Social equity in the U.S. has long been a topic of interest for researchers from different backgrounds, but has not always received the attention it deserves from the engineering and construction fields. With the country’s growing population and economy, planning, designing and managing for social equity are instrumental to ensuring a fair distribution of benefits and costs.
A team of researchers at Colorado State University is currently investigating ways to incorporate social equity into transportation, specifically transportation asset management.
Rebecca Atadero, associate professor, and Fawzi Khalife, Ph.D. candidate, in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Mehmet Ozbek, professor, and Erin Arneson, assistant professor, in the Department of Construction Management, received a grant from the Mountain-Plains Consortium, a university transportation center funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Atadero serves as the lead researcher on the study.
In November 2021, President Biden signed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill to improve the infrastructure systems in the U.S. with transportation being a major sector targeted for improvement. Shortly after that, the U.S. Department of Transportation released its Equity Action Plan to ensure an equitable implementation of these improvements in transportation. Much work is currently being done by the public and private sectors to advance equity in transportation.
Transportation plays a vital role in moving people and goods within the U.S. and abroad, but our transportation infrastructure and practices can produce negative social and environmental impacts such as displacement, gentrification, pollution, emissions, injuries, and fatalities.
Studies have shown how such negative impacts are disproportionately distributed among the population, with a direct relation between distribution of negative impacts and low-income communities and communities of color. Social equity has therefore been gaining attention within the transportation sector, specifically after the 2020 pandemic and the social movements that called for justice in health, education, jobs, and income. Arneson adds “Transportation asset management decisions made today will have long lasting socioeconomic impacts on communities since transportation systems are critical to accessing opportunities such as employment, education, food, and health care.”
“We are conducting this project because it is critical that decision-making, specifically decision-making within transportation asset management, gives social equity the attention it deserves, as at the end of the day, those decisions affect the people – all people”, said Ozbek.
Defining social equity
The research project aims to define social equity in the context of transportation asset management and identify measures to effectively incorporate it in practice and decision-making. Transportation assets are valued at more than $9 trillion and consist of bridges, pavements, sidewalks, and other infrastructure that are indispensable to the daily lives of people and to the economy.
Atadero explains, “Transportation asset management has traditionally focused on economics and optimizing physical condition without much consideration for how these infrastructure assets are, or are not, meeting the needs of people. We have so many existing assets that we cannot achieve social equity without considering their role, too.”
The research team is currently interviewing professionals from transportation agencies, cities, counties, and community organizations to better understand their perception of equity and their actions and plans to implement it. The next step in the project is to distribute a nationwide survey to transportation asset managers, to assess the status of equity in this sector, and to collect their expert opinions on how to improve its implementation.
Preliminary findings indicate that asset management is behind other transportation sectors, such as planning and transit, when it comes to incorporating social equity. These findings will be presented at the annual Transportation Research Board meeting in Washington, D.C., in January 2023. The final report will be released in the summer of 2023, contributing to the advancement of social equity in transportation.