Equitable Decision Making

IOC Summer Fellow Taylor Cain

When I applied for the summer fellowship with the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics I knew that I would be asked to do in addition to think.  While daunting, this shift in orientation was also exciting and I braced myself for a summer where I might bridge my world of scholarly contemplation with my desire to directly impact the city I had come to call home. However, nothing could prepare me for the wave of anxiety I was hit with when I heard my project for the summer: creating an equity framework with the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) for Vision Zero Boston. With the unveiling of my project came a sudden realization of the immense responsibility of my task, I immediately felt overwhelmed.

In the first week of the fellowship I sought comfort in the strategies I knew best: research. I learned that Vision Zero represented an effort to imagine a future without traffic fatalities and that Boston had redone several stretches of roadway, created new bike infrastructure and worked with neighborhoods to develop community specific traffic calming plans in service of this commitment. I also discovered that several other cities who adopted Vision Zero had observed connections between areas where traffic fatalities and severe injuries were occurring and areas shaped by disinvestment and underinvestment, prompting uncomfortable conversations about why such patterns emerge and how best to move forward. As I took stock of the varied responses to inequities across cities, I began to wonder what determined whether city agencies entered into or avoided such discussions.

By the second week I started formulating research questions. Why the focus on traffic fatalities and not all forms of violence that occur on the street? Who defines equity? Are local governments capable of prioritizing the needs of “the most vulnerable” when faced by demands to serve every resident, and if so, who and what determines vulnerability? After a gentle reminder that I only had eight weeks, not several years of graduate school, in which to answer these questions, I realized that a question that needed to precede any project related to equity was: what do we value as a city?

To answer this question, I met with transportation advocates and city staff. In the first weeks of my fellowship I sat in on a Vision Zero Task Force meeting, a convening of staff from different city departments and select advocates in a conference room at City Hall. Familiar with discomfort, particularly in meeting spaces where I am an “outsider”, I embraced my location in the outer ring of chairs as an opportunity to observe the interactions in the room and among people speaking at the conference table. I was struck by the presence of representatives from Boston Public Schools, Boston Public Health Commission, as well as several transportation advocacy groups and quickly set about connecting with them. These meetings furthered my own education in the transportation sector and helped develop a grounded understanding of how individuals involved in Vision Zero think about equity.

I also met with community groups. In talking with Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) I learned about transportation equity for young people, particularly students enrolled in BPS. We discussed how the distribution of M7 passes, determined by a calculation of how far students live from their school, constrain how young people are able to experience the city, connect with employment opportunities, and at a most basic level, safely travel to school. As I listened I grappled with the tendency I had observed within transportation communities to define vulnerable users of the street in terms of their method of transportation. While pedestrians and cyclists are vulnerable in relationship to automobiles, I understood how identities related to race, class, gender, sexuality, ability and age offered deeper meaning to the use of the term vulnerability by shifting the gaze to the ways in which the certain bodies encounter discrimination and prejudice while walking, biking, and using public transportation. I could see how a framework solely guided by a conversation about walking or biking would not address the underlying issues communities experienced around perceptions of safety and access to opportunity. Through these conversations and analysis of materials from other Vision Zero cities, I began to identify a pressing need: developing an equitable approach to decision making and planning that centers the experiences of people.

What I ultimately ended up doing this summer was reimagining approaches to traffic and street safety within BTD. As I reflected on my conversations and existing tools, such as the Vision Zero Crash Map, one way the city examines and responds to the potential dangers people encounter moving about streets, I wondered how our knowledge about the realities of the city’s social and economic landscape might inform our analysis of streets. I hypothesized that if BTD looked at and analyzed streets and injury crashes in a way that centered place, particularly as it is shaped by people, they might make decisions differently. For example, if we know that injury crashes are occurring in neighborhoods where communities of color are burdened with additional challenges of social and economic mobility, how can we work with residents to create streetscapes that alleviate these issues? Could this way of thinking change how we approach redesigning streets, investing in sidewalks, or even develop budgets? From here I began to imagine a guiding statement for the work: When making decisions I will work with others to visualize how transportation projects relate to people and places; prioritize equity when making decisions; and discuss a commitment to addressing inequities across the city of Boston.

Instead of framing my approach as new, I sought to build upon growing commitments from within City Hall, such as those identified in the recently released report, Resilient Boston, from the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity.  The report, which outlines a resilience and racial equity strategy for the City, an approach to both maximizing resilience investments and preventing the increase of racial inequities and social injustices, allowed me to pose questions such as “for whom are there differences in traffic safety?” This line of questioning illuminated opportunities to expand the benefits of Vision Zero beyond the primary problem of traffic fatalities to include deep rooted inequities related to access and opportunity for low income residents and communities of color. In partnership with BTD and the Department of Innovation and Technology, I developed indicators of vulnerability that could be visualized as the transportation team makes decisions about redesigning streets, expanding the bike network, and prioritize new locations for street calming investments and capital projects.

At the end of eight weeks I did not manage to master the balance between doing and thinking but I did envision and create several pathways that could move the transportation team and city forward in ensuring streets act as meaningful and safe connectors not barriers to opportunity. I feel confident in the belief that my time sowed some promising seeds of change for the City of Boston and for myself, I know each party learned something valuable from the other.

About Taylor Cain

Taylor received her undergraduate education at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where she was enrolled in the Science in Society Program. Since then, she has been pursing her Ph.D. in Sociology at Boston University. During her first year of study, she was selected as a Martin Luther King Fellow based on her commitment to pursue research related to social justice. Taylor has recently received funding from IOC, in which she is researching gentrification in Boston.