Pennsylvania Legacies #160: Safe Streets, Equitable Cities

The newest member of PEC’s Trails team is a veteran of the movement for safe and equitable access to active transportation in big cities. Program manager Emilia Crotty talks about her experience as director of LA Walks, Los Angeles’s premier pedestrian advocacy organization, and how it informs the equity work she’s now doing for PEC on behalf of the Circuit Trails Coalition.

Insights from the “Equity of Access to Trails” report will help guide the work of the Circuit Trails Coalition.

Over the last two years, the trails community has been focused on the dramatic uptick in outdoor recreation since the start of the pandemic. All over Pennsylvania, people are turning to the outdoors for exercise, mental health benefits, and to get out of the house. That’s still true overall — statewide, across rural, urban, and suburban communities, the trend is real and stable. But the trouble with sweeping generalizations is what they leave out.

Some neighborhood-level data shows that people aren’t necessarily more likely to recreate outdoors than they were before 2020. Research by the Circuit Trails Coalition, of which PEC is a member, found this to be true when they investigated how COVID-19 has affected park and trail use in four communities around Greater Philly. These areas were selected because they’re adjacent to existing or planned Circuit Trail routes, and because they’re home to historically underserved and underrepresented populations.

In each neighborhood, a majority of nonwhite residents told researchers they’re spending less time outdoors than they did pre-pandemic. That set of facts, and the reasons behind them, have set the agenda for the next phase of the Circuit Trails initiative, as the Coalition renews its commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. 

“The work of the Coalition is to realize those findings, to make them a reality, and to bring more people into the trails to make them feel ownership and like this is their space,” said Emilia Crotty, PEC’s Senior Project Manager for Trails and Outdoor Recreation. Emilia joined PEC last summer, and previously served as executive director of LA Walks, Los Angeles’s leading pedestrian advocacy group. Before that, she was with Bike New York, where she helped launch the city’s bike share program.

Emilia Crotty, Sr. Program Manager

Both roles helped her to recognize and understand the nature of unequal access to safe active transportation in our cities — disparities that too often go unnoticed or unaddressed in the conversation about trails and public space.

“The work that we were doing in Los Angeles was a really multiracial effort to address traffic fatalities, to address the historical neglect of certain communities that led to Black kids being twice as likely to be killed while walking, low income residents being twice as likely to be killed while walking than higher income residents — these incredible heath and safety disparities across races,” said Crotty. “That was central to everything we did at LA Walks…So that is really the lens I bring to the work of working on trails in the Philadelphia region.”

The “Equity of Access to Trails” research conducted by the Circuit Trails in Fall 2020 will serve as the blueprint for how the Coalition can realize its goals. Survey participants gave suggestions for what would make them feel more comfortable on the trails. Hiring paid trail ambassadors to help provide information in a welcoming way, or expanding the variety of trail programs to include live music events, food trucks, or quiet spaces to enjoy being in nature, could help make the trails more appealing according to survey participants. 

The work of the Coalition is to realize those findings, to make them a reality, and to bring more people into the trails to make them feel ownership and like this is their space.

This survey is just the first step. The Coalition now needs to focus on using the insights from the research to realize their goals, through outreach and relationship-building with communities. 

“We have named that we want to prioritize [racial and economic justice] and now we need to create those structures and systems so that we’re constantly prioritizing it, so we’re constantly assessing what we’ve done and taking a look at how that aligned with the research findings and recommendation,” said Crotty. “If it didn’t, we need to adjust so that next time we are more in line with those recommendations and create that culture of assessment an accountability so that we’re not just aspiring to and thinking about these values, but we’re actually living them in our everyday practices and procedures.”