What’s a Transportation Nerd? Veronica Davis Is So Glad You Asked

What’s a Transportation Nerd? Veronica Davis Is So Glad You Asked

Veronica Davis

Veronica Davis is co-owner of Nspire Green, where she oversees the community and environmental planning of transportation projects.

She’s also the founder of Black Women Bike, an organization devoted to getting black women interested in biking for fun, transportation, and wellness. In fact, she’s a huge advocate for biking. She spends her work time — and her downtime — finding ways to encourage people to bike more. That’s why she’s a transportation nerd.

Davis is one of the featured speakers for the 2018 Louisiana Smart Growth Summit, created by the Center for Planning Excellence. We reached out to Davis to learn how she became so passionate about transportation and how communities can focus on moving people, not cars.

What are some of the current issues with how people in your profession approach transportation planning?

Transportation planners focus on present existing conditions. We go to the public and say, "These are your existing conditions. Here is the traffic impact. Here are your crashes.’ But what many planners don't realize is that, for some people, their existing condition is something that happened in 1960. Their existing condition is this was a cohesive neighborhood, and this piece of infrastructure was built that destroyed the neighborhood. That's their existing condition.

The past always remains. Instead of looking at an issue such as street traffic and high crash rates, we need to look at how this problem emerged. Because at some point, this road, this street, was designed by somebody. At some point, we made some decisions about how it should be built. We have to deal with that legacy first.

What role does history play in making sure that transportation planning is people-centric?

From a transportation perspective, when we're talking about complete streets and safety, we're really trying to undo decisions of the past. Here’s an example. My family is from Baton Rouge. One of those decisions that directly affects my family was the building of I-10.

I have this picture of a pillar. It’s the pillar they built on the site of the house my mom was born in. A house they tore down to build I-10.  It’s personal. My family was literally relocated to build an interstate. And I-10 is a very important interstate that crosses the country, but when you talk about people-centric planning, and the idea of justice, it’s very personal. It’s about people’s history.

We've done so many projects in the D.C. region, and as we've talked with different communities, people will bring up something that happened in 1973 like it happened yesterday. As a profession, we need to start with the history.

How can we make sure that history is taken into account when we make decisions about transportation? How do you focus on people?

The traffic engineers generally focus on moving cars. Road capacity. There's only so many cars that you can fit on a roadway. And then, there's the volume of cars. You get to a point where you don't have enough capacity for the volume of cars that you're trying to move.

The only way to fix the problem is to reduce the volume or increase the capacity. So traditionally, the decisions we have been making, and are still being made across the country, focus on increasing capacity. Widening the road.  

But if we focus on moving people, then we make different decisions around volume. Because if we're investing in public transportation that is safe, that is reliable, that has reasonable time between buses, we can move more people on a bus, and we don't need as much roadway capacity.

Bikes work the same way. It’s not enough to just have bike lanes. We really need to be doing protected bike infrastructure. Bike parking, for example. Bike parking is the hill that I'm gonna die on. It is such an overlooked part of our biking infrastructure.

We need to think holistically about how can we really move people. If we do it smartly, we can actually start reclaiming some of the pavement we’ve put down for cars for other purposes, like green infrastructure or sidewalk cafés.

What are your suggestions for communities who want to start thinking more holistically about people’s transportation needs?

It really is about people-centric planning. We need to bring everyone to the table. I don't have a disability. I don't know how they move. I don't know what it's like to have to move in a wheelchair in a neighborhood. Or to move and depend on all my senses except for sight. Or how to move around the city without hearing. I don't have those experiences. But I can have an awareness that there is not someone at the table with that experience when we're designing and bring them to the table.

Here’s an example. There’s a six-lane road here in D.C., North Capitol, that leads to the US Capitol. It has a sidewalk. With a trash can in the middle of it. Forget about wheelchairs accessible--no one can safely walk down this street. And that lets us know what we value, right? We value moving cars. But we need to be thinking about how we move people.

When we design for everyone, we make better decisions. We design a better system.

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