OP-ED: U.S. economy needs to reset, not restart
The disproportionate COVID-19-related death rates and job losses suffered by communities of color in the United States are a stark reminder of the glaring systemic inequities baked into our economy.
Getting back to “normal” will only serve to deepen these disparities. Instead, we need a top-to-bottom shift in our economy that puts the health, prosperity and resilience of all people — whatever their race, class or gender — as our core priority.
That means rethinking our automobile-centered way of life. The dramatically cleaner air we’re now breathing, and the steep decline in traffic crashes are examples of what can happen when we drive less and share the road with pedestrians, cyclists, the mobility-impaired and public transit.
Cleaner air and fewer cars on the road will save lives and promote equity. On average, nearly 100,000 Americans die from air pollution each year. Members of minority populations and people of lower socioeconomic status are exposed to more traffic and vehicle-related air pollution, which a new Harvard study shows contributes to higher COVID-19 death rates. Moreover, traffic crashes disproportionately kill pedestrians who are minorities.
We need to rethink our basic assumptions about what is possible and advocate for systems-level change. For example, Seattle and London both temporarily closed many streets to vehicle traffic to improve social distancing, but quickly realized the potential for ongoing health benefits. Seattle plans to permanently close 20 miles of streets to most vehicle traffic, and London plans to transform 22 miles for cycling and walking use.
To bring about systemic change, we must incentivize what we want and penalize what we don’t want. For example, transportation is the nation’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the vast majority of those polluting and climate-changing emissions come from vehicle miles traveled, or VMTs, in cars. States and communities must measure VMTs per capita and set goals for their reduction.
Finally, to promote equity and resilience, we need to think more holistically about affordability. Often, especially for people of color, it’s the combination of costs from housing and transportation that make communities unaffordable. That’s why sprawling, auto-dependent Houston is now less affordable than New York City, and why we can’t solve racial wealth disparities by focusing solely on housing costs.
The federal government deems housing affordable if it comprises less than 30% of one’s income. A more holistic approach would deem a community affordable if no more than 45% of a person’s income were spent on housing plus transportation. To achieve that goal, we must fund more affordable housing and support public transit, transit-oriented development, and pedestrian and biking infrastructure in communities of color and suburban and rural communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to reset the rules and take bold actions. Let’s not lose that boldness going forward. Let’s completely reimagine what and where we build, who and what we invest in, and who is at the table when all of those decisions are made.
This will bring about a healthier, more equitable and more climate-resilient life for all Americans, and a world we can be proud to hand off to future generations.
— Calvin Gladney is president and CEO of Smart Growth America. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.