What we Learned: Inspire Speakers Series presents Mobility, Health, and Justice in the Clean Transportation Revolution

In this month’s installment of the Inspire Speakers Series, we investigated the evolution of mobility systems and how they can contribute to equitable communities. In our own region for example, transportation has come a long way. In the mid-19th century, public transit consisted of horse drawn streetcars and inclines that traversed the steep Pittsburgh slopes allowing mine workers to commute to work more easily. While only two of these inclines still exist today, streetcars have led to many innovations in infrastructure.

A number of bus routes are named after former streetcar routes, and now busways, or bus-exclusive highways, connect the city with various neighboring suburbs. The Pittsburgh Light Rail, also known as the T, runs on some of the original streetcar rail infrastructure to connect the city with its southern suburbs. The existence of the T is partly attributed to community members who rallied to preserve it.

Pittsburgh’s transportation systems continue to evolve today, positioning the region as a center of autonomous vehicle research and a hub of electric vehicle growth. As we move forward, it will be essential to prioritize low-income communities and communities of color to ensure these residents are not left behind and have increased access to clean, quality transit options while also experiencing reductions in exposure to vehicle-related air pollution.

As we explored the local context of Pittsburgh’s mobility evolution and its participants, we invited speakers to share projects happening in our region and beyond that are addressing the multi-faceted issue of clean transportation. Here are some of their main takeaways.

Keynote Speaker: Hana Creger, The Greenlining Institute

Hana Creger introduced us to Greenlining’s new report, which serves as a playbook for clean mobility equity and outlined various case studies in California. Each case study examined equity through the lens of mission, process, outcomes, and finally the measurement and analysis of a project.

The Clean Vehicle Assistance Program for example, was a mobility use grant for hybrid and electric vehicles. This project ensured equity in the following:

  • Mission: by prioritizing service in communities disproportionately impacted by pollution, including low income communities and communities of color. Grants were also tiered based on income, providing the highest grants to the lowest income tier.
  • Process: by offering the grants at the point of purchase rather than as a rebate. Also making sure the grant can be applied to used vehicles or prepaid charge cards as an alternative to home charging installations, which improves accessibility to people who rent their homes.
  • Outcomes: by delivering intentional benefits, completing over 1,200 grants totaling over 5 million dollars.
  • Measurement and Analysis: by collecting data on users of the grant, as well as data on why people might not have completed the process, and how they can better meet their needs in the future.

Hana emphasized thinking beyond the traditional, prescriptive approach to transportation planning and decision making, and centering marginalized people by listening and responding to the needs and wants of those communities. It’s important to recognize that while some may benefit from electric vehicles, electric vehicles are not a silver bullet to the issue of clean mobility.

Sarah Olexsak, Duquesne Light Company (DLC)

How can we make sure the benefits of electric transportation reaches everyone in a community?

Sarah Olexsak, Transportation Electrification Manager at DLC, delved into the top three ways electricity can fuel equity in Pittsburgh.

  • Public Transit: Public transportation means fewer single rider vehicle emissions and cleaner air for our communities. Air pollution disproportionately affects disadvantaged communities, which bear the brunt of other types of pollution as well. Adding zero-emissions electric buses to the transit system can reduce emissions. Port Authority of Allegheny County and Duquesne Light Company are partnering to increase bus electrification, especially within environmental justice areas.
  • Lower Cost of Vehicle Ownership: Rural communities that do not have access to public transit can benefit from access to electric vehicles, and they can be made more affordable through incentives. According to Sarah, one rural community member used DLC’s EV Guide to find that driving an electric vehicle instead of a comparable gas-powered vehicle would save her $65 on fuel each month and nearly $5,000 on total ownership costs.
  • A Better Utilized Power Grid: Another benefit to using electric vehicles is that most EV charging happens overnight, when the overall demand for power is low. With time-of-use rates offered by utilities, drivers are further encouraged to charge up overnight. This puts a downward pressure on electricity rates that will benefit everyone on the grid.

Electricity is powering a new era of mobility, but this isn’t a new concept in Pittsburgh where inclines and light rail already operate on electricity. Sarah and her team at Duquesne Light are working to ensure everyone can experience the benefits of electric mobility through their own customer support and charging availability initiatives and support of community partners like Move412, Healthy Ride, and more.

Vincent Valdes, Executive Director of the Southwestern PA Commission

Vincent Valdes provides a walkthrough of what planning for mobility and connectivity in a shifting environment for equity might look like. Over the past year for instance, travel demand and public transportation ridership has dropped dramatically with serious impacts on transportation funding. Our broadband connectivity infrastructure has also been proven to be inadequate in some communities.

In order to promote an equitable and sustainable environment, we must look to provide access to adequate resources for all. Planning is guided by the following pillars:

  • Public transportation is here to stay, but the current service model is about 100 years old and will need to evolve.
  • Telemobility will remain the norm for many people. This will lead to fundamental shifts in travel demand.
  • Federally subsidized on-demand ride hailing trips will complement or replace traditional shared-ride paratransit services.
  • Microtransit will become more prevalent in underserved communities, providing first and last mile access to or supplementing mainline transit services.
  • Delivery vehicle presence on the roads will continue to grow, as will the competition for street and curb space.
  • Communities will become more vocal about what where they live look like and increasingly express demand for multimodal hubs and the clustering of activities.
  • Land use will be approached as an eco-system rather than a commodity. Jobs, services and other uses will interact with each other.

Environmental concerns will be acknowledged and addressed. A greater emphasis will be placed on transportation that is smart and green, as well as a systematic, integrated approach to community.

City planners, program managers and transportation specialists will have to work together to create and implement a comprehensive transportation system for our communities. Infrastructure innovations in a constantly changing environment will have to ensure equity through access.  

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