A Tale of Two Truths: Transportation and Nuance in the Time of COVID-19

Ariel Ward
May 14, 2020 · 6 min read

*Content Warning: Race-based violence*

“It’s a kind of honesty people don’t want to face,” says civil rights activist and MeToo movement founder, Tarana Burke. During an intimate conversation on Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us, Burke and Brown delve into the dangers of ascribing truth to a single narrative.

“That statement right there, Tarana,” replies Brown “You are creating an internal tension within people that we are, slowly but surely, losing our capacity to hold. We cannot hold two competing ideas very well together, so we just have to trounce the idea that gets in our way ideologically.”

Several weeks ago, a friend and I were verbally harassed and almost physically attacked by a white supremacist on a hike in Berkeley. While yelling a hideous assortment of racial epithets, a man lunged at us several times and threatened to smash our heads in with the wooden board he was carrying. Luckily, we escaped unscathed — or so I thought.

I let “nigger” roll off my back as it was not the first time I encountered such vitriolic disdain for my existence. And I knew it would not be the last. But, I did not realize that I would wrestle with the weight of this hate and aggression for weeks to come. And it worked, as trauma does, masterfully disguised. I couldn’t place the tightening I felt in my chest any time someone was approaching my direction. Nor could I understand the sudden urge to grab pepper spray before an essential run to the grocery store.

For a moment, during that harrowing encounter in the woods, I thought I was surely going to have the same fate as Nia Wilson. At just 18 years of age, Nia was fatally stabbed on the MacArthur BART platform by a white supremacist in July 2018. Her sister, Letifah Wilson’s words “We all could of been Nia Wilson,” surfaced from deep within my psyche and permeated fiercely into my panicked chest.

Nia Wilson memorial at MacArthur BART Station, Photo via Wikimedia

Taking transit while Black. Hiking while Black. Jogging while Black. We exist in a painful reality where it took almost three months for Ahmaud Arbery’s killers to be arrested after his slaying while jogging down a street in Georgia. As cities nationwide move towards limiting vehicle traffic to facilitate socially-distant recreation or travel on “open” streets, I’ve been overwhelmed with a lingering anxiety of just being in public space.

The practice of open streets has sparked an intense dialogue among community activists, scholars, urbanists, and transportation professionals alike. A battle of ideologies has ensued — bringing to light an inability to hold and acknowledge the gravity of multiple truths against the weight of each other.

You can want open streets and want to hold cities accountable to ensuring new policies do not further harm communities of color. You can want open streets and want to prioritize the acute needs of Black and Brown communities that have been forced to show up for themselves in the midst of a crisis that has impacted them severely. Realizing these ideals in tandem may demand greater imagination and the decentralization of personal desires, but they do not necessitate competition. And yet, I’ve repeatedly observed them held in contempt of one another, particularly in the name of closing streets to vehicle traffic.

Open street with signage, Photo by: Chiamaka Ogwuegbu

I understand that equity is inconvenient. It demands reckoning with the ways in which we are complacent in upholding institutions of dereliction and oppression. Those of us who serve Black and Brown neighborhoods often grapple with the complexity of wanting to increase the availability of sustainable mobility options and hold space for the trauma transportation and city planning have inflicted on our communities. The mental and emotional toll of walking this tightrope of internal tension can be profound. But we walk it, steadfastly.

We walk it because we understand that transportation mobility and access can make the difference between poverty and economic stability. We walk it because of the disparate impacts of climate change on our communities. We walk it because we know that fears of displacement due to bicycle infrastructure is not a retired narrative. We walk it because of the societal and cultural importance cars have held in our history. We walk it because of our own love of active transportation. We walk it because we have experienced the pain of being targeted while traveling for no other reason than the color of our skin. We walk it because the ability to hold multiple, oftentimes complex, truths is a prerequisite for enabling a just existence.

Photo via CNN

This reflection is not a critique of open or slow streets programs. This reflection is a call for more critical nuanced thinking within our profession — especially in the time of the COVID-19 crisis. This virus is exacerbating existing inequities as rapidly as it’s spreading. As seen on a national level, nuanced decision-making (or a lack thereof) can be the difference between life and death.

When transportation professionals, particularly Black women, sought to call nuance into the conversation and policies around open streets and equity, responses ranged from the standard “not yet, not right now” to the dangerously insidious “Black/Brown people are more likely to die from traffic fatalities.”

Those who stand to be the most impacted by a policy or program should hold the most power in the decision-making space, but they rarely do. Thus, inquiries into how new transportation policies might compound inequity and erasure are always critical questions. They invite necessary nuance into an already delicate conversation. They are questions that someone must call attention to. For inattention is what allows inequity to flourish.

The most striking assertion is the falsity that, because we do not passively accept transportation policies and projects as they are presented to us, we don’t want Black and Brown communities to have access to active transportation infrastructure. How dare we ask for an evaluation on the impacts of decisions that were made for us, without us at the table — right?

Lately, I’ve been reminiscing on June Jordan’s Skyrise for Harlem, an ambitious plan to improve the lives of Black Harlemites without displacing them. In the same spirit that she calls for design without the erasure of communities of color, Jordan advocates for open space, plazas, playgrounds, and parks. At the heart of this vast concept, which she labored over for months with little food and no money, is the centering of a people “whose surroundings suggest that survival is a mysterious and even pointless phenomenon.”

Skyrise for Harlem (Instant Slum Clearance) by June Jordan and R. Buckminster Fuller, Esquire magazine, April 1965

June Jordan insists that both of these imagined realities — a Harlem decorated with rich green tapestry, lush walkable corridors, infused with human-centered architecture, and a Harlem inhabited by Black residents — can be true. In the following offering Jordan notes that the realization of these truths in harmony with one another demands responses that are deliberate and attentive:

What would it look like if we divorced ourselves from our particular ideologies to hold another, arguably more dire, truth? To step into that space where the answers to difficult questions make us uncomfortable, and perhaps even challenge that in which we believe? How might we engage with concerns of equity and erasure, even if they seem to inconvenience the implementation of our transportation policies and programs?

Perhaps, that is what they are supposed to do —to force us to take pause, and evaluate, before enacting solutions that could perpetuate and inflict harm. In any case, I am inviting you to sit in the ambiguity with me.

For those of you who are already here, I see you.

At The Intersections

Melanated musings on transportation and mobility by and for women of color.

At The Intersections

Melanated musings on transportation and mobility by and for women of color.

Ariel Ward

Written by

community ~ compassion ~ culture | transportation engineer/planner by day — all things creative by night .

At The Intersections

Melanated musings on transportation and mobility by and for women of color.