In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Regan Patterson, an incoming assistant professor at UCLA who recently completed a fellowship as a Transportation Equity Research Fellow at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Patterson describes how the US transportation system has led to environmental injustice and inequitable access to mobility services. She and Raimi talk about how this situation came to be; potential policy solutions; and how cities, states, and the federal government can address these issues moving forward.
Listen to the Podcast
- Health inequities have been driven by transportation infrastructure: “When you look at roadway density and proximity to roadways, there’s the highest density in non-white and low-income communities, which leads to disproportionate exposures and consequently disparate health impacts. A lot of this can be traced to freeways and roadway placement, in combination with discriminatory housing policies.” (4:27)
- Market-based policies may not be a sufficient solution: “Market-based policies don’t guarantee localized emissions reductions, particularly when they don’t have specific emissions reduction targets in overburdened communities … Another issue of concern is, Where are the funds from these market-based policies going? Are they going toward environmental justice communities and solutions, or are they going to more pollution sources, such as using market-based transportation policies to fund more roadways?” (18:16)
- Public transit as a public good: “Transit is essential for those who keep our cities running. Other cities are also experimenting with similar fare-free transit programs. That, to me, is a really innovative approach. Can we treat public transit as a public good, and therefore have it free for everyone?” (22:24)
Top of the Stack
- “Gender, Climate and Transport in the United States” by Regan Patterson from the Women’s Environment and Development Organization
- “Dangerous by Design 2021” by Smart Growth America
- “Carbon trading, co-pollutants, and environmental equity: Evidence from California’s cap-and-trade program (2011–2015)” by Lara Cushing, Dan Blaustein-Rejto, Madeline Wander, Manuel Pastor, James Sadd, Allen Zhu, and Rachel Morello-Frosch
- Black in Environment
- “Black Like Plastic” short film
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. Today, we talk with Dr. Regan Patterson, who recently completed a fellowship as a Transportation Equity Research Fellow at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and is an incoming Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UCLA.
In today's episode, Regan will help us understand how the US transportation system leads to environmental injustices and inequitable access to mobility services. We'll talk about the history of how this came to be; policy solutions that are on the table; and how cities, states and the federal government can address these issues more comprehensively in the future. Stay with us.
All right, Dr. Regan Patterson, newly with the University of California at Los Angeles. Welcome to Resources Radio.
Regan Patterson: Thank you so much. Happy to be here today.
Daniel Raimi: Regan, we're going to talk about your work on the transportation sector and how transportation systems are, or are not, equitable for all sorts of different people in the United States.
We always ask our guests how they got interested in working on energy and environmental issues in the first place, either as a young person or later in life. What drew you into this field?
Regan Patterson: With that question, it takes me back to being in the garden with my grandma. That was really my first experience connecting to the earth, helping her tend to her garden. This really, for me, instilled care for the earth, care for the environment. Later, this practice translated into things like recycling and other kinds of ways that I could be environmentally friendly in my daily life and daily practice.
Then, funny enough, when it came time to pick a major, I was sitting at my computer, and I turned to my mom, and I was like, “Mom, what should I major in?” She was like, “Well, you like math and physics. Why not engineering?”
You had to select a subfield. I turned right back to my mom and asked, “Which engineering field should I select?” She was like, “Well, you like to recycle. Why not environmental engineering?”
That was literally the beginning of the rest of my career. That's really how I became interested and got started getting involved in environmental work.
Daniel Raimi: That's so interesting. I think if my parents had given me suggestions about what my major should have been, I would've taken exactly the opposite of whatever it was they told me. But maybe I should have listened to them! Who knows?
Where did you grow up? Where was your grandma's garden?
Regan Patterson: In Maryland. I grew up in Potomac, Maryland.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Well, as I mentioned, we're going to talk about equity issues related to transportation today. We've talked on this show before about environmental justice issues, and we've focused largely on industrial facilities, waste facilities, things like that. We haven't talked a lot about transportation. Can you give us some historical background on how actions in the past have resulted in a transportation network in the United States that has led to an unequal burden of exposure to pollution, particularly for low-income communities and communities of color?
Regan Patterson: Yes. One major factor that I point to are our freeways and freeway construction. Historically, following the Federal-Aid Highway Act, freeway construction and urban renewal programs really inequitably impacted poor communities of color, and predominantly Black communities. So, because of freeway construction, you had the demolition of Black neighborhoods and other communities of color. You had the displacement as well as the destruction of the local economy. It really devastated entire communities. This happened all over the nation. You had freeway placement, which really promoted segregation. Then you had that, in combination with race-based planning practices such as redlining and racially restrictive covenants, which prevented movement out of environmentally burdened neighborhoods.
This has really significant implications for disproportionate exposures to traffic-related air pollution. Now, when you look at roadway density and proximity to roadways, there's the highest density in non-white and low-income communities, which leads to disproportionate exposures and consequently disparate health impacts. A lot of this really can be traced to freeways and roadway placement, in combination with discriminatory housing policies.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's so interesting. I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Detroit is right down the road, and there are so many examples of this in Detroit. Are there other cities that come to mind as sort of poster children of how the siting of freeways has been applied in a disproportionate and overly burdensome way?
Regan Patterson: Yeah. So, you named Detroit, with the I-75, I-375. You have Atlanta, LA—literally every urban core really provides examples of this phenomenon happening.
Daniel Raimi: Interesting. When you think about policy options to address this problem today, given the state of the infrastructure as it currently exists, what are some of the most promising options that come to mind—whether they are at the local, state, or federal levels?
Regan Patterson: In terms of policies, really increased funding and planning for multimodal transportation, with a particular focus on public transit. At the federal level, we see recently the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, substantially increased public transit funding to help expand it. So, anything that helps encourage or fund more frequent, reliable, and accessible service to help reduce our automobile dependency and our reliance on cars, is a promising policy, in my opinion.
In terms of multimodal beyond public transit, we're seeing a lot of local investment in bus lanes and bike lanes. Again, this helps deprioritize using roads for cars—but really encouraging us to get out of our cars, to make them more walkable, bikeable, and to increase public transit use.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. That all makes sense. What about the role that electric vehicles [EVs] could play here? Obviously, they're still powered by electricity, which may be coming from a fossil-fired power plant, which has its own environmental implications. To what extent do you think EVs can help, because they have zero tailpipe emissions?
Regan Patterson: Absolutely. When we talked earlier about the proximity to roadways—if we want to have an intervention that improves or reduces exposure to the tailpipe emissions or transportation emissions, electric vehicles are definitely a way to do that. That transition to zero-tailpipe-emissions vehicles, and then having that in parallel to the transition to clean energy, to ensure that we do have the cleanest forms and across the entire life cycle to reduce the transportation emissions and exposure. So, absolutely.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. One other question that comes to mind with electric vehicles is their weight. Electric vehicles are often heavier than their internal combustion counterparts because of the weight of the batteries. I know some of your work has documented unequal exposure to traffic accidents within urban communities. Is that something that you would worry about in terms of EV deployments: the potential exacerbation of health impacts of traffic accidents?
Regan Patterson: Absolutely. The batteries themselves do contribute to the increased weight, as you mentioned, of EVs, in comparison to internal combustion vehicles of the same size. Something of concern is particularly from a gendered perspective. This comes up because the United States actually does have a shift toward wanting trucks and SUVs. There's actually gender implications of this—of who's driving the small cars and the big cars. When you're looking at vehicles and accident potential, there are significant gender implications of that—of who's driving the big cars, and then who is more likely to have more health-consequential accidents when they happen.
That is one thing that I have looked at, and there was a great report done with the Women's Environment and Development Organization that mentions it. As the trends shift toward these larger vehicles, again, the concern around traffic fatalities—and we did see during COVID, there was a great report done by Smart Growth America showing that traffic fatalities actually increased during COVID, and there were racial disparities in that.
And something that contributes, again, is the increased likelihood of having roadways that encourage fast driving through communities of color. That is another issue of concern.
Daniel Raimi: That's really interesting. Just one more follow-up on this before we move to our next subject, which is: You mentioned the gender disparity. Is the idea there that it's typically men that drive the like 10-foot-tall trucks and women that tend to drive smaller cars?
Regan Patterson: Yes. There are gender differences in car selection. That's exactly right.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Every time I see one of those trucks around town, it's always a dude behind the wheel.
Let's talk about something else now, which is a related issue—not so much issues of pollution and exposure to accidents, but more about access to mobility—affordable and clean mobility. What types of challenges do Black households face with regard to access to reliable, clean mobility?
Regan Patterson: Yeah. To start, just having access to an automobile. Around 20 percent of Black households don't have access to a car at all, which is the highest percentage among all races and ethnicities. When you have an automobile-dominated transportation system, this definitely hinders mobility.
Then, on the other hand, when you look at public transit, African Americans, Black folks, are actually overrepresented to public transit, with almost one in four public transit riders being African American. However, there's been significant underinvestment in public transit—particularly buses. This contributes to a lack of access to reliable and accessible and frequent service. Then, on top of that, I guess I'll add that you add the phenomena of gentrification, rising housing costs, and lack of affordable housing for all incomes, which is pushing Black folks and other communities of color out of cities, to areas with even fewer mobility options.
From a car side and a public-transit side, there are some challenges in terms of mobility.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. There's health implications of this, too. Right? Actually, I think about the COVID era, and who was taking public transportation, and who had access to their own vehicle. I imagine COVID would've exacerbated those types of inequalities.
Regan Patterson: Yeah. When we think of COVID, one of the main concerns was access to healthcare facilities, and getting to healthcare facilities for testing as well as for vaccination. So, because of a lack of reliable mobility options, that was a huge concern. Government started stepping in on the federal level—there were partnerships for free Lyft rides or free Uber rides to go get vaccines—because of this recognition that, due to a lack of access to transportation, it was hindering ability to receive testing or to receive treatment.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's interesting. I was also thinking about exposure to the virus itself. If it's a disproportionate share of Black riders on public transportation, presumably public transportation is a riskier place to be from a COVID perspective than in a private vehicle.
Regan Patterson: Yes. In terms of that, we see that, for example, with workers and bus drivers, one concern was for the health of the actual drivers and other public transit employees. Yes, that was definitely a concern.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. To jump again to the policy piece of this: I know there are a million nuances here that we're glossing over, but can you talk a little bit about some of the policy options that you see as particularly promising, that can address this problem of lack of mobility?
Regan Patterson: Yes. I'll bring this back and, as I'm sure will become very apparent, really any policy that increases, expands, or complements public transit. There's been an increase in funding for transit and other non-auto modes, such as I mentioned before—biking and bike lanes—but most of our infrastructure funding still does go to roadways, including for highway construction and expansion, which again has implications for disproportionate exposures. I think we really need a paradigm shift in our funding allocation. It's great to have programs. You brought up electric vehicles—it's great to have this transition to electric vehicles in terms of exposure. Also, however, I think making sure that public transit is getting at least equal funding to that of our roadway infrastructure.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. You've also done some work on micromobility—small vehicles like scooters or bicycle shares or things like that. Can you talk a little bit about access to micromobility in its current form and how it might be expanded?
Regan Patterson: Yeah. There's been a lot of growth of micromobility—scooter share, bike share. A lot of this work has been tackling this issue of access and equity in terms of access and increased mobility. We're seeing things such as being able to use these with a public transit card, for instance, where your public transit may allow you to have one free hour. Some services are doing that, or just allowing people to get around in a way that they could not, otherwise, and making sure that they are deployed equitably in neighborhoods—whether neighborhoods that are diverse by ethnicity or socioeconomic status. So, making sure that the deployment is equitable across neighborhoods. We're seeing an increase in that, as well.
Again, a colocation or a complementing of public transit. For instance, if you look on your Lyft app, now you can see various kinds of modes. You can get your scooter, you can see when the public transit is coming, you can see when your Lyft ride is coming. So, making sure that all of these options are available to people.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's really interesting. I was also thinking about access to modern banking services, right? For a lot of these things, you need to have a credit card, which might not be available to everybody.
Regan Patterson: Absolutely. That is one issue of concern. I brought up how a lot of services are trying to address this, because, as you mentioned, banking cards. And, for instance, a high proportion of Black people don't have access to banking—are underbanked or unbanked. So, coming up with innovative solutions to ensure that you don't need a card. That could be making sure that your public transit card can provide access. Or are there other ways in which you can buy this service? I did write about potential opportunities if a local convenience store provided credit to then use. Fortunately, there's examples of scooters and bike share programs that are starting to really do this to address equity, but making sure that access for the unbanked and underbanked is definitely a priority in terms of the equity aspect.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. That's really interesting. Well, let's step back for a moment. I'd like to ask you a big-picture question, which comes up a lot in conversations about equity and pollution exposure, which is about policy and mechanisms that we can use to address these issues, whether we're focused on environmental or energy goals, or access to mobility, or anything else. Oftentimes, when people talk about environmental justice issues, there's sometimes attention between regulatory-based approaches versus market-based approaches like carbon pricing or other pollution-pricing mechanisms. I'm wondering, in the context of mobility and exposure to air pollution related to transportation, can these two policy options be complementary, or do you see one approach that’s typically preferable to another?
Regan Patterson: I will definitely say, for me, one I find preferable over the other, which is traditional regulation. I oppose market-based policies from an environmental justice perspective. So, among other reasons, market-based policies don't guarantee localized emissions reductions, particularly when they don't have specific emissions reduction targets in overburdened communities. There was a recent study that came out by Cushing et al., and it actually found that California's cap-and-trade program, which a lot of policymakers look to as an example, actually worsened the pollution burden in environmental justice communities.
Another issue of concern is, Where are the funds from these market based policies going to? Are they going to the environmental justice communities and solutions, or are they going to more pollution sources such as using market-based transportation policies to fund more roadways?
In terms of advocating, or my support for traditional regulation, there's a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., which said, “It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated.” He continues, “There's a need for strong regulation, constantly, to grapple with the problems we face.”
I'm of the opinion that our regulations and legislation might not be perfect, but it's really time for strong and bold legislation in order to adequately address environmental justice issues.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. That's really interesting. I mean, I wonder if there is some role for complementarity here where, I mean, you mentioned that California's cap-and-trade program doesn't have specific targets for overburdened communities, but you could imagine building that into a cap-and-trade system, right? If you just added some elements to it.
Regan Patterson: Yeah. If there were specific emissions reduction targets in environmental justice communities, then that would be a start. However, from an environmental justice kind of foundational background, the market contributed to environmental injustice. So, looking to the market to fix it is of concern. What kinds of bold new ways can we reimagine?
Then, oftentimes in terms of equity in pricing, is another concern. There might be a way—and I know that a lot of cities are grappling with it—how do you infuse equity into market-based approaches? However, thus far, I don't think we can really point to an example of a market-based solution that was able to adequately address environmental justice.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Good points. Hopefully, one of the things that we'll be able to do a better job of in the future (and by “we,” I mean folks who work mostly from an economic perspective on policy issues) is just having more conversations with people who have legitimate critiques of market-based programs and trying to use the strengths of market-based programs while also addressing the equity concerns that legitimately come up when a market-based program does not explicitly address them.
I'd love to ask you now about any examples that might come to mind of a community or a state or any other kind of geography that you would point to as having a particularly interesting or innovative approach to addressing the inequities that we've been talking about today in the transportation system, whether it relates to mobility, or pollution exposure, or any other relevant issues. Are there a couple examples that come to mind?
Regan Patterson: Yeah, there's a few that come to mind. In terms of mobility, something that I'd like to point to is how Boston's recently elected mayor, Wu, expanded Boston's fare-free transit pilot program. In terms of access and equitable access, it gets at that. It also gets at—you brought up COVID. So, it also gets at the fact which COVID helped visibilize, which is that transit is essential for those who keep our cities running. Other cities are also experimenting with similar fare-free transit programs. That, to me, is a really innovative approach. Can we treat public transit as a public good, and therefore have it free for everyone?
Then, in terms of pollution, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act actually invests $1 billion to reconnect communities. To really redress the inequities of it, which also helps address the pollution associated with it, the idea of freeway tear-down projects, freeway-removal projects, to reconnect communities, and several states actually have shovel-ready projects that they're hoping to be awarded funding for. An example you brought up is Detroit.
So, I'm excited to point to Detroit. There's the I-375 improvement project, actually, in Detroit, where the Michigan Department of Transportation is planning to replace that sunken highway with the street-level boulevard—that's to be lined with sidewalks and bike lanes. Federal funding will cover a majority of those project costs. That's actually an example of using this to reconnect communities.
Then, lastly, because I am moving back to California, if I can point back to California. In California, Assembly Member Garcia recently introduced AB 1778, which would actually prohibit the state from funding or permitting freeway expansions in environmental justice communities.
I point to those three, which are varying approaches, but all very exciting in the ways in which cities and states and the federal government are trying to address both mobility and exposure.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Those are fascinating examples. The idea of reconnecting community is such an interesting one. I'm curious about how scalable you think that approach can be, either today or in the years ahead. The volumes of traffic on some of those freeways are so great. I guess community connection would need to be combined with more public transportation, right? To enable people to get where they need to go? Can you just talk about the potential future for reconnecting communities and replacing some of these freeways with more sustainable transportation networks?
Regan Patterson: Absolutely. There definitely needs to be increased funding for public transit to make sure that people can transition from the car into other transportation modes. However, there's great examples of how cities have already done this. When you look at San Francisco, if you've enjoyed walking along the Embarcadero, that actually used to be a double-decker freeway. After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, it was torn down, and it was torn down without a replacement. Traffic is always kind of a lot in San Francisco, regardless, but there was not an increase in traffic due to the tearing down of the Embarcadero freeway to create the nice Embarcadero that people enjoy—walking and biking along and just sitting. That's an example of what can be done. Other communities have rerouted freeways, capped freeways, but the real goal is to remove.
Then again, the question gets at innovative approaches. How can we then transition people away from this reliance, is really the goal to imagine this new transportation system. The IIJA [Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act] gives $1 billion in funding. The original goal was $20 billion. If it could get to that level of funding, communities already across the country actually have visions for this.
There's a more recent example in Syracuse. They are already planning to tear down, I believe it's the I-81. We already are seeing examples of communities and cities that are actually ready and excited about doing this. To me, it speaks to what can be and the possibilities, and they're leading with community-led visions of how to replace that infrastructure with green space, and what can that green space be reimagined into? I think there are great examples of what can happen and how it's been able to happen without causing traffic disruption.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Well, that's really exciting. Really inspiring visions to think about for the future. Hopefully we'll be seeing more of them in the years ahead.
Well, Regan Patterson from UCLA, this has been really fascinating. I've learned a ton, and I'm sure our listeners have, too. We'd love to close it out, now, with the same question that we ask all of our guests, which is to recommend something that you've read or watched or heard, that you think is really great and that you think our listeners would enjoy. What's at the top of your literal or your metaphorical reading stack?
Regan Patterson: Yeah. I guess in terms of what I've recently watched, I do want to share that I'm the cofounder of Black in Environment, which aims to build community for Black people in environmental spaces. We just completed our BlackInEnvironWeek, which corresponds with Earth Week and is a week of programming. This year, we had a really cool opportunity to screen a short film called Black Like Plastic, which discusses the Black experience and the outdoors. That event was followed by a Q&A with the producers and the cast. I do definitely recommend watching that short film upon its release. Again, being from California, it was created by a group in California, but it really is a great discussion around the Black experience, and the outdoors, and environmental work.
Daniel Raimi: That sounds really fascinating. We will make sure to have any relevant links we can dig up in our show notes, so that folks can check that stuff out, as well as some of the other topics we've discussed today. One more time, Regan Patterson from UCLA, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Regan Patterson: Thank you so much for having me.
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