Double Speak

The Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event  asks “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?” From where I sit, we do this by recognizing the intersections between two movements — the environment and social justice. We then activate these movements, together, to ensure that everyone, without regard to race or income, has access to clean air, clean water and public transit to a living wage job.

The possibilities for these collaborations are enormous and getting bigger. Cities from Miami, Fla, to Seattle, WA, will be investing billions of dollars on sea-walls, dikes and protection of electrical and drinking water systems to fend off the environmental effects of climate change. At the same time, they are spending billions more in transit systems to maintain a healthy and mobile workforce. These investments, properly considered, can work wonders in connecting people to opportunity.


The first challenge is to calibrate our perspectives. We have to adjust how we approach our environmental work and ask: what does this look like through the eyes of people traditionally outside the movement? How does it translate into the ways they live their lives every day?

And this is not about chasing long-shot supporters. Many people of color, for example, while not traditionally part of the environmental movement, hold very strong environmental values.

Any changes we propose need to make people’s lives better day-to-day. The goals of reducing carbon emissions and increasing access to shelter converge when affordable housing with green technology reduces the cost of living in the home. The environmental movement’s concern with Vehicle Miles Traveled meets the social justice movement’s concern about displacement in the everyday hum of a bus that efficiently and affordably takes someone from home to work.

We have to constantly ask, how do we improve the environment AND connect people to opportunity?


140505 California Fund Smartgrowth Infographicjpg_Page1

Source: Calif Fund (Full PDF)

The California Fund put these concepts together here with a terrific infographic on the broad concept of smart growth. The opportunity is $40 billion in transit investment slated for the region. The challenge? More than 80 percent of low-income jobs are not served by transit.  And 53 percent of residents’ income is spent on housing and transportation.

Some Seattle-based not-for-profits have done this work well with their examination of the region’s bus system. Voters in Seattle’s King County were scheduled to vote on a new car tax that would fund buses and stave off 17 percent service cuts.

Environmental groups were alarmed. It was a step backward in trying to shift the region’s transportation – the area’s single biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions — from single-occupancy vehicles to transit.

Social justice groups were equally alarmed but for different reasons. They believed that low-income populations would be hit the hardest, virtually marooned from life necessities like education and health care.  With the Transit for All project, funded by a local funder collaborative that includes Loom, The Seattle Foundation, Bullitt Foundation, the Kirkpatrick Foundation, Boeing and Social Venture Partners Seattle, social justice groups joined with an environmental organization to produce maps that illustrate the cost of the cuts.

The three not-for-profits – OneAmerica, Puget Sound Sage and the Transportation Choices Coalition – could have relied on the separate narratives of environment and equity. One could have campaigned for no bus cuts. And the other organizations could have campaigned on the message of not cutting transit for those most dependent on it. Once they decided to join forces, they could have created maps showing the race and income distribution across the region and overlay the missing bus routes. That’s in improvement, but they went one better.


They framed the question at the very place where the environment and access to opportunity and services intersect. And they put the question in terms of everyday life.

Source: Transit for All (Enlarge)

Source: Transit for All (FULL PDF)

How does bus service translate into getting your sick kid to health care? The graphic illustrates how the more affluent North Seattle residents have plenty of quick options to get to public health clinics. (A 30-minute trip to the hospital is a solid-yellow line.)  Move further South, where immigrant and low-income people are concentrated and more dependent on transit, illustrated with solid green blocks. Few yellow lines appear. Parents have scant options for getting kids to a clinics quickly. The organizations’ mapping shows vast swathes of isolated low-income King County residents.

Source: Transit for All (Enlarge)

Source: Transit for All (Full PDF)

What about schooling, a well-established pipeline to a better living? Here you see how long it takes someone to travel from the Rainier Beach section of Seattle (the most racially diverse and among the lowest-income area in the region) to South Seattle Community College.   The average time by transit, a trip that requires two or more buses: 1 hour, 15 minutes.  Time by car: 18 minutes. Longer travel times mean less time to study, work to pay school bills or spend time with family. Research uncovered a young man, Oliver Williams, who had to drop out of school because, with the time away from work, he couldn’t afford the bus fare.

Source: Transit for All

Source: Transit for All (Full PDF)


Indeed, great bus service in King County promises to not only reduce vehicle miles traveled, decrease greenhouse gas emissions and send us on a more carbon-friendly path. Reliable bus service costs a fraction of what it costs to own a car — $1,080 a year versus approximately $9,000 a year – and increases families’ money for other important expenses.

Creating transit that concentrates on taking us to opportunities and services and is affordable doesn’t just help the environment. It also improves the lives of everyone. We need to continue to express our environmental needs and individuals’ need for opportunity with the same breath.

And, we need to learn how to approach these issues and talk about them so that our approach speaks not just to the wonkiest among us, but to people’s everyday lived experience.

Then we can create opportunity for everyone even as we try to save the planet.

Join The Conversation.

  1. Thank you for this great write-up about our work for Transit Equity for All. Puget Sound Sage wants to also acknowledge that our three organizations were successful because at the same time as we worked on creating the frame and interpreting the data into maps, Got Green, The Seattle Transit Riders Union, Asian Counseling & Referral Service, Rainier Beach Community Empowerment Coalition, and Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness were engaging their constituents and members and informing our work. There is much more work ahead on building the coalition and interpreting the data so that our communities are equipped to express our environmental needs and individual needs for opportunity in the same breath. We look forward to doing that work together.

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