Critical Conversations in Transportation Planning: Olatunji Oboi Reed
Every two years, the American Planning Association Transportation Planning Division publishes the State of Transportation Planning Report with the intention of highlighting innovative ideas, cutting-edge research, and interesting experiments in transportation planning in the United States. As part of the 2022 edition of the report - titled “Intersections + Identities: A Radical Rethinking of Our Transportation Experiences" - we’re bringing you a series of critical conversations with pioneers and industry leaders across the US who are offering their insights into some of the most challenging issues facing our field.
In this podcast episode, we’ll hear from Olatunji Oboi Reed, who serves as the founding President & CEO of Equiticity, a racial equity movement, operationalizing for racial equity, increased mobility, and racial justice to improve the lives of Black and Brown people across the United States. He discusses emerging research on the ways in which a neighborhood’s infrastructure can have an impact on reducing violence, and how Equiticity’s Mobility Rituals are increasing social cohesion and collective efficacy through bike rides, neighborhood walking tours, and public transit excursions.
[00:00:04.330] - Em Hall
Every two years, the APA publishes the State of Transportation Planning Report with the intention of highlighting innovative ideas, cutting edge research and interesting experiments in transportation planning in the United States. As part of the 2022 edition of the report titled Intersections and Identities a Radical Rethinking of Our Transportation Experiences, we're bringing you a series of interviews with pioneers and industry leaders across the US who are offering their insights into some of the most challenging issues facing our field.
[00:00:34.970] - Divya Gandhi
Hello everyone. I'm Divya Gandhi.
[00:00:37.400] - Em Hall
And I'm Em hall.
[00:00:38.890] - Divya Gandhi
And we are the co managing editors of the 6th edition of the State of Transportation Planning Report.
[00:00:44.950] - Em Hall
And this is critical conversations in transportation planning. In this podcast episode, we'll hear from Oboi Reed, who serves as the founding President and CEO of Equiticity, a racial equity movement operationalizing for racial equity, increased mobility and racial justice to improve the lives of black and brown people across the United States. He discusses emerging research on the ways in which a neighborhood's infrastructure can have an impact on reducing violence and how Equiticity's mobility rituals are increasing social cohesion and collective efficacy through bike rides, neighborhood walking tours and public transit excursions. Welcome, Oboi.
[00:01:34.470] - Oboi Reed
Everyone calls me by my middle name and it is Obai. My full name is pronounced Ola Tungji Obai Reid. I am the founding president and CEO of the Equity racial equity movement. Born and raised in Chicago native Southsider and grew up like a lot of young people, somewhat rumble, tumble. Spent most of my formative years in the Chatham neighborhood and some years in the South Shore neighborhood. I still consider chatting like home base. My father might not be too happy about that because he lived in South Shore and my mom lived in Chatham. Now they both live in Chatham, so maybe he has nothing to be upset about. So I've struggled with depression since the early years of high school and it went undiagnosed until perhaps I was in my late twenties. I was working in corporate America at that point and I reached like a crisis point. It was something I couldn't hide any longer. The jobs that I had at that point just didn't allow me to sort of maneuver around the depression and I finally had to do something about it. So it was sort of my first time really acknowledging that there was something going on and seeking out some help.
[00:03:15.970] - Oboi Reed
However, even to this day, it's still a major struggle of mine. And back then around, I think about 20 05 20 06 or so, I was taking a medical leave of absence from work because of the depression and I was really going through a crisis. I had been socially isolated for some time. I wouldn't answer the phone, wouldn't answer the door. I struggled to do the basics like eat and shower. And I remembered I had a bike in the basement. I wasn't a cyclist, I just had a bike in the basement. I rarely rode it and decided to go for a ride. I rode on the lake front, went to 63rd Street Beach on a beautiful Saturday summer morning, and that ride was transformative. In that moment, I became a cyclist. After becoming a more enthused and riding more and more, I started to realize how important bikes was in my own life and my own healing and how many more black and brown people in the south and West Side could benefit from the activity of cycling. So that's what it led me into advocacy. I founded a bike club called the Pioneers. Eventually we folded the Pioneers into red bike and green.
[00:04:40.870] - Oboi Reed
It was a black bike organization that had come from Oakland to Chicago. I then co founded Slow Road Chicago, and it was my time with Slow Row Chicago that sort of propelled me into an even deeper role around bike advocacy. And around 2016 or so, I sort of went through this transformation. So with sorrow, Chicago young people were telling me that they felt like they were being targeted by the police. I took that information to the city mainstream white advocates. Everybody ignored it, said, no, that's not possible. The police wouldn't do something like that. So fast forward a few years later, and Mary We snoozky in the trip, says in the Chicago Tribune reports that in fact, black people are being targeted by the police when they ride bikes. So we have the data. Several years later, however, I warned people that this is what I was hearing from young people. Perhaps something could have been done about it sooner and some harms would have been avoided. So around that same time, when Mary Wisnewski report comes out, there's a lot going on. This is 2017 or so. The video of Laquan McDonald being murdered is released.
[00:05:54.720] - Oboi Reed
A racial justice reckoning happens across the world, especially here in Chicago. I think about six months to a year later, the USDOJ had come in to investigate the Chicago Police Department and releases their report. Rapid civil rights abuses at CPD. Newspapers of record both here in Chicago and around the country come and investigate CPD. Rampant corruption, rampant racism, rampant abuse is happening at this institution. And then around all of that, it's all happening around the same time. The city of Chicago releases is Vision zero plan. And in the plan. They're leading with an enforcement strategy on the heels of Laquan McDonald being murdered. On the heels of a USDOJ report calling for massive reforms at that institution. On the heels of all of this. A racial justice reckoning in our society. The city of Chicago is coming to black and brown people and say. We have a solution for your problem of traffic violence. And it's more policing. So that just caused this evolution to me. I began to realize I couldn't focus on only bikes. I had to expand my purview. So I wanted to focus on all modes of travel. I wanted to focus on racial equity across the board with the ability to apply racial equity lands to any sector and to any policy area.
[00:07:29.250] - Oboi Reed
And that gave birth to equity. Equity is a racial equity movement harnessing our collective power through research, advocacy programs and community mobility rituals to improve the lives of black, brown and indigenous people in our society.
[00:07:46.710] - Em Hall
So the theme for the 2022 report is Intersections and identities. A radical rethinking of our transportation experiences. What is the current transportation issue that you find is most in need of a radical rethinking?
[00:08:01.100] - Oboi Reed
All of them. Transportation and planning in this country has deep roots in structural racism and white supremacy. Your sector built monuments to racism for future generations to adore. Today we call those monuments highways and they ravaged our neighborhoods here in Chicago and cities across the country. Your sector is more concerned about white lives than black lives. Your sector is more concerned about bike lanes than young black and brown children. There is structural racism in this sector. And the most important work your sector must do is the active dismantling of structural racism that is inherent within how you all operate. And then putting the tactical strategies in place to ensure black and brown people are connecting to the services and the infrastructure that your sector provides in a way that improves life outcomes and reduces transportation inequities and related inequities. That should be the primary focus of the transportation and planning sector. It's not though. It's not. People in your sector still need convincing that we're being harmed by how you all operate. I'll give you a quick example here in Chicago. The intersection of 79th South Chicago and Stony Island is one of the most dangerous intersections in the state of Illinois.
[00:09:56.440] - Oboi Reed
And it's been that way for many generations. It was that dangerous when my grandfather was coming up in this city. And to date, there's been no wholesale reengineering of that intersection. Yet your sector comes to us and says the solution to traffic violence is policing. There's something fundamentally flawed, irreparably broken with the sector that takes that approach so naturally. There needs to be a dismantling of structural racism within your sector. There needs to be an active move away from enforcement to reduce traffic violence. Your sector is the root cause of traffic violence in our neighborhoods. It's your sector that did that. And you're going to the police to ask them to fix a problem that you created. So we need to move away from enforcement. We need to fix transit in this country. We need to restore operational and infrastructural funding at the federal level for transit. We need to financially support alternative models of mobility service delivery that includes mobility hubs that should be funded at the federal level, mobility hubs that are being executed by community based organizations. We need to support the community based organizations that are organizing around the socialization of mobility for example, community bicycle rides, neighborhood walking tours, group scooter roads, public transit excursions, open streets, events at a federal, state, city, county level.
[00:11:41.540] - Oboi Reed
There should be government dollars coming to community based organizations to execute this work. We are doing this just scrapping whatever little piece we get get to together, when the truth is that these socialization activities, we call them community mobility rituals, they are transformative in our neighborhoods, and they have the potential of helping to reduce violence in our communities. That's the number one concern black and brown people have who live in major cities like Chicago. So when I think about the priorities of the sector, that's what I think about tremendous.
[00:12:19.310] - Em Hall
Thank you for sharing that. You've touched upon the next question that I wanted to ask about planners views versus people who live in the communities. And what I'd like to hear a little bit more about are two things you just mentioned mobility hubs and the community mobility rituals. Can you speak to what that means in the context of your work?
[00:12:39.000] - Oboi Reed
Sure. I'm happy to talk more about how planners think about the work versus how community based organizations and black and brown people on the ground think about the work. And I'm also happy to share a little bit about how we think about our vision for community based mobility hub and how we think about community mobility rituals. So with regards to mobility hubs, first let me back up with regards to the perspectives on executing around transportation and planning, coming from the sector itself and coming from people who do it out of necessity, black and brown people who do it like me, out of necessity. I didn't study this stuff in school. I evolved to the point where I'm able to have a conversation with you as somebody who's learned in this science. I came here more circuituitously. So what I found in my work with planners is that you all come to the work with a pretty narrow box, not a lot of creativity and how the vision is planned and executed. It's a pretty narrow box. When it comes to implementation. You all largely communicate in one way, no matter who the audience is. You're telling the same story.
[00:14:14.730] - Oboi Reed
For example, in a predominantly white, middle, upper income neighborhood here in Chicago named Lincoln Park, that you're telling in a predominantly black load of moderate income neighborhood on the south side of Chicago named Inglewood, you're telling the same story and expecting the same results. That's not how this works. You're not going to talk to people in Inglewood about bike lanes the same way you talk about bike lanes in Lincoln Park and expect people in Inglewood to be excited that bike lanes are coming to their neighborhood. It requires across the board, it requires a disaggregation of the conversation. The conversation has to be localized. It has to be racialized. When you come into a predominantly black neighborhood, your language to speak to our culture and our priorities and our needs. That's a localized racialized conversation. When we think about transportation, we think about it in the context of the most three important issues that we face as people violence, job creation, and public health. Our neighborhoods are struggling with obesity and hypertension and diabetes. And we could go down the list. How does transportation help us improve our physical health, job creation? The brothers are not coming off the street without something to replace that income.
[00:15:55.670] - Oboi Reed
How is transportation going to help that? How is transportation going to improve the economics of our neighborhoods? Is it going to get us to the job centers? Is it going to create more retail in our neighborhoods? Is it going to bring more job centers from the suburbs into our neighborhoods? How is transportation going to support job creation and progress on improving our economics? And then the most important, how does transportation support a reduction in violence? That conversation is not taking place in this country. It's not coming from the mainstream of planning and transportation. And the truth is, you do have a role to play. So we got to be clear, when we talk about violence, we're talking about three types of violence. Interpersonal vehicular and police vehicles is easy. Infrastructure, reinjured, nearing our street, you will have an impact on reducing vehicular violence. Police violence is somewhat easy too, in that should you provide the infrastructure for us to walk and bike safely, there won't be much need for the police. See, the police come to us because we're riding on the sidewalk. We're riding on the sidewalk because you didn't put infrastructure in our neighborhood so that we could ride safely in the streets and then interpersonal violence.
[00:17:31.910] - Oboi Reed
There's research coming out of Meta Jean, Colombia, that looked at infrastructure in the neighborhood having an impact on reducing violence. This research showed that that happened. Why are we not exploring that when violence is the most important issue in our neighborhoods? And our organization did a qualitative. We did some research called Mobility Justice in Chicago, and one element of that research was qualitative focus groups. And what we heard from people is that they are making choices around their mode of travel based on their concerns for violence. All three types of violence, not just interpersonal vehicular and police. Why are we not using transportation to reduce violence in our neighborhoods? So that's how we think about it differently. And then with respect to mobility hubs and community mobility rituals, so I'll start with mobility hubs, what I would refer to as the traditional model of a mobility hub. It's been in some cities in this country for, I believe, upwards to five years or so. It's been in Europe a little bit longer. The model hyper concentrates mobility devices and transportation infrastructure all together at a hyper local location, like an intersection or a parking lot.
[00:18:55.410] - Oboi Reed
It's all together. It all lives outside. We took that model and we said, what does that model look like when the primary audience are black and brown people living in a low to moderate income neighborhood with severe transportation and equities. We did the analysis, we did the deep thinking. And our vision means we take that model, we take the hyper concentration of infrastructure and mobility devices and we hyper locate it all together. And on top of that, that's what we call hardware. On top of that we put software. The software is the socialization around mobility. Community rides, neighborhood walking tours, group scooter, rows, public transit excursions. All of the software is the act of Socializing Around Mobility and then the Advocacy coalition, the safe space to address the trauma we experienced when exercising our human right to mobility. So hardware meets with software at a physical space when we're unable to address trauma. Should our mobility hub only live on a parking lot? We need some safe, protected space to allow people in our neighborhood to take their time, know that there's someone trusting on the other side to have a comfortable relationship, to engage in the activity of a community ride.
[00:20:27.330] - Oboi Reed
And when they're ready, there's space for them to begin to address the trauma we experience. You got to understand, black and brown people experience significant trauma during the active mobility. The vast majority of violence we experience is while we're walking or biking or driving it's during the active mobility that we experience the trauma, we will be ineffective should we want to grow mobility at any significant level, at the hyper local level and not address the trauma. So the mobility hub for us brings together the hardware with the software at a physical space to create a community around mobility. And then our community mobility rituals. We frame them as community mobility rituals because they have a few things in common. They happen with rhythmic frequency. The schedule has a rhythm to it. It could be weekly or annually or anywhere in the middle. There's a rhythm to the schedule. That rhythm allows people to begin to fit their schedule into their lifestyle. It's kind of like when you're in a room and there's some good music and everybody is nodding to the same beat, but now people are moving to the same beat. They're coming out on a weekly basis or monthly basis.
[00:21:51.510] - Oboi Reed
That allows for people to start to see each other the same faces. That allows for them to say, hey, I've been seeing you for a few times now. What's your name? What's your name? You live over here? And then they become friends. They have children's, play dates. So that all leads to an increase in trust at the neighborhood level. So that rhythmic schedule is important for it to be considered a ritual. And then we reduce barriers to participation. Everybody's welcome a lot of our rides. We bring divvy bikes in Chicago. Our bike shop system is divvy. We bring divvy bikes so that people who want to participate and they don't have a bike are able to all of our events are free. We never charge for a walking tour or ride, so anyone is able to just show up and be with us. And then the last thing I mentioned on rituals is we like for customs to develop in a natural, organic way. It's not something we force. So a custom could be a greeting, a movement, a call and response. We just look for those opportunities where somebody's doing something, maybe some other people catch you on and then it becomes a customer, it becomes a regular part of the ritual.
[00:23:12.590] - Oboi Reed
So I'll give you an example. We do a Friday night ride here in North London and some customs have developed. One is a call and response. So borrowing from my brothers and sisters in New York, I'll be in the front of the ride and I'll say yo. And then everybody behind me say yo. Or Barring from Dougie Fresh. I say, hey. And everybody say and then sometimes when we turn on the street and there's no traffic, the custom is to just fan out and take the street. It's our street now. So these are customs that socially bond us together and they're powerful.
[00:23:54.390] - Em Hall
Thank you so much. You've covered so much in a short amount of time. We have a few minutes left. I want to look ahead a little bit. Where is the future heading for transportation?
[00:24:10.990] - Oboi Reed
When I think about where transportation is headed, what's happening next? What I think about is the racial justice reckoning that is happening around the globe is going to land at the lap of transportation. Now, how you all deal with that, how you handle it, I'm not sure. What I know is that you're not going to be able to ignore it any longer. Black and brown people are dying in our society and one of many contributing factors are transportation inequities. They are deadly. They're not an inconvenience. It's not an inconvenience when the bus doesn't show up on time. It's not an inconvenience when we're unable to make a connection to get to work on time. It's not an inconvenience when police pull us over for riding a bike on a sidewalk. It's deadly for our neighborhoods. And you all are going to have to address it or tell the world that this sector is racist and we don't have to deal with what black and brown people have to say. That's the choice you have to make. And I know it feels stark, it feels unreasonable where it should be. Because in the event you express a commitment to racial equity and mobility, justice, we are going to hold you accountable.
[00:25:40.030] - Oboi Reed
It won't live in a PowerPoint. It won't live in a mission statement. It will fundamentally transform the way you operate from the inside out. That's where I see transportation going and that's the only option you have.
[00:26:02.110] - Em Hall
Not every city or town or rural area is fortunate to have an organization like yours operating. How do planners, how do community members, how does anybody find somebody like you or an organization like yours? If they're not in Chicago or they're not in a big city, who do you look for?
[00:26:21.370] - Oboi Reed
Yeah, it's a really good question around how do planners and government staff and community based organizations find people who are racial equity centered or mobility justice centered? So there's a quote that I love by one of our country's poet laureate. His name is JayZ. He once said, the homies told me, it's not many of us. Less is more. There's plenty of us. We're out here and we're doing the work. And there are organizations that you could go to right now, and after a couple of hours of studying, you'll walk away much more learned in mobility justice than you started. Beyond tokening equity people for mobility justice equitable cities, green lining. They do work around mobility equity. There's something that I'm not remembering right now. However, my point is that while there may not be somebody on the ground, that's no excuse. Because not only do they do a number of these organizations have information that you're able to readily access, they also have webinars and online courses that you can go to and learn. And then as the academics part of our research team, kate Lowe, the University of Illinois, Chicago, jesus Barahas at the University of California, Davis one thing I'll ask your audience to consider is supporting our work.
[00:28:06.150] - Oboi Reed
We are operationalizing racial equity in the transportation sector and in other sectors across cities across the country. And we're a small, nonsense, scrappy organization, and we need financial support to do this work. So anyone who is interested in learning more about our work, please go to our website, equity.org. You'll see, a section of our website is dedicated to accepting donations electronically. I ask anyone who's listening and interested in supporting our work to please visit our website and make a donation. Thank you.
[00:28:45.450] - Em Hall
Thank you for joining us for this episode of Critical Conversations in Transportation Planning. To learn more and read the entire report, please visit the APA's Transportation Planning Division website at transportation.planning.org.