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Can a bridge perpetuate systemic racism? It may sound ridiculous, but according to Samuel Jones and Daniel Armanios, looking at the built environment through such a critical lens can reveal societal biases that many of us have never considered.

Their new paper, published in the Journal of Construction and Engineering Management, proposes a way to address these biases to ensure that future infrastructure investment doesn’t benefit one group of people at the expense of another. Their framework may prove to be a quantitative method to help identify systemic racism in infrastructure.

“While many view structural inequality as a system of long-standing, institutionalized practices that put one group of people at more of a disadvantage than another,” says Armanios, an assistant professor of engineering and public policy (EPP), “our research finds that such inequities can become embedded in the very physical infrastructure we use on a daily basis. In other words, we find structural inequity is not just metaphorical but, in fact, literal.”

Their study, funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, focused in particular on bridges. Jones, a Ph.D. student in EPP, and Armanios found that low-clearance bridges were more likely to be found in Pennsylvanian communities with higher percentages of racial minorities. Conversely, new bridge construction overall was associated with communities with fewer racial minorities. Those associations worsened when a community had fewer roads, and a greater reliance on public transportation.

We find structural inequity is not just metaphorical but, in fact, literal.

Daniel Armanios, Assistant Professor, EPP

This suggests that the way infrastructure is sited and designed in these communities is associated with greater mobility restriction, in the form of more lower, under-clearance bridges than would otherwise be expected for communities that are predominantly white. This association with such restrictive infrastructure likely makes commerce and transportation routing more difficult, which affects the socioeconomic well-being of such minority communities. The result: entire neighborhoods, home to more racial minority groups, may have greatly reduced access to transportation and opportunity.

In order to combat this inequity, Jones and Armanios have used service area network analyses and coarsened exact matching to identify particular demographic and bridge variables that engineers can correlate to assess the degree to which such deleterious infrastructure is pervasive, so they can target infrastructure rehabilitation efforts with an eye toward equity. Moreover, given that infrastructure funding does not meet already existing construction needs, these equity-informed variables could help target decision-making in ways that more effectively allocate finite resources.

“While our study uses the example of bridges,” says Armanios, “it is likely that there are many other infrastructure systems that exhibit such biases. Structural inequity is engrained into the fabric of our society, and its deleterious effects can be seen across many objects that we interact with every day. Our built infrastructure is just one—but it’s a big, often taken-for-granted one. Our research provides a framework to help infrastructure managers incorporate more equity-based thinking into their systems, especially since these systems can persist for decades, leading to long-lasting inequities in a very structural sense.”