USDOT takes a swing at Spatial Inequality in US cities

By Rebeckah Flowers

The promise of equality is fundamental to an understanding of the United States, yet daily news stories remind of us of the many inequalities which persist in our country: the gap between the incomes earned by men and women, justice system decisions that seem more affected by race than evidence, even health outcomes that are determined by one's socioeconomic class.  Today, the gap between rich and poor is nearly as great as that which divided our nation just before the Great Depression of the 1930s. To say we are a country in crisis is not saying enough.  But last month, a volley in the fight against inequality was fired from what may appear to be an unlikely source: the US Department of Transportation.

On June 21, the USDOT, in partnership with Vulcan Inc., named Columbus, OH the winner of its Smart City Challenge—a challenge which had purposefully included among its requirements that the winning city use advanced data and intelligent transportation systems, not just to reduce congestion, keep travelers safe, and use energy more efficiently, but specifically to spur reinvestment in underserved communities and reconnect those communities to centers of industry and opportunity.  In short, the challenge was to address spatial inequality, the problems specifically associated with living, sometimes literally, "on the wrong side of the tracks."

For Columbus, this means addressing the needs of Linden, a low-income community in which some areas have "an unemployment rate of over 15%, more than three times the rest of Columbus, and a high portion of carless households" as well as "a poverty level almost three times that of Columbus, and a medium income of less than half the rest of the City."

Like so many communities across our country, Linden has become geographically isolated from the city's primary job centers over the years. Residents became increasingly removed from the amenities other city residents enjoy, as transportation to those amenities became increasingly sparse as the neighborhood's income levels declined. Today, Linden residents without cars have few options —neither taxis nor ride-share/car-share companies care to invest in the neighborhood. That lack of investment, due to what private companies see as a lack of earnings potential, exacerbates the problem: Linden will continue to become increasingly isolated without intervention.

This type of spatial inequality between communities and neighborhoods within a metropolitan area is, in many ways, a uniquely American problem, according to Paul  Jargowsky, a public policy professorat Rutgers University.  In his article, "The Spatial Dimensions of Inequality", he argues that European nations have done a much better job at creating public policies which protect citizens' access to city resources. In the U.S., on the other hand, private industry often has been left to its own devices, driving development by following the money, which has resulted in sprawling and disproportionate growth. With the Smart City Challenge, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx handed the reins of development, and responsibility for the well-being of all a city's citizens, back to local government.

But the results of spatial inequality and isolation are far-reaching; addressing the problem isn't as easy as simply creating better transportation systems for residents. All aspects of their daily life have been affected, and would need to  be addressed to put them on equal footing. Their children attend local schools that are often under-funded and may be unsafe; access to the Internet and other educational opportunities are often not available, so the residents lack the skills and abilities they need for jobs, even if they can find ways to get to the city's job centers. And there is often a lack of role models and mentors to help young people succeed. In addition, limited access to health care further cripples resident's abilities to work or increase their standard of living over the cost of medical bills. In Linden, limited access has resulted in one of the highest infant mortality rates in the city.

But there is good news. Spatial inequality can be successfully remedied through informed public policy, and the USDOT has just taken a leadership role in helping to form, and fund, such policy.

As Columbus begins its transformation with Linden as its test case, they will have to consider a huge variety of factors:  ethnicity, income, household structure, population density and current mobility patterns, access to job opportunities, to healthcare, education and the Internet; to other resources such as quality food, water, clothing, and assistance programs, as well as the cost of housing and transportation—all of which are impacted by one's geographic location.

 Considering this complexity, the importance of sophisticated GIS in every phase of development cannot be overstated. From validating data points and creating multi-dimensional visualizations to monitoring the progress of policy changes, GIS is one of the greatest weapons we currently have in our arsenal against spatial inequality. 

Among the most critical of its uses is predictive analysis: analyzing the impact of possible locations for various amenities, service centers or transportation hubs. Work done by social scientists from Morgan State University to combat homelessness in Baltimore is a prime example. There, a complex series of data points were overlaid on a community map to determine if the proposed location of a new homeless shelter would increase community crime rates. Everything from population density and the location of businesses to mobility patterns of the homeless tracked by GPS was taken into account. After careful analysis, it was determined that the shelter would have no negative impact; the project could continue.

Columbus now has the opportunity to use some of the world's most advanced systems to create similar studies to inform future public policy decisions, and the funds to employ cutting edge technology solutions to implement them.

What have they already planned to address Linden's spatial inequalities?

Foremost is the continued development of a high tech transportation corridor along Cleveland Avenue, which connects Linden to downtown job centers and the Ohio Health Medical Center. The mayor has said the city will "green light" commuter corridors, so that public transportation systems have priority at intersections, allowing them to stay on schedule and deliver workers to their jobs on-time at the end of a predictable commute. They will create apps which will provide real-time traffic and transportation data, and they have proposed expanding the mass transit system to include autonomous vehicles that can bridge the gap between rail and bus stations and job centers.  The city will also create a single payment and information system for public transportation that will allow residents who do not have bank accounts or credit cards to buy and reload transit passes with cash at kiosks along the routes.

To make inroads against other inequalities, the mayor has said he will work with private industry to spur new investment in Linden, and that the city also will extend free WiFi services to residents—a move which could increase their access to online education and public welfare system, and make job searching easier.

As for the other six finalists in the challenge, Secretary Foxx has said that the USDOT and Vulcan will continue to support and assist them in the development of their own smart city initiatives. 

Published Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

Written by Rebeckah Flowers

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