Aerial photo of NY/NJ shipyard full of freight containers

What is transportation equity? While there may be varying definitions of the term, in general, transportation equity seeks to ensure that the benefits and burdens of the transportation system are distributed fairly. For example, a new roadway may provide travel time benefits to the commuters that use the new facility but may burden adjacent communities with increased noise and emissions. 

Geographic equity seeks to bring fairness to location of both burdens and benefits. Freight transportation can have different geographical areas for benefits versus burdens. For example, the benefits of two-day e-commerce delivery are generally enjoyed by different people living in different places than those who experience the impacts of the increased truck, port, and rail volumes necessary to support two-day delivery supply chains. This is a challenging balancing act in freight transportation, but not one that is unique to freight. Planners across the transportation industry are working to resolve issues of geographic equity, including uneven access to transit service, sidewalks, and multi-use paths, or disparate traffic safety lighting, markings, and pavement conditions. 

Although we have been planning for transportation for generations, freight transportation planning is relatively new in terms of federal support (2005) and requirements (2015). The first freight plans were centered around marine, rail, truck, and air cargo volumes. Back then, there was an interest in getting feedback from the industry on states’ planning processes. This was the primary focus and goal of freight planning at the time. Now, there is growing recognition that communities must be heard in planning for freight. 

In 1994, Executive Order 12898 required that all federal and state agencies identify and address the effects of its programs and policies on minority and low-income populations. In 2021, in response to urgent calls for change from the public, several pieces of legislation brought equity to the forefront of transportation and two executive orders shored up transportation equity policy: 

  • Executive Order 13985 charged federal government agencies with advancing equity for all, including communities that have long been underserved, and addressing systemic racism in our Nation's policies and programs. 

  • Executive Order 14008 created the Justice40 Initiative to confront and address decades of underinvestment in disadvantaged communities and established the goal that 40% of the overall benefits derived from actions to address climate change flow to disadvantaged communities. 

The 2021 executive orders are being expressed at the U.S. Department of Transportation in its strategic plan to center equity as a goal. The following actions exemplify this focus: 

  • The USDOT Equity Action Plan Update has a goal that all states and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) have equity screening as part of their long-range transportation plans by 2030. Based on a recent USDOT survey, only 6% of states and 20% of MPOs had equity screening as part of their (state) transportation improvement programs (S/TIP). Freight plans can be separate or part of long-range transportation plans, but they are certainly aligned. 

  • According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) State Freight Guidance on State Freight Plans (2022), states are “strongly encouraged to identify policies and strategies that address environmental justice and equity concerns arising from freight movements, particularly those affecting low-income and disadvantaged populations.” 

  • The Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) federal discretionary grant was formerly named Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) and, before that, it was called Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER). This new name demonstrates the agency’s priorities. In federal fiscal year 2023 (FFY23), $2.2 billion in grants were awarded to projects, all of which were either in areas of persistent poverty or historically disadvantaged areas. About 13% of the number (21) and value (nearly $300 million) of the projects were connected to freight. 

What does this mean for the states? The increased focus on equity translates into an opportunity for states to align their goals, objectives, strategies, and performance with that of national policy. Additionally, it positions them to be competitive for federal discretionary grants. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (2021) (also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, or BIL) allocates $1.2 trillion over ten years, with $934 billion in transportation funding.

Cambridge Systematics has conducted an analysis of 31 state freight plans published since the signing of the executive orders and the enactment of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Here’s what we found:

  • 68% of state plans have equity language in their goals or objectives 

  • Only about 39% of plans included a formal analysis of equity – either qualitative or quantitative. For qualitative analyses, states overlayed equity focus areas with the freight network and outlined challenges that may be faced in these areas, as well as potential solutions. In quantitative analyses, states estimated the magnitude of freight impacts experienced by equity focus areas and/or the extent to which freight needs are concentrated in those communities. 

  • Only 10% of states attempted to define any measures for freight equity performance. Without quantitative measures, states cannot fully assess the efficacy of interventions and detect performance trends. States generally did not define freight equity performance measures or quantitatively gauge the impact freight has on over-burdened communities. Some states did quantitatively assess the degree to which the freight network is concentrated in equity focus areas. 

These disparate approaches to equity in freight planning point to a need for guidance. While adopting equity as a goal is an important step, without a definition and assessment of impacted communities, agencies cannot develop informed, data-driven performance measures. If equity is not part of the strategy development or project prioritization process, how will agencies move the needle on addressing historic harms and working toward geographic equity? 

The federal strategy, executive orders, and legislation all point to a need for strategic and intentional equity screening in freight transportation planning. That’s why we’re excited to be sharing at the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO) this month. If you’re attending, be sure to check out our session on Tuesday, July 11th at 11 AM (Track 3): “Equity Considerations & Analysis for Freight Projects.” 

If you’re looking for even more information or can’t attend the session, feel free to reach out to us directly!

Clay Barnes

Christopher Lindsey

Elaine McKenzie headshot

Elaine McKenzie, PhD

Freight and Economics Team Lead