Friday, April 13, 2018

The Cost of Public Participation

Image source (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
The typical citizen might not pay a team of communications experts and lawyers to spend hours doing hearing prep before public testimony, like Mark Zuckerberg did. Nonetheless, there are significant costs associated with providing testimony at a public hearing before a group of decisionmakers. I tallied up what it recently cost me to speak for one minute before our local transit board (MTS) on a community project to promote walkability. Here's a breakdown of the costs:

Transportation - $15
This includes mileage costs to drive to the meeting based on AAA's rates, plus parking.

Theoretically I could have taken transit to the meeting. That would have tripled my travel time, adding significantly to what I had to pay for childcare while I was away. Plus, a transit ticket costs three times more than parking at the MTS offices. (I'll allow that bit of irony to sink in before we move on).

Childcare - $45
This is what I pay my nanny for 2.5 hours of work. It's on the high end of childcare rates in my area, but not wildly so.

My youngest daughter is too young to be in school full time, so I needed to hire someone to watch her during the hearing, as well as to take my older daughter to school because the hearing started fairly early in the morning.

Clothing - $10
This cost was tricky, because while I didn't buy something specifically for this hearing, I also don't typically wear a dress and heels on my average work-from-home/schlep-kids-around day. I amortized the cost of my outfit for the hearing, using the assumption that I'd wear again in the future for other work meetings or hearings.

To anyone out there who's thinking, "It doesn't matter what you wear, it's what you say that counts." 

...that sounds like a lovely reality you exist in, sometime I'd like to join you there. Meanwhile, the rest of us know that appearance matters, especially for women. The way you present yourself in a hearing will impact how effective your testimony is. That doesn't *always* mean you show up in an expensive outfit (e.g., don't come to a hearing in a beach community wearing a suit, trust me on this), but in this case it did.

Time - 5 hours/$100-$325
Here's another challenging cost to quantify. The value of time varies by person and circumstance, and is based on all sorts of factors that I'm not going to go into in detail because this isn't a post about opportunity cost.

Suffice it to say, for a busy mom like me who works on an hourly/contract basis, time is at a premium and I valued it accordingly. The five hours I spent preparing for and attending this hearing were hours I didn't get to spend with my family, working, volunteering on other community projects--or sleeping, which I really missed. This isn't a robust economic analysis of time value, but I'm comfortable with this range for myself--and I think it's appropriate for many working adults.

Adding it all up
In total, it cost me somewhere in the range of $170 to $395 to provide one minute of testimony at a public hearing.

When we lament the lack of public participation (especially by women) in our planning process, are we really considering how much we are asking people to spend to participate? I place a very high value on being involved in my community in this way, but that's not true for most people. If we want to bring everyone into the conversations, we need to do more to reduce the time, travel, and other costs associated with public participation. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Walking Towards Justice Series

I'm really happy that America Walks has started this important discussion of how factors such as gender, race, and income level impact the walkability of our communities. As an industry and advocacy community, we've been guilty of ignoring these issues for too long, and it's great to see that beginning to change.

I'm especially excited to see that the next webinar in the series will focus on street harassment, which  I've both experienced (like probably every other woman) and written about in the past. Street harassment harms women's mobility, reduces walkability, and is a serious concern for women all over the world. I'm looking forward to this discussion!

You can register for the upcoming webinar here. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sexism on the Sidewalk: How Poor Street Design Keeps Women from Walking

Source: Burden
“Can we walk there?” my daughter asked.
I was facing down a long afternoon with four kids under eight. A trip to the local coffee shop was in order, and since it was less than a mile away, I did what any good walkability advocate would do: I tossed all the kids in the mini-van and drove there.

My choice, like so many of women’s travel choices, was based primarily on safety. I was confident the kids could walk that far, and I knew it would be the healthier and more interesting choice for all of us--but without good walkability, I wasn’t sure that I could keep them all safe.

All across the country women, in particular mothers, make similar choices every day. Poor street design, disparate land use, time constraints, lack of personal safety—all of these conspire to force women off their feet and into cars. We have built a transportation system that discounts women’s travel needs, and women—and our communities—are suffering for it.

To understand what we should be doing better, it’s important to understand how women’s travel is different from men’s travel. Women make more trips than men, but travel shorter distances. They travel more with children, and their trips are more likely to be household-serving (e.g., shopping, daycare, errands), rather than for work or leisure. Women are also more likely to trip-chain (stop at multiple locations along the way during one trip). In particular for women with young children who haven’t started school, gender drives travel patterns.

Source: Burden
In theory, the trips women take the most are ideally suited for walking. Short trips to the school, grocery store, or similar locations should be simple to complete on foot--and in the most walkable neighborhoods, women do walk a lot. However, more often we’ve built walkablility out of our neighborhoods. Our streets lack sidewalks where kids can walking hand-in-hand or be pushed in a stroller. We fail to provide safe, regular crossing points along key routes. We create neighborhoods where stores, schools, and (critically) childcare are too far apart to be accessed on a single walking trip. We fail to consider the design elements (lighting, lack of hidden spaces, etc.) that can deter crime and make women feel safe while walking.

These challenges have a real impact on women’s health. One recent study investigated the physical activity patterns of over 700,000 people in 111 different countries. Using travel data from cell phone records, the researchers developed a measure of activity inequality that quantified the difference between the most physically active and least physically active portions of the population. Not surprisingly, the US appears near the head of the list of least equal countries, topped only by Egypt, Canada, Australia, and Saudi Arabia.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

On Strollers, Sidewalks, and Sexism

Yes, I'm *totally oblivious* for not hefting my double stroller up this amazing sidewalk, and instead choosing to walk in the street every day. 
It started with what might have seemed like a straightforward question to someone like Gary Richards of the Mercury News (aka Mr. Roadshow). A reader was upset by parents pushing strollers in the street. "Is there any legal prohibition to using the streets for such use when sidewalks are available?"

Mr. Roadshow answered that while technically legal, strollers should use the sidewalk because "That's common sense."

Readers were quick to respond with letters detailing the many reasons someone with a stroller (or a wheelchair) might choose the street over the sidewalk. Mr. Roadshow published a handful, but ended with a letter from a man complaining about "a pack of several oblivious moms pushing strollers in the street."

That this is an example of blatant institutional sexism appears lost on Mr. Roadshow, not to mention plenty of other people in the transportation community. Here's the thing:

Travel is gendered. 

How and why women move in public spaces is different from men. One way that it's different is that women are responsible for more child-related travel. Sure, anyone *can* push a stroller. But most of the time, the person pushing the stroller is a woman. When we talk about travel with strollers, we're talking about women's travel.

Constructing public spaces that make travel unsafe for certain classes of people (i.e., women), but not others, is discrimination.

To be clear, I'm not talking here about "interpersonal discrimination." Interpersonal discrimination is saying you can't have this job because you're a women. Institutional/structural discrimination is saying you're free to ride this trolley, but we're not going to give you space to store your stroller on it. Also a lot of strange men will probably try to talk to you while you ride.

Safe travel is something that should be enjoyed equally by everyone. It's not. Because of how they typically travel, some classes of people experience more danger on our roadways than others. When a roadway lacks a space for people to walk safely with strollers, that burden falls disproportionately on women (see above). Yes, this is a pedestrian rights issue. It's also a women's issue.

Blaming victims of gender discrimination for conditions outside their control compounds the problem

Travel behavior is extremely complicated, but it's rarely irrational. When a group of women consistently chooses to walk in the street, it's safe to assume that they have a good reason for doing so--not that they lack common sense.

Chalking up women's behavior on the road to poor judgment is not only belittling, it leads to policy "solutions" that fail to address the root problem. If you assume the problem is that women don't understand the rules of the road, then yes, educating them about those rules and increasing enforcement might have an impact. But all the education and enforcement in the world isn't going to move women out of the street when they don't have a viable alternative.

Pedestrian advocates must acknowledge the role that institutional bias plays in our cities and transportation networks, and work actively to remove it.
To their credit, some organizations are beginning to do this, but as a community we still have a long way to go. It's not going to be easy. This type of discrimination is so deeply incorporated into our society that it can be difficult to recognize, and even harder to eliminate. That doesn't mean we get to ignore it.

A good place to start is by taking the time to genuinely listen to what women (and people of color, and children, and people with disabilities, etc. etc.) say about their travel, rather than dismissing their concerns because they don't match our own experience.

(That goes for me too, for the record. I'm well aware that for all the challenges I face as a woman who walks and bikes, I also enjoy any number of benefits because I'm a white person living in an upper middle class neighborhood.)

Remember why we do this.

We don't advocate for sidewalks, we advocate for the people who use them. Most often, those are people are women (and children, and the elderly, and the disabled, and people of color.) That makes use, as pedestrian advocates, de facto women's rights advocates.

It's time we began to act like them. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Is Our Obsession with Work Trips Making it Harder to Walk?

Basking in the glory of Circulate San Diego's Captain VZ at a Bike to Work Day pit stop
You can tell by my smile in this picture that I love a good Bike to Work Day pit stop as much as the next cyclist. But guess what? I'm not biking to work in this picture; I'm biking to the grocery store.

This underlines something about travel behavior and policy that has bothered me for a while: we focus on work trips, despite the fact that most of our travel isn't for work. The latest California Household Travel Survey data shows that about 10 percent of California's travel is work-related, similar to the latest national data showing that commute trips are about 15 percent of travel.

There's a pretty obvious explanation for our work-trip bias: it's what the Census counts. Since 1960, the Census has asked every working American how they get to and from their job. Often it's the only data that's regularly (if you call every 10 years "regularly") gathered about walking and biking within a city. Because of this, Census data often becomes the proxy for "how many people walk or bike in our city."

To see the problems with this, let's go back to 1959 and take a look at why we started counting commute trips in the first place. Here's an excerpt from a congressional subcommittee hearing on plans for the 1960 Census:

As you can see, a key reason for counting work trips was to help solve "problems of highway planning." Put another way, the government was hoping to figure out how best to get workers (mostly men) who owned cars (mostly men and families with higher incomes) and lived far enough from central cities to drive on highways (mostly white people) to work.

Shockingly, focusing on the travel patterns of rich, white men led to investments in transportation infrastructure that mainly benefited wealthier, whiter, suburban households, usually at the expense of poorer, less-white, urban communities.

While we're (very) slowly beginning to consider issues of equity in our transportation system, the emphasis on work travel continues to color the way to talk about, and plan for, transportation. Here's a beautiful graphic from a report by ARUP, Cities Alive: Towards a Walking Word: