The role of equity in road safety and mobility interventions
This page was last reviewed on January 30, 2023
Parachute interviewed Dr. Emily McCullogh, a postdoctoral fellow at York University in the Faculty of Health Science, working under the direction of Dr. Alison Macpherson and Dr. Sarah Richmond at Public Health Ontario. McCullogh conducted her doctoral work in the fields of sociology and philosophical ethics and examined care and caring within coach-athlete relationships in youth competitive sport; however, her research scope has expanded to include road safety, injury prevention, and the built environment. Upon completing her PhD, she joined a pan-Canadian research team dedicated to reducing road-related injuries and deaths, as well as promoting active transportation. Her ongoing work focuses on accessibility, equity, and the built environment, as well as system-based approaches to safe mobility in Canada.
How do you best define equity in road safety and active transportation?
Equity in road safety is when we are supporting those who are marginalized or who have not been served by the current status quo, for example, vulnerable road users (VRUs). It’s important to note that these road users are not inherently vulnerable: they are made vulnerable by the system of roads we have constructed. In this context equity means supporting those folks through infrastructure changes. We want to ensure that VRUs can navigate the roads without incurring disproportionate costs of injury, which the data show are quite high for these road user groups.
Vulnerable road users should include road users who experience disproportionate risks to road-related injury and death as a result of their social location (e.g., people with low socio-economic status, new Canadians, people with disabilities.) The term VRU is most commonly used in the realm of road safety research and practice, which focuses on the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists broadly; however, we should expand “vulnerability” in VRU to encompass all dimensions of vulnerability and precarity that influences one’s safe and equitable access to our system of roads and the built environment.
Why is it important to think about equity when addressing road safety issues?
Data shows that people who walk, cycle and wheel, as well as children and older adults, are represented highest in injury statistics. If we care about human life, then equity is one way to address the safety needs of those not being served by our current system of roads.
What role has data played in addressing equity issues on our roads?
There is lots of quantitative research and data collected through epidemiological studies that are designed to show where road and infrastructure changes are most needed. Collision and injury stats, in particular, should guide decision-making and what kinds of changes are needed and where. Unfortunately, these data do not show near misses and potential dangers, which need to be more closely examined and measured.
My area of work is qualitative research. Currently there is limited qualitative data available in the fields of injury prevention and road safety but it’s becoming more and more important to bolster or accompany any quantitative research studies with qualitative data. We need to engage with humans and discuss their lived experiences and narratives about these issues. For example, recent research has examined barriers and facilitators to making infrastructure changes that would serve VRUs’ safety.1 These data were gathered from injury prevention and road safety professionals in the form of interviews and focus groups. This research emphasizes that road safety is not just about numbers. These are people’s lives being lost and compromised.
The human angle is more and more important, especially with regard to changing policies at local levels. Further, qualitative data collected from road safety and injury prevention professionals are valuable because they provide a space for reflection and discussion on their roles and the challenges they face when advocating for infrastructure changes that serve VRUs. Gaining insight into the structural and institutional challenges with making these changes can help dismantle and soften some of the barriers, such as motor vehicle prioritization, lack of funding, and lack of political will.1
What are some of your key successes of using an equity lens to improve active transportation and road safety?
The Vision Zero micro grant program in B.C. (B.C.’s Vision Zero in Road Safety for Vulnerable Road Users Grant Program) has done some really great work geared toward supporting VRUs, especially those in rural, remote, small and/or Indigenous communities within B.C. They use an equity lens when adjudicating applications and distributing funds for the VZ Grant Program, which tends to award funds to municipalities that have less capacity or those municipalities that couldn’t get funding elsewhere. The program’s goal is to build capacity. It is really working to fill these gaps to support work that wouldn’t have been done otherwise, as opposed to just offsetting municipal costs of work that would be done either way. A key success of this program is it helped to increase the capacity of these communities by being able to participate in the grant writing process and work through the planning process to get that money to projects in particular locations. In other words, the administrators of the VZ Grant Program work to help applicants with the grant writing process and offer flexible options for submission. Many grants require a lot of capacity and networking to properly fill out. They are very colonial in design and this is a barrier to many in-need communities. The complexity of the grant application can be a deterrent. The VZ Grant Program is designed to increase the capacity of small, rural, remote and Indigenous communities.
Currently, I am working with a pan-Canadian research team and we have an academic manuscript in review that looks at how the built environment serves some groups better than others. We are working with injury prevention advocates, transport groups, public health professionals, policy makers, non-profit humans, and police services across Canada to get their perspective about how equity is included in their work (or not).
What are some of the challenges with using an equity lens to improve active transportation and road safety?
One of the biggest challenges to getting any equity work done is due to the siloed nature of this work. There are great people doing all kinds of work in different organizations and sectors, all working toward the same goal, but they are isolated. There is no network to join these professionals together across organizations and sectors. However, people are recognizing the importance of breaking down those silos.1
The greatest barrier is motor vehicle prioritization,1 which is a symptom of wider societal and systematic problems. It is quite challenging to make road safety equitable when the main purpose for system of roads right now is to move vehicles. Policy makers don’t want to take space away from cars but taking space away from cars makes cars drive slower and makes more space of other modes of transportation.
Another challenge is the lack of localized data.1 It’s one thing to have a massive nationwide data set but it’s harder to use those data to convince local policy and decision-makers to make changes. When working in communities, it’s important to have a top-down approach complemented with a bottom-up strategy, which includes localized data, to tackle these issues.
What can we do to ensure our strategies to improve road safety and active transportation are more equitable?
Breaking down the silos is a really good place to start, so you can gather different perspectives on how equity issues impact or influence road safety in different communities and municipalities, and how they are implemented across different sectors. For example, throughout data I’ve analyzed, participants from Montréal discussed the different needs of VRUs and how they can sometimes conflict. For people with disabilities, someone who wheels will want a smooth surface to be able to navigate but someone who has a visual impairment needs tactile features to navigate the same environment safely. It is important to be aware of these needs, especially now that we have so many different ways and methods of getting around. Making the roads equitable simultaneously for all road users has presented some challenges, especially in the Montréal context. One way to address this is by moving away from building car-dominated spaces and toward creating a built environment that supports the safety needs of all road users and transportation methods (e.g., walking, cycling, scooters). For example, keeping a pedestrian pathway network separate from a wheeling pathway. While this makes the built environment safer for VRUs, this change will take space away from cars, which is why decision-makers are reluctant to do that.
What advice do you have for other road safety and active transportation advocates?
The more that you can connect with other networks and organizations doing this work, the better. I know that it takes a lot of capacity and time to be able to reach out, connect, and join webinars. I know Parachute is well positioned, as our nationwide injury prevention charity, to provide opportunities to break down those silos and connect organizations.
Also, my advice is to learn more from as many humans as possible doing work in their communities because they have creative ideas to maximize use of small amounts of money to really make changes that have immediate impact. B.C.’s VZ Grant Program has some great examples of small road safety infrastructure projecst that are relvatively low cost but effective. For example, adding a crosswalk on a busy road near a school. Sharing this work more widely is a great first step in creating an equitable system of roads.
1 McCullogh, E., Giles, A., Macpherson, A., Buchan, C., Pike, I., Torres, J., . . . Richmond, S. A. (2022). Applying the Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research (CFIR) to examine barriers and facilitators to built environment change in five Canadian municipalities: lessons from road safety and injury prevention professionals. Journal of Transport & Health, 27, 1-14. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214140522001505