Equity in Urban Improvements: Oakland’s Great Pave

By Betsy Gardner • July 15, 2021

Oakland, California has long fought against gentrification, and for racial equity, but it has rapidly become one of the most gentrified areas of the country, with limited housing availability and a high cost of living. These changes have particularly impacted folks of color in the city, an issue that city leaders are working hard to combat. 

One of the ways that the city is addressing these challenges is through the Department of Race and Equity, launched in 2016 to work with city departments “to create a city where our diversity is maintained, racial disparities have been eliminated and racial equity has been achieved.” The Race and Equity team consistently uses community engagement and data mapping to discover and track inequalities in the city. The Oakland Department of Transportation (OakDOT) knew that discrepancies existed, and with the introduction of the Race and Equity team, they were able to learn how to understand — and correct — the disparities in transportation, infrastructure, and mobility faced by communities of color.  

OakDOT and the Race and Equity team worked together to identify underserved populations and segregated areas, conduct community engagement and data collection, and hold staff training for the OakDOT team. According to Sarah Fine, the Complete Streets Paving and Sidewalks Program Manager at OakDOT, the Race and Equity team was crucial in helping set up a shared understanding of equity,and supporting their work correcting the historic lack of investment in neighborhoods of color. 

Traditionally, paving projects and street repairs in Oakland were focused on major streets, and the few local streets chosen for improvement were based mostly on complaints to the city council. Yet in 2019, OakDOT adopted a $100M paving plan to prioritize equitable expenditures of the 2016 voter-approved bond funds, which totaled $600 million. Over the three year work period 75 percent of the budget was dedicated to local streets. For Fine and her team, this was a prime opportunity to implement an equity-focused infrastructure improvement plan. 

At the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Associate Professor of Urban Design and alumnus Stephen Gray has detailed why it’s important to include equity during the project budgeting phase, as Fine and her team did. According to his conversations with Harvard Magazine, “[The budgeting process is] really where the center of power is,” says Gray, “Once a project is funded. . . you’ve already made it exclusive.” Fine and her team knew they wanted to focus funding on historically underserved areas of the city, while backing up this equity-focused decision with data.        

This chart displays the baseline relationship between street conditions and equity (measured by percentage of underserved populations), a main focus for Fine’s team.

To this point, the OakDOT team used the below map, outlining pseudo-planning areas that purposefully cut across council districts, and a Pavement Condition Index (which is a numeric grade that scores the condition of streets on a scale of 0 to 100), to draw out the condition of roads in the city. They also plotted out factors like race and income (according to Census and American Community Survey data) and school locations to arrange over these other data layers, which visualized and proved the big discrepancies in street and paving conditions between neighborhoods of color and majority-white neighborhoods. 

OakDOT’s planning areas purposefully cut across council districts in order to create cohesive buy-in from the council and prevent district v. district competition.​​​

An important factor in this equity-focused paving plan, named The Great Pave, is how data-driven the planning is. The above mapping and research showed that there were longer commute times, worse road conditions, and fewer protected bike lanes in areas that had higher concentrations of people of color. Fine’s team also used data analysis to compare the share of local streets in poor condition with the share of underserved populations, which again showed racial discrepancies in road conditions. OakDOT utilized a percentage formula to “distribute funding for local streets by the share of underserved populations and share of local street miles in poor condition,” which ended up prioritizing areas that had been neglected and are majority non-white.

The original street conditions and equity chart guided OakDOT’s formula for funding distribution.

Despite being a plan that was fully backed by data analysis, mapping, community engagement, and the Race and Equity team’s work, there were still some residents who didn’t support the equity-focused Great Pave plan. Most residents — and the mayor and council members — were very on board and supportive of the plan, according to Fine, but Fine was booed at a few community meetings. OakDOT held community engagement sessions to transparently show how these paving decisions were made, and reminded attendees that the city council could still allocate 5 percent of the $100 million budget at their discretion. Fine said that the institutional support and buy-in helped her and her team hold strong to the equity values that grounded The Great Pave. She has also had the opportunity to discuss this work with other cities that are interested in equity-focused paving.    

“It is so exciting to be able to show what government can actually do if we are adequately funded,” said Fine. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the OakDOT team is on track to complete The Great Pave on time. In addition to better street conditions, Fine is also proud to show the city government following through on their word; many residents in high-need areas were doubtful that the department would actually execute these improvements. Guided by equity and backed by data, OakDOT and the rest of the city leadership are improving more than just roads in Oakland — and the proof is in the paving.  


About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.