FREE SPEECH ZONE | Biking, walking, and blogging: Equity Summit 2011


What role can bicycling/walking transportation play in the equity imperative?

This is the question I took to the Equity Summit 2011 hosted in Detroit by Policy Link, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity by “Lifting Up What Works”. The premise of Policy Link is clear:  “If people of color do not succeed, the nation will not succeed.” Over 2,500 folks gathered to listen, learn and discuss. The Minnesota delegation numbered almost 175 – from community-based organizations, government agencies, foundations, and higher ed!

Dropping in from Minneapolis-St. Paul, which sails to top-ten accolades on dozens of urban quality-of-life measures, to Detroit, which has become the poster child of urban decline, was a kick in the gut. The harsh realities were a powerful conference backdrop: the glitzy GM Renaissance Center, global headquarters for General Motors, towers over acres of abandoned auto industry factories. 25% of Detroit’s population, mostly middle class, has fled in the past decade and neighborhoods in the urban core have the density of small rural towns. A trail along the Detroit River is a showcase of natural landscaping, but does not link destinations to serve as a good non-motorized route. Detroit’s city buses, running along main corridors, do not have bike racks and an elevated People Mover keeps already sparse foot traffic off of once-bustling downtown streets.

The failed magnificence of the Motor City is perfect metaphor for transportation equity: we must diversify beyond auto-dependence. For me, the signs of resurgence in Detroit, outweigh the indicators of decline. Check out the m-bike website to know that bicycles will be a key driving force in the new Detroit. The post “Franciscan Soup Kitchens Serve Detroit by Bicycle” could not better relate the economic attributes of bicycle transportation. The friar’s outreach capacity improved dramatically when he switched from a $200K/month storefront to two-wheel delivery. In a mobile workshop in the Lower Eastside, I saw community gardens and CSAs tucked into neighborhoods. This was just a small view of the burgeoning food movement in Detroit that is turning vacant land into urban farms to provide easy access to healthy food. The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network as one successful effort. Bike Walk Twin Cities has partnered with and promoted the local food movement here, helping to foster easy bike/walk access to healthy food. For a moving testimony of Detroit resilience see this short video

My insights from the conference focus on the story of Detroit but also on the wisdom of many excellent presenters and the exchange of an auspicious conference gathering.

  • Equity – just and fair inclusion leading to shared prosperity — is the superior growth model for our nation. We cannot leave people behind and expect to succeed. By 2042 a majority of the U.S. population will be people of color; children of color will be the majority in the next decade. The countries that have the edge in the changing markets are those that can connect to a global economy. The diversity of the U.S. is an enormous asset to its prosperity if we can prepare to become a world nation. We are not a poor country. Investing in infrastructure and workforce development are the paths to a more equitable future. Creativity and real participation will set us on a good course. For compelling documentation of this model see the Policy Link report, America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model.
  • Environment –We can predict the life expectancy of a child from the zip code where they live. The link between health and the built environment is clear and alarming; it is the basis of social injustice.[a1] The Twin Cities fare well on many indicators, but still have gaping health disparities. Bicycling and walking are part of the solution.
  • Today Rosa Parks could keep her seat, how long would she have to wait for the bus to come? How are we allocating investments of infrastructure? Medellin, Columbia, to overcome the devastating effect of drug wars, is building schools, libraries, museums, parks, monorail. The approach is radical, according to architect Alejandro Echeverri Restrepo, “the most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas.” And so to benefit the city overall the most challenged neighborhoods will benefit first from an infusion of new public investments.
  • Transportation is a defining facet of the equity platform we must build. Dr. Beverly Scott, the dynamo General Manager/Chief Executive Officer of MARTA (Atlanta transit system) asked, “Are we developing transportation systems of first choice or last resort? Dr. Scott sees that that the transformation of a region is played through transit (my note: consider walking and bicycling as the last mile of a transit trip) but that transit is not the “it.” The “it” is what it permits communities to do; the multiplier effect of transportation investments in economic and quality-of-life measures is huge.

“Lifting up what works” is a brilliant call to action. We know transit/bicycling/walking transportation is part of the solution toward shared prosperity. BWTC/TLC continues to listen, learn, and act to ensure that equity is intrinsic to our work. Our region deserves nothing less.

This article was first posted on Bike Walk Twin Cities Blog.

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