While OakDOT has large aspirations, residents are frustrated that the City has not provided a basic state of good repair and a dignified public realm: long-standing neglect of streets and sidewalks due to a stagnant gas tax and structural local government financial constraints has meant that cracked sidewalks and potholes are the norm. Grandmothers who have lived on the same block their whole lives have never seen their street repaved. OakDOT is changing this thanks to a voter-approved, innovative, and comprehensive local infrastructure bond. Measure KK, approved in 2016, provides $350 million dollars for street and sidewalk improvements along with $150 million for public facilities like parks and libraries and $100 million for affordable housing. Importantly, voters and the Oakland City Council directed that equity be a driving consideration to how city departments allocate these new resources.
A Professional, Systematic Approach to Equity
Oakland is the first city in California to have a Department of Race and Equity, created at roughly the same time as OakDOT. Its mission is to create a city in which diversity has been maintained, racial disparities have been eliminated and racial equity has been achieved. It is training staff in departments throughout the city using proven strategies, including increasing awareness of root causes, cultivating and mobilizing advocates, establishing baseline disparity data, collaborating with communities, and adopting a results-based accountability approach. The work includes OakDOT forming a Racial Equity Team that developed a charter being used to operationalize equity, measure progress, and list specific responsibilities for management and staff. In 2018, the city published the “Oakland Equity Indicators Report” to provide a baseline quantitative framework to better understand the impacts of race, measure inequities, and enable us to monitor progress and setbacks. OakDOT is working to reduce inequities by looking at hiring practices, community engagement and planning, cultural expression, and traffic safety.
Figure 1. The City of Oakland is using data and an integrated approach to pursuing equity.
An OakDOT Racial Equity Team subcommittee is looking closely at how the department is being built. We recognize the need for OakDOT to reflect the diversity of the communities we serve. Hiring rules and typical recruitment practices, governed by civil service and education requirements, can be an impediment to bringing people of color into positions of authority. We have been examining every step of the recruitment process in an effort to expand the range of candidates because a team that reflects the community that we serve will strengthen our capacity to administer equitable services. OakDOT has incorporated an examination of candidates’ understanding of structural inequities, along with the value of their lived experience, into its recruitment process. While we have much further to go, this approach is helping OakDOT better reflect the communities we serve and become a time with the capacity and values to address inequity in our daily work.
Fundamental to pursuing equity and working equitably is a new approach to community engagement. OakDOT is meeting communities where they are and focusing on engaging those who have not been heard because of structural challenges to participating in governance. For example, OakDOT is attending existing community events rather than hosting evening public input sessions, it arranges for child care and provides food at community meetings and strategically targets reaching populations that are less likely to participate. To update the bike plan our entire team — including consultants — took racial equity training. We then developed an equity framework, looking through a racial equity lens at existing conditions, project identification, and investment prioritization.
Groups with deep ties to communities of color in Oakland became part of the bike plan project team, each receiving stipends for their time and insights. The team did not shy away from the key issues Oakland is facing to instead talk narrowly about barriers to cycling: We honored Oaklanders’ concerns about housing security, displacement, and gentrification; and empowered our community partners to help identify policies, programs, and projects that can deliver mobility resources to communities most impacted by these concerns. The plan, which was approved unanimously by Oakland’s Planning Commission and City Council in the summer of 2020, includes innovative proposals like bike repair stations and mechanics at libraries in neighborhoods that lack bike shops. In addition, OakDOT committed to work interdepartmentally to address concerns around housing, development and community policing. Their inclusion and the unanimous adoption of the plan demonstrate the value of genuine community engagement.
Historically disadvantaged communities in Oakland told us that saving time and money in a booming economy with scarce affordable housing was a top priority. One-quarter of African American households do not own a car — about two-and-a-half times the citywide average. That is why we supported emerging mobility like free-floating carshare, bikeshare and shared electric scooters and mopeds. Many Oaklanders now find they need not spend up to $9,000 a year to own a personal vehicle thanks to these services. OakDOT has championed low-income programs and equitable coverage policies to make sure those that most in need are not left out.
OakDOT’s Paint the Town! program enhances community members’ sense of belonging to their neighborhood. The program gives communities the opportunity to design murals and paint them on the street. It was designed to be as simple as possible and to reduce barriers to entry. Funding from foundations was raised to support high-need communities, and we have approved murals in twice as many communities of concern — areas where disadvantaged populations like severely rent-burdened households, low-income populations, and people of color are concentrated — than in areas that have more resources.
Government’s most important responsibility is keeping its communities, especially its most vulnerable members, safe. Unfortunately, traffic-related severe injuries and fatalities occur most frequently in historically redlined, lower-income neighborhoods where higher proportions of people of color live. We are responding urgently and rapidly to terrible tragedies that happen on streets, to make swift meaningful change where the most horrific injuries occur. At the same time, we are working to innovate with designs and processes that encourage safe choices. For example, in response to a fatal collision in October 2019, OakDOT installed the West Coast’s first “Hardened Centerline” — a treatment that puts a rubber speed bump along the centerline of the road projecting into an intersection to slow left-turning vehicles. Data drive actions that prevent future tragedies. The complaint-based systems local governments use can exacerbate structural inequities. In Oakland, neighborhoods having fewer injuries from traffic crashes ask more frequently for traffic safety improvements. To counter this, we developed a model that prioritizes traffic safety requests from places with more injuries, by equally weighting location within a community of concern, the collision history of the street, and proximity to schools.