• Leslie Neal

Racism & Transportation: Part 1

Racism in the United States is a deep wound still bleeding today. It has touched every aspect of how and why we live, work, learn and move in today’s world. The transportation system has a past embedded with racism that continues to place people of color at a disadvantage. Transportation funding, planning & design, and policing are three main areas in which systematic and prevalent past that continue to influence many neighborhoods today.


The process by which banks and other institutions refuse to offer mortgages or offer worse rates to customers in certain neighborhoods based on races and ethnicity is called redlining. This system of institutionalized racism has been around since the abolition of slavery and although officially outlawed in 1968 with the Fair Housing Act there is still a stigma placed on the neighborhood labeled as “hazardous” or “definitely declining”. The consequences of decades of blocking investment in these neighborhood have left them underdeveloped. For example, this 1940’s map of Tulsa shows the areas in light pink which were blocked from investment. It is not a surprise the “hazardous” neighborhoods are in the north side of Tulsa, which have historically been communities of color.

What does this have to do with transportation? Within the neighborhoods left underdeveloped due to racist programing and funding residents have fewer job opportunities, transportation networks, and access to essential services. Studies have found that racially segregated neighborhoods have lower levels of upward mobility which is the ability to move up in social status and income class. When funding is provided by to communities, there has been racial suppression of feedback on how to utilize those funds.


Urban planning and design decisions have historically been made without the input of those individuals most impacted by the outcome. While federally-funded programs now require urban planners to gather insight and input from the community their impacting, many times these meetings are unintentionally difficult for the public to access. On a broader scale, in 2016 less than 15% of American Planning Association member’s identify as people of color. Those leading and taking part in city planning and decision making often do not accurately represent the community in which many of these projects are being developed. Resulting in projects that cause displacement or disruption to the stability of these neighborhoods. In fact, if we look back into our history, there have been studies that have shown how transportation infrastructures have been used to intentionally create physical segregation of non-white communities. For a clear example, read this recent article by editorial writer Ginnie Graham at Tulsa World about the impact Interstate 244 had on the historic Greenwood District.


In her book, Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom, Sarah A. Seo notes, “The developments that led to the overpolicing of minorities did not originate with an intention to do so. Instead, the shift began with the mass production of the automobile and the imperative to regulate the motoring public.” Before cars, police rarely interacted with the general public. The development of efficient production with the Model T changed this by making it necessary to increase the number of officers to police the roads as car ownership skyrocketed in the late 1920’s. Today, with roughly 50,000 drivers being pulled over every day, traffic stops are the most common interaction with police. A study conducted by the Stanford Open Policing Project found that of nearly 100 million traffic stops, black drivers were 20% more likely to be stopped than white drivers. In addition, once pulled over black drivers where close to twice as likely to be searched than their white counterparts.

Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and Daunte Wright are just a handful of notable individuals who lost their lives after being pulled over for traffic violations. Statistics don’t do justice to examine the pain caused to entire communities impacted daily by systems of racism, so I recommend you take time to read their stories.


This look at racism in transportation serves as only an overview and surely misses many historical notes, current events, and other factors of why people of color are disproportionately affected by systematic racism within transportation. Although there is a ton of work to be done, there are many organizations and individuals driving change to tear down racist barriers in transportation. Stay tuned for our upcoming blog about the solutions to racism in transportation and how you can be part of the change.

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