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June 27, 2012 / Christian Clansky

Transportation policy – it’s not just about roads

By Tamara Copeland, President
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers 

Bumper-to-bumper traffic. Metro breakdowns. Bus routes being cut. Transportation is high on the list of issues of concern to our region.

I must admit, however, that when regional leaders start to talk about transportation policy and locations of streetcars, bike paths, and new roadways, I sometimes glaze over. I’m far more concerned about access to health care, community stabilization, and educational and workforce opportunities. I said that one day and a very wise colleague reminded me that transportation policy has historically played a pivotal role in creating pockets of geographic isolation and poverty.

(via Virginia Foundation for the Humanities)

She was right. Her comment reminded me of what had happened in the 1950s in Richmond, Virginia, my home town. During the era of segregation, a very robust African-American community had developed in a section of town called Jackson Ward. It was a totally self-contained community. Sometimes called the Harlem of the South, many of the black stars of the ’30s,’40s, and ’50s, such as Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington routinely performed there. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the famed dance partner of Shirley Temple, called this area home.

Known also as the Wall Street of Black America, Jackson Ward was home to many black entrepreneurs. Maggie Walker, the first woman and the first African-American to charter a bank, lived here. My great aunt owned a successful florist business there and while in his 20s, my Dad opened a small snack bar below what was then a thriving ballroom. Jackson Ward was a robust, complete, African-American community in the days of separate-but-equal.

Then in the 1950s, state and local politicians decided that they needed a better north-south highway than the one that currently existed. They built the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike. Soon after it opened, it became a part of Eisenhower’s interstate highway system. You may remember that Eisenhower had wanted an interstate highway system ever since World War II. He had identified the lack of a connected highway system as one of the challenges to moving equipment and personnel across the country efficiently during the war. Now, he could change that. The newly built Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike became part of Interstate 95.

(via ArlNow)

When planners were considering where that highway would be built, there was little discussion. It would go through Jackson Ward. Of course, no one said it like that, not the local leaders or state politicians or federal officials, but little attention was given to alternative routes that would have cut through the neighborhoods of the wealthy and powerful. The actions of local, state, and federal officials combined to dissect and destroy Jackson Ward. It has taken almost half a century for this neighborhood to return to a semblance of what it once was.

So when transportation conversations start, those of us who care about building complete communities need to focus our attention. No more glazing over. We need to consider how transportation planning fits into the larger equity issues that funders are addressing, like affordable housing, food deserts, and access to quality education. Let’s think about the current conversations about transit-oriented development, development that will likely be very high end units, not affordable by most. When we think about jobs, let’s think about how people are going to get to those jobs. Let’s think about the decision-making processes and whether they take more vulnerable communities into account.

And I hope you remember what happened to Jackson Ward in Richmond, Virginia. Transportation policy is not just about roads. It’s about people.


3 Comments

  1. kldavis / Jun 27 2012 1:05 pm

    Excellent comments. And, look at the many communities that were damaged by heconstrction ofelevated highways in several major US cities around the same time. It’s not just about roads; it’s about people — ALL people — not just a select few.

  2. kldavis / Jun 27 2012 1:06 pm

    *the construction of elevated highways [sorry for the spacing issues]

  3. Stewart Schwartz / Jun 29 2012 3:50 pm

    Thank you Tamara for this post. Now that I am active on smart growth issues in Richmond in addition to the Washington DC region, I have seen first hand the damage the highways did to the African-American neighborhoods of Richmond. Where DC residents managed to finally stop the highways, they all appear to have been built in Richmond.

    Note that transit-oriented development — mixed-use and mixed-income — is an important part of an equitable future for the Washington DC region. The less desirable alternative would be continued sprawl which takes companies and jobs to areas far beyond transit and frequently far beyond where lower income workers live. By focusing jobs and housing and services at a network of transit-oriented centers and neighborhoods, we can improve access to jobs and reduce transportation costs for low income households. Yes, in doing so, we need everyone at the table in planning, we need to preserve existing affordable housing and include new affordable housing in new development, and we must continue to invest in transit and in funding transit operating costs so that we can keep fares reasonable.

    Today the threat isn’t from highways through urban neighborhoods, but from highways (outer beltways) that bypass our cities and older suburban neighborhoods. The Outer Beltway proposal is being revived here and would undermine older communities and our goals for a network of transit-accessible centers. With limited transportation funds, we need to be investing in existing communities, in transit and in affordable housing linked to jobs, not fueling more sprawl and decentralization.

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