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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Rethinking How Cities Connect Residents to Opportunity

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Income and wealth among middle- and low-income Americans has risen much slower than it has for high-income Americans over the past 40 years. There are many reasons for widening inequality, and many strategies for closing the gap.

Transportation can be either a solution to inequality or a contributing factor. Transportation infrastructure can exacerbate neighborhood divides, or it can be a catalyst for change, connecting residents to opportunity.

“Transportation may be the most important way that we’re going to address disparities of income and wealth,” said Ben Hecht, president and CEO of Living Cities and a recent speaker in Volpe’s Future of Transportation series.

A Focus on Cities

Cities are a natural place to try to reduce inequality.

“Eighty percent of our population is in cities and metros,” Hecht said. “If we want to bring about change, that’s an important place to focus, especially when you have innovative leaders willing to take risks.”

City-centric efforts are part of what Hecht calls a “new urban practice”: leveraging public, private, philanthropic, and non-profit capital to solve local problems. Hecht outlined four ways that transportation thinkers can address inequality within the new urban practice:

  • Changing how we think about transit
  • Defining success
  • Intentionally harnessing technology
  • Applying impact investing

Changing How We Think About Transit

Many transit systems in American metropolitan areas were built to move people from suburban areas to a downtown urban core. That mindset needs to change, Hecht said.

Transit should not simply be about moving people from one point to another. Instead, it should be thought of holistically, as one piece of a larger system—of mobility, schooling, employment, and all the things that make up our daily lives—with an ultimate goal of helping people link to opportunities.

“The ultimate goal of transportation isn’t just to move us,” Hecht said. “It’s to connect us to the things we actually know we need to be connected to: to jobs, to housing, to education, to the grocery store.”

Defining Success

People who are passionate about doing good work often get caught up in the work itself without realizing that they also need measureable outcomes, Hecht said.

Transportation is a sector that particularly needs to do better at defining project success, Hecht said.

“In transportation, there are very few results on the table for anyone doing anything other than: let’s build more of it,” Hecht said. “That’s not a result. That’s an instrument.”

Hecht speaks from a podium to an audience at Volpe.
According to Hecht, transit should be thought of holistically—as one piece of a larger system—with an ultimate goal of helping people link to opportunities. (Volpe photo)

Intentionally Harnessing Technology

New technologies are changing how we move, but many technologies have cropped up with little direction from traditional transit and transportation agencies, Hecht said. Companies like Uber and Lyft have existed for years, but their regulatory and planning implications are still being played out.

Another area where low-income people have fallen well behind is having broadband Internet in the home—the rates of which have remained virtually unchanged over the past 15 years, Hecht said.

“I’ve never heard a transit person speak out for the importance of broadband as part of a transportation and connectivity strategy,” Hecht said.

Impact Investing

Emerging investment vehicles are putting capital toward addressing transportation and other needs in low-income communities. Linking capital to where it is needed is one of Living Cities’ foremost missions.

“A couple months ago, the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust announced Benefit Chicago, which has a goal of bringing $100 million of private investment to solve public problems in Chicago,” Hecht said. “You will see that movement growing dramatically over the next few years.”

Better Mobility, More Access to Opportunity

Income inequality, particularly along racial lines, comes down to lack of access to opportunity, Hecht said. Improving access to opportunity relies, in large part, on leaders who champion the important physical connections that transportation provides.

“What I see is an extraordinary number of leaders from different sectors—public, private, philanthropic and nonprofit—who essentially say, ‘I see the future and unless I lead from wherever I sit, we’re not going to get there,’” Hecht said.

Image of Ben Hecht, president and CEO of Living Cities.
“Eighty percent of our population is in cities and metros,” said Ben Hecht. “If we want to bring about change, that’s an important place to focus, especially when you have innovative leaders willing to take risks.” (Volpe photo)