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In this episode we connect with Dr. Regan Patterson, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. We discuss the intersection between transportation equity, health equity, and environmental justice. Focusing on the challenges we face here in Los Angeles and Southern California. We explore the pricing-out certain communities for automobiles, and the need for alternative modes of transportation for work and access to healthcare, green spaces, and healthy grocery options. We also scratch the surface of solutions for these challenges.
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Dr. Regan F. Patterson is the Co-Founder of Black in Environment. She is an Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Principal Investigator of the Engineering Environmental Justice Lab. Previously, Dr. Patterson was the Transportation Equity Research Fellow at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. She earned her PhD in Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests include air quality, sustainable transportation, community engagement, and environmental justice.
"I think it really speaks to the models in which these new technologies are being introduced, who is considered for these new technologies as they're introduced, and then addressing those barriers to entry from the beginning so that all users, particularly disadvantaged communities, communities that can benefit the most, get access at the very beginning as well."
Engaging the World: Leading the Conversation on Health Equity is a series of interviews with activists, artists, educators, historians, and journalists about accessibility, cost, prejudice, and the human experience of healthcare in America.
Guest: Dr. Regan F. Patterson
Host: Jon-Barrett Ingels
Produced by Past Forward in partnership with Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Chapman University.
[00:00:02] Dr Regan Patterson: During COVID-19, something that actually motivated a current study that I'm doing is that in Washington DC, for instance, there was the January 6th riot. They shut down the city, but Wards 7 and 8, which are predominantly African-American, did not have access to maternal health services at that time. Now they're completely shut off because they closed all the bridges to cross the river. That really inspired me in a current project looking at transportation barriers to maternal healthcare access, particularly for Black birthing people. This access piece is far and wide, and that is the environmental amenities, healthcare facilities. It's the food and food apartheid, as it's now being called. There are so many things that environmental justice and transportation equity attempt to address.
[00:00:49] Host: Chapman University's Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences and Past Forward present Engaging the World: Leading the Conversation on Health Equity. In this series, we explore the historical, cultural, social, and economic disparities that interfere with the access to health and healthcare and examine how these challenges can exist in one of the most wealthy and technologically advanced nations in the world. We engage with journalists, historians, artists, activists, and educators to look at accessibility, cost, prejudice, and the human experience of healthcare in America, as we look for the pathways to health equity.
In this episode, we connect with Dr. Regan Patterson, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, to discuss her research with transportation equity and how it connects to health equity and environmental justice. Here is Regan Patterson.
I want to talk about the intersection between transportation equity, environmental justice, and health equity, the three-circle Venn diagram. I'd love to start by defining transportation equity. I know that's probably just an obvious definition.
[00:02:18] Regan: No, that's a great way to ground the conversation because there are so many different definitions out there, so there's more infrastructure-focused definitions around making sure that folks have access to mobility modes, and then there's also the mobility focus where folks can get around, so transportation equity, making sure that you can get to where you need to go, and then again, having the infrastructure to allow people and to facilitate that movement.
[00:02:52] Host: I see already that this is one of the connections to health equity. When I spoke with Dr. Robert Bullard for our series on environmental justice, in that conversation, we were coming right out of 2020. He shared how COVID really showed how the inaccessibility of test centers and treatment centers was for those who didn't have access to cars, which the numbers of positive cases and illness and death reflected that as well.
[00:03:39] Regan: Yes. I'm glad you raised this because, during COVID, so many folks were thinking about distribution of the vaccine, but Dr. Bullard really highlighted the access to even get to distribution centers where they were giving the vaccine, so inequities in that. Then you saw efforts where, for instance, the federal government was providing free Uber rides to try to address these transportation inequities to really highlight getting to services and getting to healthcare.
That extends from COVID to other healthcare services, whether they're in-community, which is another, "Are they even in communities?" and then how do people get to them, whether they are in or farther distances from people?
“As environmental justice is commonly defined, it's access to both amenities and disamenities. So often, we talk about how environmental justice communities are exposed to polluting facilities, but also a part of environmental justice is making sure there's equitable access to the good things, such as healthcare facilities and, as you mentioned, grocery stores and green spaces, parks.”
[00:04:28] Host: Right, and I think that that in-community issue takes us into that environmental injustice path of systemically how communities have been designed, where the hospitals or trusted hospitals or healthcare facilities aren't in the communities and even outside of healthcare, green spaces, where healthy grocers or farmers' markets aren't in-community. That is another issue with accessibility as well.
[00:05:11] Regan: Absolutely. As environmental justice is commonly defined, it's access to both amenities and disamenities. So often, we talk about how environmental justice communities are exposed to polluting facilities, but also a part of environmental justice is making sure there's equitable access to the good things, such as healthcare facilities and, as you mentioned, grocery stores and green spaces, parks.
During COVID-19, something that actually motivated a current study that I'm doing is that in Washington DC, for instance, just talking about access to different healthcare facilities, during COVID-19 in DC, when I was living there at the time, there was the January 6th riot. They shut down the city, but Wards 7 and 8, which are predominantly African-American, did not have access to maternal health services at that time. Now they're completely shut off because they closed all the bridges to cross the river. That really inspired me in a current project looking at transportation barriers to maternal healthcare access, particularly for Black birthing people. This access piece is far and wide in that it's the environmental amenities, healthcare facilities. It's the food and food apartheid, as it's now being called. There are so many things that environmental justice and transportation equity attempt to address.
“When you have a country designed around the automobile, if you don't have access to that, then how do you have access to goods and services, employment centers?”
[00:06:41] Host: Automobiles is one accessible point. There is, obviously, the cost of the vehicle itself. There's the maintenance of the vehicle, the cost of that, the increase in the price of gas. I know you've quoted before the percentage of people of color who have access to automobiles, but I don't have that number.
[00:07:14] Regan: Yes. I don't have the explicit number, but in a report that I prepared for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation when I was the transportation equity research fellow there, my work was really highlighting how African Americans particularly have the lowest access to vehicle ownership, which creates accessibility challenges, particularly in a country that has been designed around the automobile.
That really emphasizes our automobile-dominated transportation system that's been facilitated through highways, which are another transportation equity issue that Dr. Bullard particularly has raised. When you have a country designed around the automobile, if you don't have access to that, then how do you have access to goods and services, employment centers?
It's also an economic issue, which is being highlighted particularly now from the federal government, trying to address transportation equity as this economic mobility challenge. The automobile has become so central to opportunity in this country.
[00:08:23] Host: Well, and we're both in Los Angeles now, and this is the automobile city, the birthplace of freeways, really.
[00:08:33] Regan: Absolutely.
[00:08:35] Host: As somebody who commutes an hour just to get 18 miles through this city, more cars on the road isn't necessarily the answer, especially when we're looking at that environmental justice talking about emissions in neighborhoods near freeways where the emissions are the highest.
[00:09:02] Regan: Yes, I can definitely relate to going short distances, but taking such a long time now that I have moved back to LA, so then it speaks to the need to multimodal transportation. It's so interesting because when you ask people "If you had frequent and reliable public transportation, would you take it?" So often, the answer is yes.
I'm one of those people who if we did have frequent reliable public transport, I will definitely take it.
Who doesn't enjoy not having to be stressed out behind a car, behind the wheel, trying to navigate Los Angeles, especially drivers? However, that infrastructure does not exist. It's being built out, but again, we live in such a highway-dominated city, which so many cities across the US are. It's "How do we redesign cities to give options if you want to get by, by biking, walking, bus, any other non-automobile mode?" Designing cities to give folks those options. I think it's great that Los Angeles is now expanding its public transport, however, needing to do so in a way that really increases access and accessibility for everyone.
[00:10:22] Host: Yes. We're coming off of one of our major freeways shutting down because of a fire and how that affects this entire area. We're also in a state where you never know when another earthquake is going to happen. That reliance on vehicles, if that is your only way to get from one place to another and the 10 Freeway shuts down because of a fire, then you are really between a rock and a hard place at that point.
[00:11:01] Regan: Absolutely. Something that was incredible to see in a positive way was how quickly the city mobilized to increase public transport and encourage people to take public transportation. It shows that it is possible when there's, actually, the public will to do so. In that moment, because that infrastructure was now taken off, the government stepped in to say, "Okay, we're going to provide this increased public transportation service."
Now it's, can we do this and have the public will to do that just on a regular day, not need such an emergency situation to then say, "Okay, let's expand public transportation"? For me, it was a positive in that it highlighted, "Oh, this is actually possible, even in a city like Los Angeles." However, it then begs the question of "How do we advocate and get that investment that's required to ensure frequent and reliable public transportation service all the time?"
[00:12:04] Host: You had mentioned that we don't have frequent and reliable-- Our public transit here is fairly young as far as our rail, our subway system, and trains, but what are some of the challenges, can we go into detail for Los Angeles specifically, to having frequent and reliable public transportation?
[00:12:34] Regan: A challenge is funding. Again, the need is really, do we have the public will to do so? A lot of times, folks will point to, "Oh, there's not money," but really, it's about an allocation of resources. If we prioritize and have that public will to put the adequate funding necessary into public transportation, again, as we saw when the fire shut down the 10, then we can have an increase in these services, so prioritizing it.
So often, LA Metro, for instance, will prioritize expanding roadways, constructing new roadways. I believe there was just an announcement about another large investment in highway expansion here in Los Angeles. However, what will it require to get a shift to say, maybe instead of "alleviating" congestion because that's so often the reasoning behind our highway expansions and new highway construction is that it'll alleviate congestion, but as we know, living in Los Angeles, it does not actually alleviate congestion at all; it only creates more congestion.
How do we then say, "Maybe instead, let's actually build out the public transportation that's required." Yes, it is a slow process. You need to have the community public comment period and things like that. However, I think it's really necessary to have that shift in priorities. We do have the funds. It's a matter of instead of expanding a highway that'll take millions or billions of dollars, how about we build and expand public transportation in Los Angeles?
"It's great that we will get expanded public transportation. However, we're also seeing dispossession and displacement from the construction in preparation of the Olympics."
[00:14:19] Host: We are, to an extent. We're creating more train lines. We're expanding existing lines and adding more access points for public transport. Really, a lot of this is in preparation for the Olympics or the World Cup, but how are some of the more vulnerable communities being left out or negatively affected by this expansion?
[00:14:50] Regan: Yes. Something that is not talked about as often is the use of imminent domain for these projects, which sometimes does contribute to displacement of particularly disadvantaged communities. That is a challenge in expanding public transportation. How do you do so without displacing folks who might be along that right of way? Oftentimes, we talk about displacement in terms of highways, so we see something similar with public transportation projects.
How do we make sure that folks are not displaced, which disproportionately impacts disadvantaged communities? Then I'm so glad you brought up how the impetus for a lot of this has been the Olympics and the World Cup. Hopefully, in the future, it does not take such a large-scale event to continue to push for more public transportation projects, however, in terms of who will benefit from these large-scale events.
It's great that we will get expanded public transportation. However, we're also seeing dispossession and displacement from the construction in preparation of the Olympics. How do we ensure that all of this construction that's going on, whether it's public transportation or other projects necessary to prepare for the Olympics, how do we make sure those projects don't result in the displacement of longtime residents that are often disadvantaged?
[00:16:19] Host: Right. There's also that "Not in my backyard," neighborhoods worrying about the transient element that will come along with having a train station.
[00:16:37] Regan: Absolutely. Yes. Certain communities, and we see this across the country, do not want a train stop because, just like you said, they're the communities who bring communities that are deemed undesirable. That is definitely something that does also hinder expanding public transportation when you're trying to add stops in certain communities and there's pushback for that very reason.
There's a lot of barriers, but I think that there's community support for public transportation. How do we then really have, again, that public will to push and say, this is something that we deem as a public good for everybody, so therefore invest in its expansion?
“Being in a car-dominant society, we say folks who can own cars are more affluent, so therefore, the folks who have to take public transportation are therefore folks who are lower income. That is something that has been a perception thing that's definitely here in the US.”
[00:17:23] Host: There's also a perception issue with I think our public transportation. You go to New York, it's common knowledge that you're going to take the subway to get from one place to another, the same in Chicago. In Los Angeles, I don't know if it's because we've been such a car-dominant society, the train has this element of safety or fear. My daughter takes the train to go to school, and I couldn't help but be worried about a 14-year-old taking the train 10 miles.
My mother grew up in the East Coast and took the train from where she grew up to Boston. I know that was a different time period, but that perception is potent here in Los Angeles, more so than it is-- Even I grew up in northern California and took BART everywhere and didn't have that same perception.
[00:18:31] Regan: Absolutely. The power of perception. Something that comes to mind is even during COVID where they were trying so hard to convince folks that it was still safe to ride public transportation, they were cleaning it as best as they could. People were saying no because there was a fear of it being dirty. Even now, different perceptions do prevent and hinder people from taking public transportation, where it's associated with low income.
There's that aspect. Being in a car-dominant society, we say folks who can own cars are more affluent, so therefore, the folks who have to take public transportation are therefore folks who are lower income. That is something that has been a perception thing that's definitely here in the US. Even in New York where more people do ride public transportation, we still have the status thing associated, "Well, I can own a car if I want to own a car."
How do we change that perception of "Everybody rides public transportation." You go to places like the UK, everybody rides public transportation. You go to Japan, everybody rides public transportation. Speaking of your daughter, and I was in Tokyo, it was so fascinating, so many youth just rode public transportation on their own, young children. How do we improve perceptions of safety? In relation to transportation equity, so often we say, "Well, we'll feel safer if we have more police on public transportation."
Then that brings into, "Is it necessary to have policing, or are there other ways to improve public transportation safety in which everyone feels comfortable?" There's a lot of pieces around that perception piece, particularly, again, in a society where the car is associated with affluence and freedom, and mobility. Just we can go anywhere we want whenever we want. There's these things that have become associated with the car in the US. Their opposite has become associated with public transportation.
[00:20:44] Host: Where I am right now in Pasadena, bike lanes are expanding. They're, I know, in Long Beach as well, and Santa Monica. They're creating more of that Amsterdam-style protected bike lane, which I think is great, but I don't know of enough bikers who-- That's another perception or challenge to change people who are used to, whether it's the exercise element or the safety element. How do you encourage people to use another multimodal form of transportation?
[00:21:39] Regan: Yes, that's a great question because I will say I encourage bike riding, but I am nervous myself when it's you in a car on the road, and I want to not be as nervous. However, I don't trust car [laughs] drivers, particularly in Los Angeles.
[00:21:56] Host: Oh, right. Absolutely.
[00:21:57] Regan: However, there's really great initiatives that are happening, particularly here in LA, with groups like CicLAvia, which have the Open Streets days where they encourage bicycling, to really encourage people to imagine being on the roadways, bicycling on the roadways. I think there's a lot of initiatives to help folks change their perceptions of that.
Also, the way in which we're designing bike lanes, I know different cities are experimenting with the bike lane in relation to the parked car, in relation to moving cars, to really say, "Where do we place these bike lanes so folks feel safer and why should they be?" I think there has been a positive trend towards expanding them and expanding them in a way where people feel more comfortable.
I think what also contributes to that are the Bike Share programs. You see so many people riding bikes because of Bike Share. I think those being throughout the city has really also encouraged folks an increased access to biking for a lot of folks to encourage that mode of transport. I think positive trends in that. I think there's more work to do. Again, my own fears. However, so many of my friends bike. They're trying to encourage me to bike. I think there's a positive trend in that.
[00:23:21] Host: Well, even if I don't know if my lungs and my heart can get me up that hill, there are these electric bikes that are popping up everywhere, but there's still a price gap to even get into that conversation.
[00:23:41] Regan: Yes. Something that I did address in my Congressional Black Caucus Foundation report was barriers to access to our Bike Share programs, our e-scooter programs. It's great that you are starting to see those be addressed. One barrier was you have to have the credit card to use a lot of these services or the cost to use these services. However, I think now that they've been--
[00:24:08] Host: Or a smartphone.
[00:24:09] Regan: Or a smartphone. [crosstalk] I think something now that they've been in existence for so long, these programs have started to identify ways, I think, some of the cool ways that are starting to pop up are how you can, if you use public transport, that can actually get you access to a bike for a certain amount of time. You don't have to create a new payment, but you're able to then get on the bike.
Programs like that are really encouraging and thoughtful in how they're trying to think about those barriers to access, particularly for disadvantaged communities who could really benefit from these multimodal transportation options.
[00:24:49] Host: Well, and I think it's where you see those e-scooters or bike sharing, they tend to be in a little more of the affluent neighborhoods or tourist neighborhoods rather than in the neighborhoods where they would be more beneficial.
[00:25:08] Regan: Yes. That is something that 's interesting when you talk with startup founders where they say, "Yes, but we have to have proof of concept and then we have to make sure that we get the financial investment," and then they think about equity. Something that I push back on is all how about equity is embedded from the beginning. That would then mean that, yes, you say you want to pilot in more affluent areas, but who are the users? Who can most benefit, like you just mentioned? So how about we also pilot them here as well?
I think it really speaks to the models in which these new technologies are being introduced, who is considered for these new technologies as they're introduced, and then addressing those barriers to entry from the beginning so that all users, particularly disadvantaged communities, communities that can benefit the most, get access at the very beginning as well. Again, we're starting to see now that a lot of these have been introduced, you're starting to see them trickle into disadvantaged communities.
You're starting to see that, but how do we make sure that they're included from the beginning and not just, oh, now that they're widely available, now they're able to enter into other communities? We see that with electric vehicles, where now there's conversations, "Well, the price will be reduced, so now more people can afford them," or "Now that they've been on the road long enough, now used electric vehicles, there's a larger used electric vehicle market."
That's been part of the conversation on "How do we increase access to electric vehicles? Will we have the reduced price point of these used?" However, if we really want everybody to be part of this clean transportation transition, how do we decrease those barriers to entry for everyone from the beginning?
[00:27:02] Host: Let's finish with solutions. What are some near-future solutions? We could just look at Los Angeles since we've focused our conversation on it. What are some near-future solutions that you could see lead to transportation equity and increased health equity and accessibility?
[00:27:27] Regan: Yes. I love always having a solution-oriented ending to end with hope. [laughs]
"When there are opportunities to enjoy public transport modes like that, I encourage it because the more users, the more service we'll have. There's an opportunity where you can get out of your car and walk. Take an e-scooter, particularly because most of our car trips are actually less than a couple of miles."
[00:27:34] Host: Also, what listeners can do on their own part as well.
[00:27:40] Regan: Yes, something that I always advocate for is increased funding for public transportation. That's both from the capital construction side, so building out the infrastructure for public transportation, and also the operational costs. We're seeing throughout the country, public transportation systems are having these budget crises, and a lot of that is because of the operational costs.
You have the infrastructure, but they can't fund the operators, the frequent reliable service, so making sure we also fund that, so making sure there's enough funding for public transport in both of those areas and then also, as you mentioned, building the street infrastructure. How do we redesign our streets? How do we redesign our communities to ensure that everyone can get to where they need to go and do so easily?
The Open Streets concept has been great but also making sure that we take into account everyone's experience and safety and those Open Street concepts and how introducing multimodal transport modes throughout cities. Then another would be, I brought up electric vehicles, how do we ensure that this electrification, which is full steam ahead, particularly because there's so much investment in it now, how do we ensure that there are electrification of the public transport system?
Making sure that electrification of public transport is getting the adequate emphasis that it needs, so we're not just focusing on single-occupancy vehicles but also making sure everyone can be a part of this clean transport future and really prioritizing the electrification of our public transportation as well. Then for the everyday, for all of us just wondering what we can do, I encourage people to take public transportation more often.
For myself, I do take Metrolink down to visit family in San Diego. It's a beautiful ride. I encourage people to take it. When there are opportunities to enjoy public transport modes like that, I encourage it because the more users, the more service we'll have. There's an opportunity where you can get out of your car and walk. Take an e-scooter, particularly because most of our car trips are actually less than a couple of miles.
If you can do that by some other mode, I do want to acknowledge there might be ability issues or things like that. I do want to be cognizant of that, but if you are able to maybe take one less trip that's short by car and instead do it by another mode, then that would be great as well to encourage and show our government officials that we do have a desire for getting around outside of our vehicles. Mainly, I would say the onus is on our government to really allow us the option to take these multiple modes of transportation.
[00:30:47] Host: If you would like to continue the conversation, visit chapman.edu/wilkinson to learn more. To access recommended books from our guests for further learning and for more socially conscious content, visit us at pastforward.org or follow us at Apple, Spotify, or wherever you podcast.
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