Wired Magazine recently posted a story entitled “Transportation as a Civil Rights Issue”, by Jason Kambitsis. It discusses the many social inequalities that are perpetuated and/or compounded by the lack of transportation options.
This story hits home: Tucson. I can’t help but be reminded of the numerous times I’ve been driving (yes, I do drive sometimes) up Stone or 1st Avenue and seen someone in a wheelchair using the right travel lane (or in some cases a very narrow and rubble-strewn bicycle lane) to get from point A to B, in the absence of a proper sidewalk, all while cars whiz by at 40 miles per hour. It’s hard not to notice that these are the parts of town where I always see the most people out on foot, and where I see working class people out on big-box grade bicycles. These are often people who are biking, walking, or taking the bus for their basic transportation needs because they don’t have a car. These same places also lack many of the most basic street amenities like sidewalks, bus shelters, and bike lanes.
And, of course, there’s the flip side. We’ve all seen newer, more affluent parts of town where the wide, sweeping sidewalks and bike lanes stretch for miles in each direction. And yet it’s rare to see a pedestrian on most of those sidewalks, or a cyclist that isn’t riding a relatively expensive road bike on their way back from a 50 mile training ride.
So why the disparity?
This brings us to the tragedy of the commons. In dense, urban cities that work well, resources are pooled and leveraged for the public good. There’s more bang for one’s [tax dollar] buck, so to speak. The portion of money that is used to make a block of dense, urban street, for example, is enjoyed by the 4 or 5 stories of people along it and the many people in the neighborhood who pass through it on a daily basis while headed to work or running errands, usually on foot, sometimes on bike, and less frequently in a car. Here, the quantity of money to the number-of-people-that-benefit-from-it ratio is pretty good — a good return on investment. As we sprawl out and become less dense (as we do so often here in the Southwest), that ratio gets worse and worse. Where it might have been 1:500 (dollars spent:people served) in the urban core, it now becomes 1:1, or, realistically — it probably ends up being something more like 1:-500.
So what’s to be done here in Tucson, where the economy is stagnant and poverty levels are on the rise? Everyone does deserve transportation equality, right?
How do we allocate scarce resources in an equitable way to serve the most people?
Here’s one solution.
A colleague recently sent me a link to the map above which she came across while doing bicycle/pedestrian research. It’s a “bicycle heat map” of sorts, meaning that it indicates where the greatest need and demand for bicycle facilities is in Montgomery County, MD. It takes into account things like common destinations (grocery stores, post offices, banks, etc.) and existing roadways and corridors. The most important piece, however is that it investigates the quantity of people within the area will benefit from a new bicycle facility. It looks at which facilities have the greatest potential for use. In other words, this map shows the areas with the greatest potential for the bicycle to be a legitimate and convenient mode of transportation.
Knowing that our financial resources are slowly dwindling away, our region could really benefit from doing a map like this, both for bicyclists and for pedestrians. It would be a great way to start prioritizing for the most vulnerable commuter types (which, I should mention, also happen to be the most economical ones).