Charles Brown, founder, president and chief executive of Equitable Cities, a firm focused on equity in urban planning and an adjunct faculty member at Rutgers University, spoke to The Washington Post about the lessons transportation planners might take from the pandemic and racial justice protests, and how those might be applied in the future.
The Post: How do you think the experience of the pandemic and racial justice protests will influence transportation going forward?
Brown: I think the impact of transportation is multifaceted, but what I think will be at the center of that will be a renewed focus on the importance of race, racism and racial equality, and how we plan and design and maintain our transportation networks. It reminds us that it’s important for us to see the role that structural racism plays in creating disparities among the various populations in this country. When you combine the pandemic with the racial justice movement, what you end up with is, hopefully, a focus on centering racial equity in the design, planning and maintenance of our streets.
The Post: Were you surprised that traffic fatalities and pedestrian fatalities went up during the pandemic?
Brown: I was not surprised, because it goes back to who was actually being killed. Speed is a major factor and when you take into consideration that there were fewer cars on the street, there’s a greater opportunity to speed. You also can’t ignore the fact that people of color are more likely to be employed in essential jobs without the option to stay home. These same communities tend to be crisscrossed by very dangerous roads. You find that these Black neighborhoods and communities have not received their fair share of safe infrastructure.
The Post: Do you worry that streets are going to become more dangerous as people begin returning to their offices with more people out there on all different modes?
Brown: I think what we’ll see is a return to normal. I think it’s going to be just as dangerous as it has been, but I don’t think it will be more dangerous because, with more vehicles, you will see less speed. You’ll probably see increased enforcement. But I would like to see more people on the roadways be safer in their driving behaviors. So I think things will return to normal, but normal has never been acceptable for minorities in this country because they were dying.
The Post: Do you think public transportation systems will start to, given some of the lessons that have come out of this, rethink the hours they run or the type of service they offer?
Brown: I do think there will be changes in public transportation, but I think the changes will be more geared toward busing than rail because, [with] rail, the corridor is so fixed. So it’s not about redesigning the rail network, it’s changes in fares, changes in hours of operation and so on. On the bus side, I think there’s a huge opportunity to design a system that serves these minority populations who use buses at a much higher rate than their White counterparts. We cannot ignore the impact that race and class has on these two public transportation modes. What is simply an option for one community is a necessity for another.
The Post: Do you think the pandemic has had an influence on how the general public views these systems or views traffic safety?
Brown: Yes — I would say yes in part due to the attention … by the media. The pandemic has shown us who needs these transportation systems the most. Unfortunately, it’s the same people who are dying. There needs to be a moral or a spiritual awakening to really see they deserve the attention.
The Post: Do you think the pandemic will change how planners and city officials think about street design?
Brown: For those who understand the connection between institutional inequities and social inequities and how those influence our built environment, they will see there is a need to design and maintain our roadways in the communities that have been affected the most. Historically, those are Black, Hispanic and Native American. So as a result of that, I think they’ll be vigilant in asking local, county, regional and state and federal governments to prioritize funding and maintenance in these communities because they know, historically, these communities have been overlooked, and this has led to the unfortunate death, injury and incarceration of these individuals. And it’s all preventable.
The Post: Can you give me an example of how the built environment might influence behavior, how a street design might prompt people to jaywalk or make drivers more likely to speed?
Brown: Let’s start with an obvious one: the ways in which, historically, we have not designed streets that are safe for people with disabilities. There are oftentimes intersections where the crosswalk leads people with disabilities directly into the lane of travel. So that’s one way in which there’s a flaw in design. The other way is the fact that we have not placed or designed roads that are consistent with the normal behavior of pedestrians. For instance, we call it jaywalking because we prioritize cars. If we were to have midblock crossings, perhaps we would not see the level of what we call jaywalking. What we’ve done is forced pedestrians to walk upward of a quarter of a mile in one direction to cross the street when what we should have [are additional crossings] that [allow] them to do the same. When you are putting pedestrians in a situation where they have to choose to walk a quarter-mile to cross the street, I think you are influencing their behavior in a negative fashion. In addition to that, we have not maintained the bicycle infrastructure and we allow automobiles to park in that infrastructure, forcing cyclists [into the roadway].
The Post: Can you explain the concept of “complete streets?”
Brown: Complete streets are streets that are designed, operated and maintained with all users in mind. And that, by the way, is biking, walking, driving, taking public transit or delivering freight. It is a contextually and culturally sensitive approach to street design that takes into account the need to center diversity, equity and inclusion into its design, orientation and programming. It has trees and sufficient space for people to enjoy being themselves.
The Post: What changes do you hope to see coming out of the pandemic?
Brown: I am very optimistic about the future. I wake up every day and work from sunup to sundown to ensure that the future of transportation — everyone has equal access. I am not blindly optimistic. I am able to be optimistic while wresting with the reality that there is so much more to be done. I do believe that it will happen. I won’t stop until it happens.