Tamika Butler Calls for “Ethics, Equity and Empathy” in Transportation Planning


RPA’s Healthy Regions Planning Exchange continues to try and bring equity and health closer to the center of regional planning work. Our six-part Planning Exchange webinar series featuring guests from across the country. The latest conversation focused on transportation equity and featured Tamika Butler, Director of Equity and Inclusion and Director of Planning, California at Toole Design, a group of planners committed to building public spaces that help people move freely and intuitively.

Tamika emphasized that inequitable transportation systems are reflective of the broader lack of equity in planning and in the United States as a whole. Creating equitable transportation, then, is about more than transportation: it’s also about uprooting systems of institutional oppression.

In September, Tamika was appointed to the California Transportation Commission, a 13-person body responsible for programming and allocating funds for transportation improvements throughout California. In the past, she served as the Executive Director of both the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Her path to transportation planning, however, was unconventional.

Tamika’s first formal interaction with transportation came while she was trying to open worker’s rights clinics as an employment discrimination lawyer in Bayview—Hunters Point, a historically black areat in San Francisco. All residents seemed concerned with was the new MUNI transit line coming to the area. They felt it wasn’t designed with them in mind, but only to bring passengers from the center city to Candlestick Park where the 49ers used to play.

“No one wanted to talk about how they were discriminated against at work if they couldn’t even figure out first how to get to work,” Tamika said. This was a revelation. While growing up as someone interested in social justice, Tamika reflected, no one told her, “if you care about social justice, you should become an urban planner.” But after her experience in San Francisco, that’s just what she did.

We will struggle to create more equitable transportation, Tamika said, if we don’t recognize the inequity at the root of our existing systems. “We get stuck in this framework of thinking ‘we have broken systems.’ But when you look at transportation or you look at built environments, what you realize very quickly is that the systems are designed exactly how the people in power wanted them to be designed, and they are working. They have divided communities,” she said, particularly communities of color and low-income communities.

To remedy this, diversity, equity and inclusion in transportation planning are imperative. But these can’t be just buzzwords, nor can they be used interchangeably. And although equity is a goal, “our ultimate goal should be people moving freely,” Tamika says. “True liberation is where we need to be.”

Source: Toole Design

To get there, Tamika outlined five key points:

  •     Swim upstream
  •     Know who you are
  •     Know who you’re serving
  •     Co-power not empower
  •     Make mistakes

To “swim upstream” is to consider not just the immediate cause of problems, but the upstream or root causes. To co-power is to recognize that communities already possess power, and to collaborate with them where they are. “‘Empowering’ is a colonial construct, As in, ‘I have the power as the government official or ‘expert’ and I will give it to you and now you may speak up.’ Instead we have to start going into communities and realizing that the power is already there. People know what they need and know what they want, we should be working with them and co-powering.”

To dig deeper into transportation equity, check out the entire webinar here and see Toole Design’s “new three E’s” of transportation – ethics, equity and empathy to replace the “old”  engineering, education, and enforcement. Then, stay tuned for more updates from our Healthy Regions Planning Exchange.

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