Racial Equity at the California State Transportation Agency: An Era of Progress
The mission of the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) is to develop and coordinate the policies and programs of the state’s transportation entities to achieve the state’s mobility, safety, and air quality objectives from its transportation system. CalSTA’s vision is to transform the lives of all Californians through a safe, accessible, low-carbon, 21st-century multimodal transportation system. CalSTA oversees the following transportation-related entities:
- Board of Pilot Commissioners (BOPC)
- California Highway Patrol (CHP)
- California Transportation Commission (CTC)
- Department of Transportation (Caltrans)
- Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
- High-Speed Rail Authority (HSR)
- Office of Traffic Safety (OTS)
- New Motor Vehicle Board (NMVB)
In June 2020, immediately following the murder of George Floyd, CalSTA issued a Statement on Racial Equity, Justice and Inclusion in Transportation to publicly acknowledge that transportation improvements “historically have disproportionately benefitted certain segments of the population. Far too often, past transportation decisions quite literally put up barriers, divided communities, and amplified racial inequalities, particularly in our Black and Brown neighborhoods.” The statement notes that CalSTA will promote policies and programs that reflect principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, and we will work with stakeholders to identify areas of improvement.
CalSTA Secretary Toks Omishakin remains committed to furthering the agency’s focus on equity and building on the foundation established through the racial equity statement. This commitment complements Secretary Omishakin’s leadership in his prior role as Caltrans Director, where he established equity, climate action, and safety as the department’s three foundational principles.
“I am passionate about working to provide all Californians with access to the state transportation system,” Secretary Omishakin said. “Mobility is not just a means to an end; it is a lifeline. Every person of every race, age, ability and socio-economic status should have safe and equitable transportation access and not worry that bias — explicit or implicit — plays into the equation. At CalSTA, we strive to influence greater opportunities for others through accessible and equitable mobility for all.”
Equity as a Foundation of Our Work
We are working at CalSTA to support and institutionalize equity within our agency and across our departments. One of the steps is to draft an agency-level Racial Equity Action Plan (REAP). Staff from CalSTA and seven of our eight departments recently completed the Capitol Collaborative on Race and Equity training, which introduced the concept and importance of having a REAP to guide our work. One of our departments, Caltrans, has already published its own REAP, but we aim to develop one at the agency level as well to guide our broader equity work across transportation.
Collaborating and Building Trust with Communities
In addition, CalSTA is developing an Equity Advisory Committee (EAC), in collaboration with Caltrans and the CTC, to elevate diverse and historically marginalized voices to advise our organizations on how to achieve meaningful transportation equity and environmental justice outcomes. Born out of our Climate Action Plan for Transportation Infrastructure (CAPTI), the EAC is anticipated to review and/or advise on transportation planning and programming to create more transparent processes, develop standards and practices for meaningful engagement, and provide technical assistance resources to people most impacted by projects, including disadvantaged, low-income, and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. Committee membership is intended to focus on marginalized voices reflecting different geographies and areas of the state who will provide meaningful input into transportation planning and programming for relevant state transportation agencies.
The EAC will build on recent CalSTA, Caltrans and CTC initiatives. In late 2020, the CTC established an Equity Advisory Roundtable comprised of local, non-profit, and advocacy partners to inform recommendations to specific equity activities. The Roundtable brought together equity experts, practitioners, and community leaders throughout the state to collaborate with Commission staff over a series of six virtual meetings held through early 2022.
In early 2022, CalSTA, Caltrans and the CTC began holding virtual equity listening sessions to hear from California public stakeholders on their experiences with the transportation system in their communities. The listening sessions are coordinated with local and regional community-based organizations to solicit the greatest level of involvement from each community. The listening sessions are also conducted in the participants’ language of choice — for example, in California’s Central Valley, we held the listening session in Spanish with English and American Sign Language translation to best serve the needs of the community participants.
While the listening sessions are still ongoing, we have heard feedback about transportation policy and infrastructure development decisions such as a lack of sidewalks in low-income neighborhoods and BIPOC communities, freeway widening projects that cut through already impacted neighborhoods, and community members seeking greater representation and inclusion in the transportation planning and decision-making processes. Findings like these from the listening sessions will help inform the EAC and guide executive staff on a pathway to implement administrative changes with an equity-oriented focus.
This work is not easy and it does not happen quickly. We are operating in systemic structures that have largely built in the inequity for which we are trying to atone. The challenge is the culture shift, understanding, and unlearning that must occur simultaneously while changing our practice. In addition, trust has been broken or never forged with many of the communities we seek to prioritize, and we are building up those relationships now to create more equitable outcomes. Through the EAC, listening sessions, and Roundtable, we are working to build (or rebuild) this trust with community members by integrating their feedback into our decision-making, respecting their expertise in the issues that matter to their communities, being transparent and accountable in our work with them, and “closing the loop” after our conversations by following up on how their feedback was incorporated, or if it wasn’t, why we made a different determination.
Equity as a Continuing Practice
Although CalSTA and our departments have equity leads and/or equity-focused offices, it is not the responsibility of only a few people to make these systemic changes. We need everyone to understand how equity shapes all aspects of our work. One way we are accomplishing this at CalSTA is by engaging the entire staff through quarterly justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) workshops. These workshops, begun in 2021, bring together staff from all levels of the agency to learn about and discuss the most pressing equity needs impacting our work and our lives. In addition, our departments have supported staff in attending, as well as developing their own, race and equity trainings. For example, Caltrans developed and shared with staff an equity toolkit and glossary of terms and a watch guide for diversity, equity and inclusion videos. Furthermore, Caltrans’ Equal Employment Opportunity Program worked with the Human Resources Office to develop a diversity, equity, and inclusion hiring panel program to reduce implicit bias in the hiring process.
A Call to Action
Over the past couple of years, public entities have stepped up their diversity, inclusion, and equity efforts. For people who are new to the issue of equity, particularly in transportation, we encourage you to use some of the same resources CalSTA and its departments provided to staff to learn more about this issue, including the PBS film Divided Highways and the film Segregated By Design, which is based on the book The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. There are several other books and podcasts focused on racial equity in transportation that provide a useful background and food for thought on the issue.
In addition, we encourage people to learn about the concept of implicit bias and then consider how your lived experiences influence your perspectives and actions. To get more involved in advancing mobility equity, you may wish to consider the diversity, equity and inclusion issues that you are passionate about. These might be issues around race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or economic justice, for example. You can research advocacy and community-based organizations that represent these groups and then join a couple of them to become more involved in diversity issues. Like CalSTA, other employers may also have a diversity committee or be working on incorporating diversity considerations into their policies and operations. Human resources offices would be a good place to learn if those kinds of efforts exist.
No matter how you choose to engage on the issues of race and equity, we stand by you and are committed to this important cause.
The California State Transportation Agency & the California Strategic Growth Council
These are just some of the investments and efforts that CalSTA has made and continues to implement to advance equity across the agency. CalSTA is a proud member of the Strategic Growth Council in building a California for All.