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Portela: How the pandemic shaped mobility justice, and why we cannot go back

Andres Portela is a Democrat challenging City Councilman Steve Kozachik in the primary election. Miranda Schubert is also a candidate in the race.

If we are honest, we are not out of the woods with the global health pandemic. For the last 15 months, our community has developed a relationship with our green open space and streets that changed the way we interact with those spaces; and the expectation is that we should not go back.

Going back takes the shape of road expansions, HAWK lights being used as the only safe way to allow community members to cross the streets, bike lanes that are also bus lanes and are not protected, and unsafe neighborhood streets that we cannot enjoy.

Tucson, like many cities, used federal pandemic funds to encourage change around urban mobility, green space, and movement in general. These programs were probably once seen as temporary, with very short-term investments to promote social distancing and get around Tucson with all modes of transportation. The short-term solutions created to adjust to a pandemic need to result in a long-term readjustment.

The investment was in Pop Up Bike Lanes, Slow Streets, outdoor dining, and open streets; a new reality, and it feels like the Tucson I grew up with. These tactics challenged the relationship we have with open space and the assumption that streets are for cars. Usually, we hear about the investments from the city and think about how it will negatively impact our commute, but this time, we were able to see the inverse. I saw my neighbors, kids and adults, feel safe enough to ride to the library and Reid Park, about 2 miles away from our neighborhood. I also was able to see my neighborhood elders using their scooters to make quick trips to the store and smile as they passed the kids playing in the street. These community-focused protections empowered Tucsonans to walk, bike, use wheelchairs, and run safely, by temporarily limiting local traffic through barricades, codes, and signs, known as the Slow Streets Initiative. On the other side of the pandemic, we will need to begin centering mobility justice as soon as possible to affirm our new community norms.

So as we are returning to what is “normal,” mobility justice needs to be the priority as we emerge into a post-covid world. How do we do that?

  1. Recognize that reverting to the unsustainable auto-centric community is not sustainable. Our environment deserves more, and so do we. We deserve the ability to navigate our community without a car and have a tree canopy that keeps us protected from 100-degree weather.
  2. Use the opportunity indexes created by Southwest Fair Housing Council to facilitate a “15 Minute City.” Let us begin a neighborhood-focused planning process and prioritize a “15-minute without a car community” radius for essential services like grocery stores, libraries, parks, and schools; equitably.
  3. Create a stakeholder meeting across all mobility ecosystems, also recognizing the over-reliance on automobiles is not sustainable and negatively impacts our community and our region. This stakeholder meeting will take a mobility justice approach to ensure that we can get to our destinations safely and affordably.
  4. Prioritizing public health and safety without compromising accessibility and sustainability. Plan Tucson called for the increased consideration of public health. We have to use the community listening sessions of Plan Tucson to prioritize workforce and economic development, access to education, income diversity, and access to health services.
  5. Building public trust in public transportation. Contactless payment, disinfecting protocols, public wifi, and mobility strategies that prioritize new and more sustainable ways to get around Tucson seamlessly and timely.
  6. Lastly, creating a rebirth of transportation and mobility through a renaissance perspective. How do wheelchairs, walkers, bicyclists, ride-share, and autonomous vehicles share the space? Our decision-makers vision is imperative because there will be decisions about adapting the environment so my neighbors’ children can reasonably enjoy playing baseball in the street as they did during the pandemic. How do we create those conditions? Success in transportation will rely heavily on a coalition of partners with a diverse perspective and a data-driven mobility analysis that looks at our neighborhood streets just as much as moving people through our major corridors. The post-pandemic renaissance is rooted in transportation equity.

We know that we cannot go back to “normal” operations. As policy and decision-makers, we have to focus on steering our development around sustainability and resilience. We have to focus on what is truly important to our community and how costly it could be to not adapt to a more inclusive way of business. Transportation and mobility justice will continue to impact every Tucsonan, so we must take this moment and dream about setting the table appropriately and intentionally.

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