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Guest blogger Oboi Reed calls on the transit system to reckon with racial equity and mobility justice

October 5, 2021

Guest blog bg 03 Oboi

 The RTA is currently developing the 2023 Regional Transit Strategic Plan for Northeastern Illinois at a time when the challenges and opportunities facing our region’s transit system have never been greater.  Making a Plan represents our effort to engage and collaborate with close stakeholders and the public. We have invited a group of transit users and thinkers to answer a set of questions for an occasional guest series on Connections, the RTA blog. The views represented in this series are not those of the RTA, but they are views we want to hear and have heard. If you have thoughts about this post, the strategic plan, or would like to participate by contributing a guest blog post, please email and subscribe to our newsletter to learn more. 

Name: Olatunji Oboi Reed
Organization or Affiliation: President & CEO, The Equiticity Racial Equity Movement, and Co-Chair, Transportation Equity Network
Role/Responsibilities: At Equiticity, I am responsible for our movement’s overall vision and strategy, focused on research, advocacy, programs, and community mobility rituals. 
Favorite transit mode or station? My favorite transit mode is riding the Pink Line train, starting at the Pulaski station near 19th & Pulaski here in the North Lawndale neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. 

Why are you passionate about transit? 
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, in the Chatham and South Shore neighborhoods, my older brother Khari and I took transit with our parents to move around our city. Transit in Chicago was never perfect, and it is not perfect today. Our transit system is in dire need of operationalizing a comprehensive commitment to racial equity and mobility justice. It is a critical lifeline for Black and Brown people, especially living on the South and West sides of Chicago, helping us reach important destinations, such as job centers, healthcare, schools, grocery stores, recreation, and civic engagement. I am passionate about transit because I realize how important it is in our neighborhoods and I am confident a full-throated operational commitment to racial equity in our region will contribute to dismantling structural racism in our transit system, removing racialized transportation inequities, and improving life outcomes for Black and Brown people. 

What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities for the Chicago region’s transit system over the next ten years? What is the biggest barrier to realizing these opportunities? 
The greatest challenges for the Chicago region’s transit system are the lack of an operational commitment to racial equity and mobility justice, fare evasion enforcement, decreased ridership, perceptions around the lack of safety, inability to reach job centers, threats from emerging transportation technologies (car share, micromobility, autonomous shuttles), and a lack of free fares for poor people.  

 In turn, the greatest opportunity for the Chicago region’s transit system is formally operationalizing racial equity and mobility justice, ensuring resources are dedicated to removing racialized transportation inequities and improving transportation related outcomes for Black and Brown communities. 

 The largest barrier to realizing this opportunity is the lack of courage from complacent policymakers and entrenched bureaucrats to go fight for racial equity as though lives depend on it. Because lives do depend on it. Black and Brown people are dying in our region, and a racist regional transit system is contributory. 

Tell us your ideas for improving access to transit within the Chicago region and what policy levers or partnerships might be required to make the changes you envision? 
We must decriminalize fare evasion and go further by making transit free for poor people. Our system must remove police enforcement from transit and implement an ambassadors program to help keep transit safe and improve perceptions around safety. Our system must ensure neighborhoods with the highest levels of unemployment and poverty have transit lines to take us to and from the job centers.  

Our system is in need of piloting and implementing emerging transportation technologies, including electrification and autonomous shuttles. These implementations must be done in full, compensated partnership with community-based organizations on the ground in neighborhoods, with the leadership to deliver these new technologies in our neighborhoods coming from Black and Brown people in a way which minimizes harm and maximizes benefits. 

We need a unified payment card to access all transit and other transportation providers, while also ensuring poor people are not penalized for paying with cash. 

Looking ahead, what future force of change has the greatest potential to transform or disrupt our region’s transit system? 
Disruption will come from emerging transportation technologies, including shared, autonomous vehicles, as well as potential for privatization of transit, such as autonomous shuttles. 

The boost in micromobility and shared mobility over the past several years, especially during the pandemic, will continue to disrupt transit and may further suppress ridership. 

 The greatest potential for transforming our transit system will come from following this process: 

  1. Acknowledge the presence of structural racism in our system. 
  2. Apologize for the historical and contemporary harms transit inflicted on Black and Brown communities. 
  3. Establish formal accountability mechanisms for Black and Brown led organizations to have power within the systems’ decision-making processes. 
  4. Complete a thorough, exhaustive analysis of racialized transportation inequities. 
  5. Share publicly the transportation-related outcomes targeted for improvement. 
  6. Legislate, policy, and formalize a comprehensive racial equity operational framework. 
  7. Apply a pervasive racial equity lens to every transportation-related budget, resource, program, and project in our region. 
  8. Publicly evaluate progress toward operationalizing racial equity and make all related data public.  
  9. Adjust the system in real time when progress is not moving as intended. 

The role of transit as the irreplaceable piece of our mobility system has been underscored by this pandemic. Data and survey results have shown how much essential workers, low-income riders, and residents of color have relied on it over the past year and a half especially. How has the pandemic changed or clarified your views on the role and future of public transit?  
The pandemic shone a bright light on racialized transportation inequities, and those impacted: Black and Brown people. The poor people, essential workers, and those transit dependent in our region are Black and Brown.   

While the public health sector is not perfect and doing much harm in Black and Brown communities, the transportation sector will learn from the health sector’s work to acknowledge racism and other contributories to racialized health inequities.  

 There exist ample resources and efforts working to advance racial equity in our region and across the US, noting some below: 

Regional mobility impacts everyone but is competing for attention among many worthy public policy issues. What in your experience has been the most successful way to engage people about transit issues?
Equiticity engages people through our community mobility rituals, inclusive of community bicycle rides and neighborhood walking tours. They’re considered rituals when they incorporate the following: scheduled with rhythmic frequency (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually), hyper-local focused, free, open to the public, and shared customs are developed (call & response, greetings, movements).  

Community mobility rituals contribute to increased social cohesion and collective efficacy at the neighborhood level. More trust among neighbors encourages more people to walk, bike, explore parks, shop locally, and otherwise engage in the space at the neighborhood level.  

More vibrant streets in our neighborhoods will contribute to reducing violence. Making a direct and potent connection to the role of transportation in reducing violence, improving health, and creating jobs is critical in our neighborhoods.  

Equiticity will begin hosting public transit excursions to provide tactical, experiential opportunities for Black and Brown people to use transit to reach important destinations. 

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Tagged in: Equity | Making A Plan | Regional Transit Strategic Plan

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