How to Think Outside the Car: Transportation Equity Advocates Push for Policy Change

Disability advocates Anna Zivarts and Paulo Nunes-Ueno discuss their efforts to build a more accessible, equitable transportation system in Washington state. They highlight the need to center the voices of non-drivers and challenge car-centric policies that leave many communities behind.

How to Think Outside the Car: Transportation Equity Advocates Push for Policy Change

Transportation equity advocates Anna Zivarts and Paulo Nunes-Ueno are sounding the alarm on the inequities in our current car-centric transportation system. They argue that the system disadvantages non-drivers, low-income individuals, and communities of color, who often face barriers to accessing safe, reliable, and affordable transportation options.

"The reality is there's a lot of people in every community who can't drive - there's young people, there's old people, there's disabled people, there's people who can't afford cars, there are folks who have been recently incarcerated or recently immigrated here who don't have valid licenses. You know, there's a lot of reasons people don't drive," Zivarts explained.

Zivarts, the Director of the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington, and Nunes-Ueno, the Transportation and Land Use Policy Lead at Front and Centered, are part of a growing coalition of advocates pushing for policy changes to address these inequities. They believe that everyone, regardless of their ability to drive or their socioeconomic status, deserves access to safe, dignified, and accessible transportation options.

Nunes-Ueno stressed the importance of this work, saying, "Ultimately at the end of the day, everything is just doing the same job, right? Whether it's a sidewalk or a bus or a highway or a road in front of your house, it's just moving people and goods from one place to the other, but we treat them so, so differently in the way that we do funding - and the legacy - and other policies. And the legacy of that is not a pretty one, right?"

To advance this vision, the coalition has developed a Transportation Bill of Rights, which outlines the basic rights that all individuals should have when it comes to transportation. These rights include access to reliable and affordable public transit, safe and well-maintained sidewalks and bike lanes, and transportation options that are accessible to people with disabilities.

The coalition also emphasizes the intersectionality of transportation equity with other issues such as climate justice and public health. "There's no reason why, in 10 or 15 or 20 years, sidewalks and good transit can't be like that. We've worked hard in a variety of different ways from the funding, to the standard setting, to the engineering, to the planning - to say, just walking safely down the road to an easy walk to a bus that comes fairly often and goes to the places you need to go - that's not a huge thing to expect. We could do that," Nunes-Ueno argued.

Zivarts added, "We need to do it everywhere, right? Because if we just do it in the central areas, in the areas that are already well-connected, those are the areas that have already become too expensive for the folks who need this the most to afford to live. So we can't just be doing this in targeted areas. We really need sidewalks everywhere, transit everywhere."

About the Guests

Find Anna on Twitter/X at @AnnaZivarts, Paulo at @pnumoves, and the Disability Mobility Initiative at @dismobility.

Podcast Transcript

[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington State through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at and in our episode notes.

Well today, and by popular demand, we are thrilled to have two extraordinary guests joining us. I'm very excited about it. First up is Anna Zivarts who's the director of Disability Mobility Initiative and Disability Rights Washington, and also Paulo Nunes-Ueno, Transportation and Land Use policy lead with Front and Centered. Welcome to you both.

[00:01:02] Anna Zivarts: Thank you.

[00:01:03] Paulo Nunes-Ueno: Thanks for having us.

[00:01:05] Crystal Fincher: Very excited to have this conversation today. So I think I just want to start by learning more about what each of your organizations do and what brought you to this work?

[00:01:18] Paulo Nunes-Ueno: Oh, so Front and Centered is a statewide climate justice, environmental justice organization by/for people of color and is a membership organization that has - counts over 70 community based groups from all over Washington. And we work together to create policy and create advocacy around climate justice, environmental justice in three key areas: in transportation, in energy policy, and in pollution reduction.

[00:01:58] Crystal Fincher: Excellent. And we recently had conversations with Senator Saldaña and Representative Wicks, both of whom talked about how critical Front and Centered has been in helping to pass critical policy like the HEAL Act and just really being a powerful and necessary force for advocacy, so this is very exciting. And Anna?

[00:02:27] Anna Zivarts: Hi. So Anna here, I'm the director of the Disability Mobility Initiative, and we are a program that launched just a little over a year ago at Disability Rights Washington. Disability Rights Washington is a statewide disability organization - and the Disability Mobility Initiative is an organizing project within Disability Rights of Washington focused on bringing together non-drivers from throughout the state. And not just disabled non-drivers - we are working across identities, across experiences. We want to involve anyone who doesn't have access to a car, doesn't have reliable access to a car, can't afford a car, maybe is too young to drive, is aging out of driving, or like myself can't drive because of a disability. And so that work that we're doing is how we got to know Paulo and Front and Centered, because there's a lot of overlap in our constituencies. And yeah, that's how we came to work together.

[00:03:27] Crystal Fincher: Well, this is really exciting and I have to say - when I say by popular demand - we interview a number of people, have a lot of conversations, and have certainly referenced the work of both the Disability Mobility Initiative and Front and Centered. And I will tell you, there are people on Twitter who are like, "You know who you need to talk to is Anna. You need to get them on, you need to talk to Paulo. And like, we would love to hear from them." So it's just a testament to the work that you've done and the broad coalition you've built and the people who you speak and advocate for that so many people from different walks of life are interested. And to your point, this is not just about disabled people, although lots of people have disabilities - an increasing amount of, an increasing percentage of our population is disabled. Most people have someone in their families that they know, and it is absolutely critical that we allow our community to be completely accessible to everyone in our community. How did you get started doing this work?

[00:04:44] Anna Zivarts: Yeah, so I was born low vision. I was born with an eye condition that reduces my visual acuity, but I was not really connected to the disability community. I was born before the ADA and just not aware of how, identifying as disabled, could actually and asking for accommodations that I eventually was legally entitled to could help my life and could give me access to the education and the resources that I needed. And so I worked for many years in the labor movement - I worked with low income service workers organizing and organizing against, or organizing for better wages, organizing for healthcare. And disability was always there at some level because we were talking about capitalism and we were talking about work and ability and sort of how you are valued in this structure, but it wasn't something - like I wasn't connected to the disability community.

And then my son was born and he has the same genetic eye condition I do. And it was this major reckoning for me around, "Okay. I have to be comfortable with this part of myself that is part of me, but I've been hiding and trying to hide and trying not to disclose and trying to pretend is not part of who I am if he's going to be comfortable in the world." And so that's when I sought out the disability community on Twitter - and basically Alice Wong, who's an amazing person to follow on Twitter, was how I got introduced to the community and felt like it was a place that I could start to identify with. 

And then I interviewed for the job at Disability Rights Washington and actually this became part of my career. And I brought to it that perspective of there's a lot of people out there that may not be comfortable identifying as disabled who have disabilities, but there's so much stigma out there and there's so much pressure to be a good worker and produce and be independent and not rely on other people. And so if people have any choice to sort of hide that identity that could be a deep part of them, they often do. And so how can we create spaces where we can talk about access needs and talk about disability, but make it feel like it's an identity that can be part of our lives and not something that has this huge bundle of stigma attached to it.

[00:07:21] Crystal Fincher: That makes sense. What brought you to this work, Paulo?

[00:07:25] Paulo Nunes-Ueno: This is a kind of a second career for me. I was a theater director in a previous life and did that for 10 years and kind of ran its course and then I moved to Japan. And then I was thinking, what do I want to do with the rest of my life? I was thinking - how I really want to do something at the intersection of sustainability in cities. And thinking - how do I spend my life trying to make cities better habitats for human beings so that we can have this planet for a little bit longer. And when I was thinking about what to do there, transportation kind of came up and it turns out that the whole theater thing was I was trying to get away from the family business, because my grandfather was a transportation engineer and so was my father.

And then I reverted back to mean - moved back to Seattle, got a job at Metro, went to graduate school at the Evans School at UW to get a public affairs degree. And my window into this has always been - we need to work against auto dependency because it leaves - A) it destroys the planet and B) it's leaving so many people behind, like we were saying earlier when we were chatting. It's a system that - it treats people as if they're a customer of a transaction. If you buy gas, if you own and operate a car, if you buy insurance - then you get dignity. But if you don't, then you're an afterthought. And that seemed to me like, "Wow, this is something we can do much better." And, Anna's story is really a kind of personification of that, I think.

[00:09:32] Crystal Fincher: We have defaulted to designing our communities around freeways and so many people, just a commute is not an optional thing - it's something that they have. And we do have a very car-centric lifestyle and some people love their cars and some people love that, but I think a huge problem is that it is almost mandatory in some areas, that people really don't have an option - a good viable option in many places to not have a car and that's extremely limiting. It creates a lot of instability, insecurity, bad health outcomes, really unhealthily and unsustainably designed cities and communities. And so it's been a big conversation in our legislature, all over the country - how do we do a better job of accommodating people who don't drive? Of giving people really viable choices for even if they don't have to not drive? You know, I'm a person who does have a car, who would prefer not to drive to places and I don't drive many places, but that's - I live in a location that is easier to do that, but lots of people do not have that privilege. How do we make that an accessible thing for everybody?

[00:11:01] Anna Zivarts: I think listening to people who are already not driving, who don't have that choice - and doing what - using that lived experience to inform how we can design and fund a better system, right? Because there is this narrative that everyone drives. And I think even in places like New York City where a lot of people don't drive, the people who are proud to live in New York City because they don't drive think that outside of New York City, everyone drives. And the reality is there's a lot of people in every community who can't drive - there's young people, there's old people, there's disabled people, there's people who can't afford cars, there are folks who have been recently incarcerated or recently immigrated here who don't have valid licenses. You know, there's a lot of reasons people don't drive. And I think there's a real undercounting and undervaluation of our lives as non-drivers because the dominant sort of narrative is that everyone drives and you have to drive to participate. And it's true that that is often the easiest way to get somewhere. 

So we're trying to get a - I think the work we're doing is trying to give people a sense that there's a lot of us out there for whom the system isn't working very well, but we're trying to make it work as well as we can, and we have a lot of lived experience doing that. And how many of us there are? We, based on driver's licenses in the state of Washington, we think it's around 25% of the population that doesn't have a license. Puget Sound Regional Council just came out with their regional transportation plan and they say 47% of the population in the PSRC region is not served well by driving as sort of this special transportation - people with special transportation needs, 47%, right? That's huge. And so I think we need to start to look a little closer and start to ask people more specifically, "Do you drive and is driving working out for you?" Is it really everything that you have been sold to believe that it is?

[00:13:10] Crystal Fincher: And you have done - the Disability Mobility Initiative has done great work in this area and has produced some wonderful resources that center and highlight what people who are not able to drive are currently doing and facing. And everything from the lack of sidewalks, to the lack of roads and sidewalks being cleared of snow or leaves or overgrowth, to just not having safe and consistent ways to get from point A to B are challenges. What can fix that? What will help? From a policy perspective, what can our leaders do at different levels of government to make a meaningful change to improve this?

[00:14:07] Paulo Nunes-Ueno: Well, no, I think that our joint work has been exactly around that. And one of the things that our approach does is just to ask basic questions, right? So one of the key tools that we developed is this idea of a Transportation Bill of Rights that really articulates - even if you don't drive because of whatever reason, even if you live in a place that's not a megastar city where there's a lot of options - you deserve dignity when you are trying to get places and those are basic rights. And we need to create policies and create funding mechanisms and create the expectation that people deserve to be safe. When we went - and we spoke at Front and Centered with lots and lots of our member organizations and listening sessions and asked people, "Well, what do you want? What do you want your communities to be like? What do you want transportation to do for you?" And people said really basic - they said, "We want to feel safe when we're walking and biking and driving and taking transit. We want cleaner air and we want functioning transit." 

And when we look at the ways in which the transportation funding works, it's so weird and balkanized because ultimately at the end of the day, everything is just doing the same job, right? Whether it's a sidewalk or a bus or a highway or a road in front of your house, it's just moving people and goods from one place to the other, but we treat them so so differently in the way that we do funding - and the legacy - and other policies. And the legacy of that is not a pretty one, right? Anna and I have written a lot about the Washington state 18th amendment and the gas tax restrictions that say this pot of money can only be used for highway purposes. And some of the history of that is really ugly. It really is the redlining on wheels portion of funneling funds, funneling public good, public dollars in a way that supported white flight to the suburbs and starved Black and brown communities of investments. So I think that part of getting to that vision that you're just describing, Crystal, is addressing these root causes of how we got here. Why do we have such amazing disparities?

[00:16:46] Crystal Fincher: Are you finding that there's a willingness to address those root causes among our leaders?

[00:16:50] Anna Zivarts: I think it becomes a question of power. It really does, right? I mean, there's a certain amount of work that we can do with just being like, "Hey, we exist" and people are like, "Oh look, cute - disabled people showing up to testify." And then there's the, "Okay, we actually want your funding for this highway expansion project and we want to take that and we want to invest it in sidewalks and transit." And then people are like, "Oh, not so cute. Never mind." And so, this becomes an organizing project - I think fundamentally - that we need to build a base of non-drivers and a base of people who are willing to stand up and say, "Hey, we can't just keep doing what we've been doing. We can't."

I think the latest fight's going to be around what replaces the gas tax as we move towards more electric vehicles. We have to be real sure that that money's not going to be restricted the same way that the gas tax was and funneled into these highway projects that are just digging ourselves deeper and deeper into climate and health equity crises, and accessibility crises. Like every additional lane of road that we build, whether it's a highway or even just a wider local road - that's an access barrier, increased access barrier, for someone who was walking or rolling and trying to get across that road that has more traffic and faster traffic as a result of that widening.

[00:18:19] Crystal Fincher: Which makes sense. You know, it seemed - that seems very reasonable and logical, Anna. But we are in this conversation that seems contentious with a hesitance to move forward, certainly, as we are talking about a transportation package in the legislature right now, as we're having continuing conversations within cities and between cities about how to most effectively move people and goods. And there seems to be a hesitance to even be able to say, Yes, we actually need to pause the expansion of roads. Sure, we can maintain them, but let's actually focus on investing our new dollars in ways that support our entire community and make our entire system accessible - no matter how someone gets around. How are you finding those conversations and how can people who want to be part of a coalition change and engage with this in a way that's helpful?

[00:19:24] Paulo Nunes-Ueno: Well, one of the things that I think is really changing around this conversation is that we are really picking up more and more the idea that this is a place of really deep intersections - ha ha ha, sorry - between the climate crisis and climate activism and environmental justice in communities that are safe and accessible for everybody, right? So this is - what's really sort of been exciting about this work that Anna and I are doing is that it brings people from a lot of different communities and a lot of different points of view. And you're right, Crystal, that the entrenched status quo of - these are the ways in which we must spend these dollars, these are the kinds of industries that are already equipped and tooled to do the planning and the design and the construction of these particular projects - would want to maintain the ways in which we've been doing things, in spite of all of the evidence that we have that it's not what our communities need. It's not in line with our climate goals or our environmental justice goals - is really tough. It's going to take, like Anna was saying earlier, a lot of power building of people saying, "Hey, I care about this because of this particular point of view", but it really centers on - we need to do the way that we invest - we need to do transportation investment really differently with a different lens.

[00:21:12] Anna Zivarts: And I think we need to be really thoughtful and think more about who this car-based system is working for, and why the powers that are behind ensuring that it continues - and who it's not working for. And you think about, when you turn on a television or whatever streaming service you're using, how many car ads you see - there is a lot of money and capital out there convincing us that cars are freedom, convincing us that we need to have these neighborhoods that look a certain way that are heavily auto dependent. And to change that is going to be difficult because there is so much inertia or not even - let me re-say that - to change that is going to take - it's like changing the direction of a big ship. It's going to take time, but I think we're starting to say, "Hey, look, this isn't working for a lot of us and this paradigm that began at the beginning of the automobile age is failing us on so many levels that we have to start to change direction." And as we're changing direction, I think the framework that Front and Centered is working within - this Just Transition framework - is a really useful way to think about it. That it's not going to happen overnight, but we need to make sure that we are building towards a more equitable future and that every step we take is building towards that.

And I think that links back to the transportation package and what goes on there and what we advocate for. Because I think - there's this argument that, well, a little bit of transit funding, a little bit of pedestrian funding, that's better than nothing and we should be pushing for that. But looking at the bigger picture, if we get that pedestrian funding attached to a whole bunch more road expansion or electric vehicle capacity expansion, is that getting us towards this Just Transition? Is it really changing who has access to resources? Is it really changing the equity of our communities, the health of our communities? I think we need to think about that.

[00:23:32] Paulo Nunes-Ueno: Yeah, that's exactly right, Anna. That's exactly right because what our experience to date is, like you're saying is, we get this huge road expansion proposals and they have a little bit of transit funding, a little bit of sidewalk here that "sweeten the deal." But that only works if you're looking at a very generalized view of the state as a whole. But when you start actually unpacking - well, who is benefiting from this and who is getting harmed by this? What you see is that it's the same communities over and over and over again that are getting the lion's share of the impacts in terms of loss of connectivity in their neighborhoods because there's a highway through them now. And are the same communities that have been historically overburdened by industry and by pollution from highways. And it turns out those map exactly to where the red lines were when there was all of this exclusion in real estate and underinvestment. 

And so what Anna and I are working towards is to say - we, as advocates, and our allies who are advocating in the same space need to call it for what it is. We are asking the same people to bear the price for these bad policies again and again, whether it's by lack of connectivity or by overburden for pollution. And giving one set of communities a little bit of extra transit funding - it can't paper over the harm that these policies are causing. So we have to stop the harm now and then figure out the policies that figure out how to redress the harms that we've made, but also build the future that we need. And this dynamic that we've been in for a long time - hopefully is changing - where the shotgun marriage of transit and a little bit of transit and enormous road expansions is not good for anybody.

[00:25:45] Anna Zivarts: Well, it's good for some people.

[00:25:46] Paulo Nunes-Ueno: It's not good for most people.

[00:25:51] Crystal Fincher: And it's not good for an increasing amount of people. And I think that is certainly there - our current infrastructure is not working for more and more people. It is proving to be inadequate under, not only the widening and increasingly extreme conditions that we find ourself in, but also as people do, once they do have a choice, are choosing not to drive all the time. Or especially through this pandemic, people experiencing what it's like to not have to have a commute. Even for those who can drive and wanting to prioritize - just saving that time with their families, even just the matter of time can be a privilege. And for folks who have been pushed out of higher price areas and pushed further away from their jobs - certainly that's another burden that people are bearing.

So, we talk about a state transportation package - certainly there's a lot that needs to be done just within cities, whether it's a large one or a small one or a suburb. What should people be prioritizing and what lens - how should they approach decisions about, not only transportation and transit, but land use and design. How should our - not only legislative electeds, but also local electeds - be approaching this, and what should they be looking to do?

[00:27:21] Anna Zivarts: My take on this is that we should be looking at every - we have these project lists that are out there for all these road projects that are - many were our old project lists. Like they've been building since the 90s. And so many of them are for additional capacity because they were created under this paradigm that by increasing capacity we'll reduce congestion. Well, we know that's not the case. We know that increasing capacity just increases driving and then all the increased pollution, increased climate impacts of that, and decreased access for people walking and rolling. And so I really think we need to start going back through these lists of - some of them are zombie projects and some of them aren't quite zombies but should be - and looking really, who is this serving? And is this really the best investment of our transportation dollars? If we were actually moving towards a future where people can get around without having to rely on a vehicle, what would we be investing in? What would that future look like? And we're not going to get there tomorrow, but let's start building the connected network we need so that it's a possibility for our kids' generation.

[00:28:34] Paulo Nunes-Ueno: Yeah, exactly. So to that end, we've got a budget proviso up in the legislature this year for consideration that we hope will pass - that allocates a little bit of money for WSDOT to start researching what a frequent accessible transit standard would look like for different communities across the state. One of the analogies that we use when we're talking about this is that it's really hard to go out and rent an apartment, or rent a house, or buy a place in Washington state that doesn't have an indoor toilet, but that wasn't always the case. We've worked really hard over the last a hundred years to make electricity and indoor plumbing be a standard thing that you expect wherever you go for the most part. And there's no reason why, in 10 or 15 or 20 years, sidewalks and good transit can't be like that. We've worked hard in a variety of different ways from the funding, to the standard setting, to the engineering, to the planning - to say, just walking safely down the road to an easy walk to a bus that comes fairly often and goes to the places you need to go - that's not a huge thing to expect. We could do that. 

Like we do hard things, right? Like building this enormous interstate highway system and making sure that pretty much every road that you drive on has a uniform surface and signs that you recognize? That was hard, but we did it - but now we need to turn our attention to the unfinished business of making sure that we've got sidewalks and buses that run in a lot of places, if not all places. So that, I think, is really important to set as an aspiration - that this isn't a bone that you're throwing to disabled people, or a bone that you're throwing to a community of color. This just should be a basic thing that everybody expects that we can do. We have the tools to do this.

[00:30:51] Anna Zivarts: And we need to do it everywhere, right? Because if we just do it in the central areas, in the areas that are already well-connected, those are the areas that have already become too expensive for the folks who need this the most to afford to live. So we can't just be doing this in targeted areas. We really need sidewalks everywhere, transit everywhere. And it's totally possible - it's not going to be the same frequency of transit, perhaps, in our more rural areas. I mean, it's not, but to have a daily bus service or a twice a day bus service in our more rural communities is not unreasonable. And we used to in earlier eras, but we've given that up. And the result of that is a lot of folks are completely isolated. And as people are getting priced out of areas that have better transit and that have connected - the connected sidewalk network - the cost of that to these individuals and then to the public because we have to provide other services to try to get people where they need to go, that's huge. And it's not something that I think we're thinking about enough.

[00:31:58] Crystal Fincher: If we make transportation more accessible to everyone - if we provide better sidewalks, better transit access, it actually helps all of us. All of us have dealt with traffic, or not having a bus available when we need it, or a long walk or a connection, or not being able to have a safe and reliable route to where we want to walk or our kids going to school. And if we actually help things become accessible to everyone, they become easier and friendlier to use for everyone in society. This is actually a benefit to all of us to make sure that everyone has access. And we just cut out so many people and make things so much more difficult for all of us, whether it's just walking down through our own communities - if a sidewalk is cluttered or not completely accessible or not existent. It builds stronger, healthier, more resilient and desirable communities for all of us together. I guess in the little bit of time that we have left - are there any last words or thoughts that you want to leave listeners with?

[00:33:14] Paulo Nunes-Ueno: Well, we're talking on the Eve of Rosa Parks' birthday, which has been recently celebrated as Transit Equity Day. And so I guess the thought that I would leave with is that - transit access, being safe in the streets, has been a central part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s because of the work around the Montgomery bus boycott. And you know that history that we know, but apparently being safe and having safe access and dignity in the Philadelphia street cars in the 1860s was a movement that was led by Black women that were part of the abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement of that era also. So, we stand on the shoulders of giants, of people that have been doing this work in the faces of much worse odds. And I think that we can take inspiration from them and win this fight too.

[00:34:27] Anna Zivarts: Oh, gosh, I think I'll leave it at what Paulo said. I think, we do have to have hope that we can get to a more equitable future, but I have that hope and so I am fighting this fight. That's why we're working together. That's why we're asking the folks that we organize to step up because we actually do believe that it's possible.

[00:34:51] Crystal Fincher: Well, I thank you both - Anna Zivarts, the director of the Disability Mobility Initiative with Disability Rights Washington, and Paulo Nunes-Ueno, Transportation and Land Use policy lead with Front and Centered. Thank you so much today. And we will definitely be including links to your work and what we talked about today in the show notes. Thanks so much.

I thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler with assistance from Shannon Cheng. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. Now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcast - just type "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at and in the episode notes. 

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