Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago and Boston, transportation was essentially synonymous with cars. Every trip relied on access to a vehicle, from dentist appointments to seeing friends to picking up dry cleaning. The only things within walking distance were other homes within my family’s subdivision and the only nearby buses were the ones that belonged to school districts. Zoning ensured that single-family homes, schools, and commercial areas were neatly separated, creating the type of inefficient sprawl that requires more resources and carbon emissions to sustain. This type of auto-oriented landscape is the norm for the majority of Americans, with the exception of those living in the country’s older, denser big cities and the neighborhoods immediately around them.
The implications of sprawl and auto-centric urban design only dawned on me when I got to know one of these exceptional places. Moving to New York City at age 18 came with many lifestyle changes, the most impactful of which was incorporating public transit into my daily life. In a city where personal vehicles are more of a burden than a necessity, the ability to walk or ride the subway to school, work, and practically anywhere else 24 hours a day provided a compelling alternative to what mobility could look like. While no place seemed far out of reach from the transit-rich neighborhood I was lucky enough to live in, my experiences of transit and land use was far from the full story.
The way we build our communities, both physically and socially, has major implications for equity and the environment. The emergence of suburbs like the ones I grew up in was due largely to federal housing policy in the mid 20th century encouraging home ownership outside the urban core while concentrating public housing within it. This pattern is inextricably linked to racial segregation and the need to draw a contrast between wealthy, predominantly white suburbs and crime-ridden, blighted majority-black inner-cities. The federally-funded highway system facilitated mobility to outlying areas while their construction divided and isolated urban black communities. Public transportation, particularly bus systems, was simultaneously dismantled or underfunded leading to infrequent, unreliable service where it existed at all. From the post-World War II period onwards, public and private investment drove a growth pattern that locked people into car-dependent, fossil fuel-intensive lifestyles while stratifying home ownership and economic opportunity along racial lines.
Fast-forwarding to the present-day climate crisis, we see transportation accounts for 27 percent of all carbon emissions - the majority of which comes from household vehicles. Smart growth advocates are rightly calling for a shift away from land and resource-intensive development patterns towards a model of more compact, walkable communities. This comes at a time when the suburbs no longer hold the promise of economic prosperity that they once did - poverty rates are growing in suburbs as people are increasingly isolated from education and employment opportunities and social services. Recent news about the “death of the suburban shopping mall” further points to this decline. The suburbs are also no longer as racially homogenous as they started out as people of color make up the majority of population growth in 78 percent of the nation’s largest suburbs.
On the other end of the spectrum, transit-rich big cities like New York and San Francisco are capturing the largest shares of population and job growth. However, deep inequality continues to define the space within and around urban centers in terms of income, quality of life, and the demographic profiles of city neighborhoods. In fact, the gentrification resulting from the expansion of transit service may even fuel the displacement of marginalized populations to more isolated, outlying parts of large metros. As the dual crises of climate change and inequality demand a break from the status quo, crafting transportation policies that serve all people and support sustainable communities is essential.
As an environmental justice researcher, addressing climate change is a more complex undertaking than simply reducing emissions by any means necessary. The knowledge that climate change does not affect all communities equally, just as its historical causes contributed to the continued marginalization of vulnerable people, demands that future solutions account for past harms. For city and transportation planners, designing communities to mitigate and withstand the impacts of climate change presents an opportunity to correct the inequities underlying climate change’s origins.
My work on transportation policy with MassINC this summer tackles many of the issues raised here: how best to get more use out of alternative transportation infrastructure, create more walkable, vibrant spaces near outlying cities’ transit centers, and most importantly, create inclusive economic growth across the state. A strong public transportation network and an emphasis on equity in the development of smart growth policies is a critical step towards defining a vision for the sustainable future.
Sindhu is a second-year MS student at the University of Michigan studying Environmental Justice and Planning. Her work focuses on urban sustainability, transportation policy, and climate adaptation. For her Environmental Fellows Program placement, she spent a summer with MassINC, a Boston-based think tank, researching the potential for transit-oriented development across Massachusetts.