Whose streets are we planning?

Transportation planning offers huge opportunities to enable equity

Transportation planning typically focuses on mobility rather than a broader goal of accessibility. Factors like the crumbling state of existing infrastructure, network connectivity, sustainability goals, improving safety and reducing congestion are usually considered. But is that enough?

The social and economic impacts of transportation projects are murkier.

Even when city policies identify social-justice priorities, the outcomes are not necessarily clearly defined. How can cities capitalize on transportation projects to reduce barriers and create opportunities for marginalized groups?

How we build our streets can be one part of a broader discussion about fairness, inclusion, economic opportunity and health.

Equity starts with access. Enabling people to have a voice in the planning process can foster a sense of ownership. And from a transportation perspective, the lived experience that a wide variety of users bring to the table provides the input needed to define goals for the project. These are well-established principles, but governments and planners still struggle to create conditions that enable equitable access.


Posting information somewhere buried on a city’s website or putting an advertisement in the daily newspaper may not seem like the best ways to reach a broad and diverse group of stakeholders, but these are two of the main tools many cities still rely on to get the word out. Set aside the fact that most people won’t stumble across a web page or peruse the ads in the print newspaper, and consider how these strategies create barriers for people who don’t have access to the Internet at home, or who can’t pay for the newspaper.


Citizens can’t participate in the process until they are made aware of the project, so cities need to bend over backwards to get the word out. Maybe that’s why advertising on Facebook rather than in newspapers, or by placing ads on buses. Cities need to get better at reaching out to community partners such as interest groups, newcomer settlement agencies and social-housing providers to help share the invitation to their communities.


The old-school approach of renting a church hall and expecting everyone to take time out of their lives to show up is no longer enough. Cities need to get creative and create strategies to reach all of the stakeholder groups that could be affected by a project.


That might mean passing out info to parents at a yoga class, hockey league or playgroup, or hosting a pop-up at a popular bar trivia night. We also need to create online spaces that foster conversation, which can also improve access for people with mobility restrictions.


Planners also need to reframe the indicators they use to guide projects. McGill researchers who studied social equity in transportation planning suggest four measures cities can use to add a social-justice lens to transportation projects:

  1. Effect on accessibility to desired destinations, especially for disadvantaged groups
  2. Difference in traffic injuries and deaths on a per-trip basis between car users, pedestrians and cyclists
  3. Comparison of travel times to work and essential services using different modes, such as driving or transit
  4. Difference between top- and low-income groups in the proportion of household expenditures spent on transportation

Transportation projects are more than just ways to move cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians around. The quality of transportation facilities affects social and economic opportunities. Approaching these issues from a more comprehensive and equitable perspective can ensure transportation planning evolves to reflect the needs and values of the community. How we build our streets can be one part of a broader discussion about fairness, inclusion, economic opportunity and health.