BTA: Community planning process needs balance of social justice

By Rob Sadowsky, Contributing Columnist

Most cities do not enter into a comprehensive community decision-making process to install transportation projects. Projects are designed and built with little to no involvement from neighborhood residents and business owners. Here in Portland, we go the extra mile to engage community representatives in planning, design and implementation of transportation concepts and specific projects. There are a host of great reasons why this makes sense and another host of great reasons why community engagement is frustrating.

On the positive side of the scales, each of us has an opportunity, if we choose, to get involved. We can attend community meetings of our neighborhood association and review proposed plans for important projects like the Portland Milwaukie Light Rail or the 50s Bikeway. Projects have changed, expanded, and even completely stopped because citizens have stepped up and voiced their ideas and concerns.

Residents and business owners gain a greater understanding of transportation networks in their neighborhood and are more likely to keep new facilities in good shape if they feel more connected to the project. Our needs can be better addressed when we voice them clearly.

On the negative side of the scales, not all users of a specific street live or work in the neighborhood. What of their concerns and needs? A community process can give more voice to local residents than other important users such as truck drivers, bus operators, and other travelers. Some projects are considered of such importance that neighborhood residents’ needs and concerns can be lost in others’ needs and concerns. The Columbia River Crossing project is a classic case where residents might argue that we have defined to broadly the key stakeholders who advise on the project.

After living in Chicago for 21 years, I prefer our model to that where community is not engaged in the planning of transportation projects; where leaders get their power not from voting citizens but from the bigger checkbook. It might take more time than our planners and engineers like. It might take more effort to go back to the drawing board when original plans need to be changed to meet the needs of the community. Ultimately, we will have a transportation system that is more likely to be healthier and meet our growing needs.

We do have serious risks in our community planning that we should always pay attention to: planning only for current residents fails to take into account future needs and unless we make special effort to integrate the needs of disenfranchised community members, we run the risk of creating transportation systems that assist in exclusionary policies. There is a significant battle being drawn in Clackamas County right now over the future of public transit. A group of citizens are calling for a halt on spending any funds for transit, potentially putting a halt to future active transportation in the region. These citizen groups seek to protect their own interests and vision for the county as well as question the expenditures of public funds toward transit. I argue that this is shortsighted and will put a halt to a future region that allows for more people to participate in the economic benefits and beauty that is in Clackamas because of a transportation system that benefits those who can afford to drive and penalizes those that do not.

So we have a challenge. We need to fit future planning and the broader social benefit into these community plans. We can do that by establishing clear outcomes and goals that meet those needs. We can do that by ensuring those who have fewer resources have opportunities to be engaged, not ignored. We can do that by getting involved ourselves and voicing our own concerns and keeping issues of social justice in and not out. Join the healthy streets movement an become engaged in a project near you.

Rob Sadowsky is the Executive Director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.

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