Opinion: Legislation vital to advancing equity in transportation
Oregon lawmakers have a critical opportunity this year to address and reverse some of the inequities in our transportation system by adopting Senate Bill 395. By prioritizing safe routes to walk, bike and roll, this legislation will support vulnerable communities and increase equitable access to our roads network.
The ongoing impacts of systemic racism have resulted in people from Black, Brown and Indigenous communities being more reliant on walking, biking and public transit to get where they are going. Unfortunately, the inadequate investment in equitable transportation options have left these communities underserved by our existing transportation system and more vulnerable to danger.
SB 395 builds on the legacy of the bipartisan Bike Bill enacted 50 years ago. That legislation designated 1% of state highway funds to go to walking and biking improvements. SB 395 would increase that designation to 5%, a significant investment towards the equitable transportation system we all need and deserve.
Increased investment in safe routes to walk and bike are sorely needed, particularly for communities living in our most underserved neighborhoods. A fatal pedestrian crash report released in March this year, by Oregon Walks, found that Black pedestrians in Portland were three times more likely to die in crashes than white people. Sadly, this is also reflected in geographies with higher concentrations of Black, Brown and Indigenous people, as the pedestrian death rate was also three times higher east of 82nd Avenue than those living to its west. Recent data from ODOT and Multnomah County confirm these disparities.
The inequities in our transportation infrastructure are not new to our Black communities. A glaring injustice in Portland's history is the massive investment in highway and commercial construction that displaced and disrupted large swaths of the Black community in the historic Albina neighborhood. Countless other choices have sustained the current inequities in our transportation infrastructure.
The communities that have been underserved and harmed by our transportation system have been raising these concerns for over a decade. In 2011, the East Portland Action Plan identified their transportation priorities as increasing "safety and convenience of walking throughout East Portland" and "safety and accessibility of bicycling in East Portland." Even a cursory review of East Portland's infrastructure underscores how much work is left to do to.
The city of Portland's 2019 PedPDX: Citywide Pedestrian Plan highlighted the urgent need for increased funding for more equitable transportation investments. In a public survey conducted for the plan, equity was identified as the top priority by respondents. Also embedded in the plan was the Walking While Black Focus Group Report which identified the top three priorities most important to Black Portlanders which were, improving streets where people have been killed or injured, neighborhoods where people rely on walking most, and residential streets that lacked sidewalks or walking paths.
Local leaders and governments recognize the critical importance of improving walking and biking infrastructure. But local transportation funding can only take us so far. That is why it is past time for an update to the state transportation formula to provide needed investments in safe routes to walk and bike.
We applaud the leadership of state Sen. Floyd Prozanski for introducing and championing SB 395 and thank The Street Trust for building a statewide coalition to pass it. We urge all of our legislators to listen to the diverse chorus of community voices and make the 50th anniversary of the Bike Bill something truly worthy of celebration.
Ashton Simpson is executive director of Oregon Walks. Cameron Whitten is an equity advocate and nonprofit executive.
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