Driving Toward Equity in Addressing Community Mobility
With a strong focus on creating a more equitable and connected transportation system, Centralina Regional Council has created a geographic information system (GIS)-based planning portal containing a wealth of data and analysis, all designed to help transportation and land-use planners address equity issues in their communities.
Centralina Regional Council, together with the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS), created the CONNECT Beyond Regional Mobility Plan, designed to help address the comprehensive mobility issues of a rapidly growing but diverse region. CONNECT Beyond's project area includes 12 counties and spans across North Carolina and South Carolina. A principal aim of the plan is to help incorporate equity information into the planning and funding of transportation-related decisions.
While conceptions of equity may vary from community to community, one of the goals of the plan is best stated on its website:
"While there is no single solution to tackling economic inequalities, focusing on improving transportation choices, accessibility and increasing affordable housing is a step in the right direction to enhancing equity in our region. Transportation access is a crucial element in providing access to education, jobs and housing as a means to increase one's economic and social mobility."
Improving mobility options is one part of a larger effort to tackle a range of growth-related challenges for the region, identified through a collaborative forum called CONNECT Our Future. Michelle Nance, regional planning director at Centralina, explained: "We assist local government agencies on issues of shared concern. Transportation is a big priority as we're a rapidly growing region, but we also help with issues such as economic development, land use, energy, and the environment. Across four Metropolitan Planning Organizations [MPOs], we jointly plan, fund, and implement regional initiatives."
One challenge for Centralina is the diversity of the region, comprising not only cities but also rural areas that want to preserve their unique character. As Nance put it, "A core value of this work was ensuring that communities are able to retain their individual identities, which includes understanding populations in terms of their numbers and population makeup.”
"Equity and inclusion are fundamental components of the American Institute of Certified Planners' [AICP] ethical principles," Nance said. "Those principles encourage practitioners to plan for those here now, plan for those in the future, and serve both the public interest and disadvantaged communities."
Addressing mobility and equity for a highly diverse region is not a clear and simple task. "When you talk about transit, there's the question of who, regionally, really needs it," Nance said. "We needed up-front data to better understand, and that's the need that this equity website helps us address."
When addressing equity and accessibility of transportation in the region, the area's diversity is itself a challenge. The Charlotte region can be defined by its metropolitan center. However, across CONNECT Beyond's region, 75 percent of communities have 10,000 residents or fewer, with a very rapid transition from downtown into a surrounding ring of communities, towns, and villages.
Key to that process was understanding the unique character of each community and its demographics. "It's not just about how communities look but also about their economic drivers," Nance said. "Many of our smaller communities are very focused on manufacturing. The assumption throughout the pandemic has been that suddenly we're all working from home, but that's not the case. In addition to essential workers in schools and hospitals, there are those who need to be somewhere because they actually have to make something."
Safety was also a major consideration. "We're in the southern part of the US, and oftentimes equity discussions are limited to race or economic station, but there were other equity components built into the transit work," Nance said. "Gender, for example, is another criteria; safety is an issue, whether real or perceived, and we wanted to make sure that women felt safe using transit."
That had less to do with previous issues, she notes, and more to do with being able to address any concerns head-on and proactively. It led to core recommendations relating to the built environment around transit stops/stations and mobility hubs, such as lighting and the proximity of call boxes—granular considerations in some respects, but resulting in the kind of ground-level outcomes that truly influence public acceptance and support.
The needs of a significant rural population highlight the importance of cross-county connections. Not all counties have hospitals with maternity services, for instance. Access to education was another major influence, as several counties have no public four-year university. Transit facilitates social activity and social mobility.
"It's hard for many of our folks to see past the two-year degree," Nance states, "but if we can improve our cross-county transportation connections, then people will be able to save money by living at home and still gain a better education. That's important because even in a pandemic setting, not all courses have become virtual."
HDR, a consulting agency, supported the plan's development, including providing analysis to identify areas of greatest need. "We had a panel that worked through the meaning of equity, including jurisdictional equity," said Jorge Luna, HDR's CONNECT Beyond project manager. "A question [the panel] addressed was, 'What improvements are coming to my area in comparison to the greater region?'"
Luna added they were trying to identify the most transit-dependent areas and prioritize improvements in those areas.
"With the Center for Neighborhood Technology, we looked at how much money individuals in each area spent on housing and transportation," Luna said. "The rule of thumb here is that it should be no more than a third of a household's income. People were spending too much in areas that were transit dependent. As a result, we looked at how to align the recommendations to ease that burden and allow access to opportunities inside a 30–60 minute transit window."
Another aspect is seniors and their locations. The aim is to enable people to retain their independence as late into life as possible without dependency on caregivers. Each of the 12 counties in CONNECT Beyond's region has its own human services transit agency, and in a cross-county environment, better coordination is a must. Travel must be seamless, with each human services agency understanding how to merge into the fixed-route systems for travel to major destinations. That requires a high level of coordination and integration of timetables across multiple transit agencies (17 in this case) and, in turn, highlights the need for better integration and reconciliation of payments and fares between agencies.
Data and the Website
Luna and Nance both note that it was important for individual communities to be able to see themselves within the overall plan. This was not necessarily straightforward, as each community was at a different developmental stage.
CONNECT Beyond's portal was created to host project information and be used by counties as a resource for future planning—"empowering them when going after grants," states Jason Wager, Centralina assistant regional planning director and CONNECT Beyond project manager. "[The intent of the portal] was to help find areas of persistent poverty to which the federal government is more inclined to give grants; to search out transit deserts or disconnects; or to locate where future population growth was forecasted but no transit [was] currently planned."
"Providing that visibility resulted in a big range of data tools to fit the perspectives of each community within the region," Luna said. "There's also a menu of recommendations for each local agency within the plan."
The use of data came to the forefront when deciding where high-capacity transit lines should be located. The existing CATS 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan provided a good basis on which to build in terms of where to extend high-frequency light-rail and bus rapid transit services.
"We had to be able to point to data to show where the one-car households, the areas of persistent poverty, and [the] high concentrations of senior citizens are," Nance said. "Those hot spots led to the creation of mobility hubs along existing and future transit corridors."
"In terms of the data, it was fascinating to correlate census information with all of the other elements," said Bridget Wagner, HDR's GIS manager for the CONNECT Beyond project. "Bringing it together with the housing/transportation affordability index and regional data on population and employment resulted in standardized data, but with some very specific regional variables."
Not only has that enabled the planning team to extrapolate need out to 2045, it has also led to the creation of a Transit Propensity Index — extremely useful for planning purposes. The planning team, Wagner continues, was fortunate in having a relatively large study region to work on. In this instance, size was a blessing because it enabled overlays of data and helped true patterns emerge.
Transit propensity is a multifactor analysis approach used to identify where in the study area there are populations with the greatest need for transit. The Transit Propensity Tool combines socioeconomic characteristics including minor, senior, low-income, and disabled populations as well as zero- and one-vehicle households. The distribution of vulnerable populations and children under 18 years of age are also included in the propensity analysis. The cumulative transit propensity score combines the existing density values for all these demographic categories to illustrate, from high to low, the areas where existing transit need is greatest.
Wagner said Esri's support was fundamental across the project. "We utilized ArcGIS Online from the start—internally, to share project data and to convey development of the corridors. ArcGIS Web AppBuilder was used for storyboarding purposes, to take information into the public, and to communicate with regional planning organizations and other key stakeholders. This project was planned [before the COVID-19 pandemic] and was to be very much person-to-person. Our entire approach had to pivot and become virtual. The Esri platform was critical to our success."
CONNECT Beyond comes at an opportune time, according to Nance. "Federal funding opportunities are requiring communities to speak to the equity issue. The hope is that at the local level, communities applying for funding will use the portal—to not have to go to multiple sources, but come to it for the propensity index and use the tool to determine local need," Nance said.
"The MPOs—the subregions—are well-positioned to use the data," Nance continued. "Our hope is that by making this data readily available, areas of need at least receive their share of funding, whereas maybe in the past they haven't."