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Seattle’s DOT Is Rethinking Transportation Equity

(Photo: Oran Viriyincy)

In one of its first actions of 2018, the Seattle City Council unanimously adopted a resolution affirming its commitment to racial equity and social justice in transportation planning. The resolution states that the Department of Transportation (SDOT) will provide “accessible and affordable transportation options that support communities of color, low-income communities, immigrant and refugee communities, people with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, LGTBQ people, women and girls, youth, and seniors.”

“The work to address equity within the Department of Transportation is critical and this resolution is just one small step along the path,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien at the Jan 2 council meeting. “We know Seattle is becoming a higher cost city and more and more people are struggling to afford to live in our city. Housing is a big piece of that puzzle, but transportation is a close second.”

With no policy prescriptions, resolutions are essentially symbolic gestures. But O’Brien said last week’s resolution “asks SDOT to create a broader equity agenda [that] will establish the city’s policy on that work.” SDOT began that effort last year with the creation of its Transportation Equity Program. There are a growing number of cities with equity manager positions working citywide,—including Portland, OR, Asheville, N.C., and Minneapolis—but Seattle’s new program is fairly unique among departments of transportation in the U.S. Through it, SDOT wants to ensure its own planning and project implementation better serve Seattle’s low-income communities and communities of color and partner with other agencies to make transit more affordable.

In May 2017, the city hired Naomi Doerner, a transportation planner with a background in walk and bike advocacy, to manage the program. “In the work that I was doing around walk and bike advocacy,” she says, “it was really clear to me that … there needed to be voices and leadership at the table from communities to guide the process and really direct what the strategies ought to be.”

Doerner’s vision for SDOT’s equity program is essentially the same: To shift the department’s planning model from acting upon communities with project implementation to involving communities from the beginning in a way that ensures the projects they get are best serving their needs. Doing so, she says, is important for creating a transportation system that’s affordable and equally accessible to everyone in Seattle.

Right now, much of that work is about building relationships with leaders in low-income communities and communities of color around the city. SDOT is partnering with the Department of Neighborhoods’ Community Ambassadors to provide interpretation and serve as liaisons at project outreach events. The Ambassadors are community members trained by the Department of Neighborhoods and paid for their work. SDOT is also working with four grassroots nonprofit organizations, providing technical support for their existing work around transportation access and in part to build relationships with their constituents.

In her outreach so far, Doerner has learned that there are physical barriers to transportation access. Thanks to missing sidewalks or long distances to bus stops, some areas have transportation options that are difficult to navigate for people with mobility issues. In other areas, there just aren’t enough transportation options, whether because of infrequent transit service or because Seattle’s hub-and-spoke transit model primarily serves people coming and going from downtown jobs. She’s also hearing there are digital barriers to equity—that having the bulk of information about new projects, construction delays, transit options, low-income program options and the like online prevents some people from easily accessing that information.

In an early effort to address the latter issue, the Equity Program held a pop-up event in November at Yesler Terrace, an affordable housing development operated by the Seattle Housing Authority. Using the Community Ambassadors to assist with translation for non-native English speakers, SDOT met with residents to teach them about transportation projects in their community and help sign them up for programs such as the ORCA Lift reduced fare transit pass program.

SDOT does not operate buses or light rail—those are the purview of King County Metro and Sound Transit respectively. But Doerner says the Equity Program works closely with the transit agencies both to think about how the physical streetscape SDOT controls can influence transit service and to help connect low-income Seattlites to reduced-transit fare programs.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Seattle transportation advocates are excited to see the agency make a concerted effort to address equity and affordability.

“I think the city and SDOT have a lot of good pieces in place in this area, like good low-income programs and a great race and social justice program,” says Transportation Choices Coalition policy director Hester Serebrin. “But it’s been disparate in the past. There hasn’t been one person with an eye on all these pieces in the department.”

Seattle has had a Race and Social Justice Initiative for more than a decade now. It was created to address institutionalized racism and race-based disparities in the city, and all city policy is supposed to be implemented through that lens.

But even though SDOT’s work has theoretically been done with the Initiative in mind, Serebrin thinks having a single point person focused on the issues will lead to better coordination around equity internally and a greater likelihood of SDOT having a real ear open to all communities in the city.

“In general, it’s a positive sign that they have someone who’s devoted to this work. And I think the resolution lays out a lot of really good ideas,” says Katie Wilson, General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union, a grassroots activist organization that works on affordable transit and housing campaigns.

Wilson worries, however, that SDOT’s program can only accomplish so much, unless the city increases funding for programs that improve transit affordability.

“We would love to see the Youth ORCA card program expanded and we would love to see affordability programs for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. … I hope that starting this program and laying out the kind of things the city would like to do will be a spur for finding new funding sources for that work,” she says.

Addressing the institutionalized structures that have made a Transportation Equity Program necessary is no easy task. But, Doerner says, “It’s exciting to be at the formative stage. It’s not on me [individually] to fix historic and current barriers, but as a strategic advisor I can work with leaders to develop a comprehensive vision and set of strategies to position the agency and communities of Seattle to reach the transportation equity outcomes they want.”