wealth and race and wealth and health are clearly connected, then the transitive property of equality means that there is a connection between race and health.
The outbreak of COVID-19 solidified this relationship and brought it into the public eye. In the context of health, wealth, transport, and more, Black people are disproportionately affected. According to APM Research Lab, “Black Americans continue to experience the highest actual COVID-19 mortality rates nationwide—more than twice as high as the rate for Whites and Asians, who have the lowest actual rates” (2020). According to the Commonwealth Fund (2020), this could be because Black people and other people of color are most likely to be poor, are in environments where they are more exposed to the virus, and have chronic conditions. However, the article also adds that this could be because of the racial discrimination and violence that people of color experience on a daily basis.
Finally, the connection between health and transportation, specifically the use of vehicles, closes the first loop. Once again, the issue of access to healthcare comes up because without the liberty of mobility, getting the necessary care becomes much harder.
Another fact to consider is that transportation is one of the major sources of pollution: In 2018, the EPA notes transportation as “one of the largest contributions to anthropogenic U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, “the transport sector contributes approximately one quarter of all energy related greenhouse gas emissions.” Despite the research on transportation and pollution, humans have not been proactive when it comes to creating solutions. In fact, we have collectively ignored the negative health impacts and accepted it as a norm in society.
Polluted air carries carcinogens and bacteria. When inhaled, this can cause infections in the lungs. To a greater extent, these pollutants can cause a large variety of health issues, including various forms of cancer such as heart and lung. It also contributes to decreased life expectancy. Deaths due to poor air quality adds to the millions of deaths caused by traffic crashes. In a fact sheet from 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that around 1.25 million people die from road crashes each year. Transportation is a tool and service that helps people move around in a busy society. However, the same service that was created to help is also being used to oppress, plague, and kill the same people it was supposed to serve.
Cycle Two: Transportation, Race, and Environment
As I mentioned in the discussion of the first cycle, transportation drastically affects air quality levels in the city or community, ergo connecting it with environmental issues. But how, then, does this connect with issues of racial inequality?
First, multiple studies have shown that higher levels of air pollution exist within BIPOC communities versus white communities. A significant amount of this pollution comes from highways that traverse cities and communities, largely through BIPOC and low-income areas. Gabriella Velasco from The Urban Institute states that these “environmentally hazardous facilities and infrastructure… have been intentionally and disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color.” Matthew Gandy’s Concrete and Clay reflect the intentions of Robert Moses, who was in charge of the planification of transport infrastructure in New York City, saying that “largely disregarded black neighborhoods in the development of his parks program and obstructed or neglected the development of public transportation to new recreational facilities.”
Environmental justice is racial justice. Lapses in environmental policies and reform also feed into the systemic racism plaguing the country. The clearest example of racism through environmental issues appear during natural disasters where the most vulnerable are made up of people of color and people from low-income communities. This means that these communities often receive the brunt of these calamities while receiving the minimum amounts of protection and support. Take a look at post-Katrina New Orleans: what was the demographic of refugees in the Superdome and Convention Center? Mostly African American.
Second, analyzing safe mobility provides a different view of the connection between transportation and racial justice. A 2020 Stanford University study showed that “Black drivers are 20% more likely to get pulled over than white drivers.” Furthermore, a traffic stop should not and should never be a death sentence. A lack of mobility also restricts access to opportunities that include finding or keeping jobs and finding or accessing affordable housing. This is similar to the restriction of access to healthcare, as mentioned in the first cycle. On a global scale, 90% of traffic deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, with the African continent being at a highest risk. Through the data, it is clear that transport-related deaths affect populations of color at drastically different rates.
Bringing Both Cycles Together
The issue of transportation goes beyond issues on speed limits and seat belts. While Eric’s morning trips seemed to be a result of the MTA’s poor planning, his experience is the result of much deeper issues around systemic racism and inequalities. Through this story and the discussion, it is clear that transportation, wealth, race, health, and the environment are intrinsically linked on multiple levels.
While I analyzed these relationships through two different cycles, these issues link together into a multi-dimensional web. Access to transportation, healthcare, and wealth affects access to other factors presented in the cycle. Transportation significantly contributes to the environment and the environment, in turn, greatly affects health. Racial injustice and systemic racism exist individually within each of these sectors. While I have analyzed an outline of this web, many other influential factors exist within and between these connections.
All these facts in mind, Thomas the Tank Engine seems a little less friendly now, doesn’t he?
What Can You Do?
These multifaceted interconnections exist in all aspects of society and across racial, environmental, and economical issues. But, if problems are neither identified or acknowledged, they cannot be solved. So, educate yourself and help educate others. Engage with your community and get involved with a local NGO that inspires you. Some youth-led organizations spearheading the effort to address these concerns include the Global Youth Coalition for Road Safety and the Vision Zero Youth Council. Identify your elected officials and push them to act on issues you care about. Finally, vote! With the 2020 U.S. Presidential election now behind us, it is important that we don’t forget that local and state elections are just as important. To my community in New York City: mark your calendars, city elections are being held this year. To those not in NYC, elections may be happening in your area soon as well so be sure to keep yourself up to date.
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