Public Transit Is Necessary, But Getting Worse July 2, 2014

ptinThe question is no longer whether Rosa Parks can sit at the front of the bus. It’s whether she gets to ride the bus at all. Although more overt racial discrimination in public transportation has given way, inadequate transit services affect many people’s access to work, recreation and health services. And because of the high costs of owning and driving a car, private automobile transportation is often not an affordable option. The US has fallen behind Europe, badly.

Federal policy has heavily favored automobile use, with $205 billion provided by the Highway Trust Fund for state road projects since 1956, compared to only $50 billion for mass transit over the past 30 years. Highway investments provide less direct benefit to the poor: In 1990 half of the households without access to a car earned less than $10,000 (78 percent of the households without access to a car earned less than $20,000), while 96 percent of households with incomes over $35,000 owned at least one vehicle. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that the poorest fifth of urban residents in southern California receive only four percent of the area’s transportation benefits.

Society’s dependence on automobiles concerns both social justice advocates and environmentalists. But their approaches to solving transportation problems are often divergent. Environmentalists struggle to find ways to discourage automobile use, such as placing higher taxes on fuel or pro-rating registration fees based on the number of miles driven. Advocates for poor working people, on the other hand, focus on survival, such as fighting cutbacks in transit service or the construction of highways that cut through communities.

Despite these differences, some common areas of concern are emerging. The environmental and social impacts of suburban sprawl, poor land-use planning and disinvestment in cities are beginning to bring these constituencies together. The country’s reliance on automobiles and the dominant planning role played by state Departments of Transportation, highway builders and engineers provides a clear target for joint activities.

As a sponsor of a series of Energy and Equity Roundtables, the Environmental Action Foundation is reaching out to a diverse range of groups working on transportation and energy issues. In November, I spoke at the Transportation, Environmental Justice and Social Equity Conference co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration and the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a Washington-based coalition. These forums are among the first attempts to start a national dialogue among diverse advocacy communities around transportation issues. Although there is still a lot of mutual learning and listening yet to do, we are beginning to understand that working together toward common solutions is needed in order to aim for the kind of fundamental changes in transportation and government services we seek.

As environmentalists and social justice advocates move from parallel tracks to the same one, we are beginning to share victories and lessons.

* The Urban Habitat Program of the Earth Island Institute worked with the Bayview Hunters Point community, the largest African American neighborhood in San Francisco, to formulate the country’s first community-designed transit system plan based on social and environmental justice criteria. In 1992, Urban Habitat found that none of the San Francisco Municipal Railway system’s development proposals would adequately meet the transit needs of Bayview Hunters Point. With the assistance of residents and city planners, Urban Habitat developed a strategy that includes commercial development, adequate transportation services, conveniently located stations and plans for stimulating local jobs.

* Public transportation will only be fully utilized if it is accessible. In 1970, the Chimawa Indian Health Clinic expanded to serve the Native American population in western Oregon. But the public transit line in the area stopped a mile from the clinic. Since there were no sidewalks, transit-dependent patients had to walk a mile through what amounted to a muddy trail. After years of legal challenges and protests, the bus line was extended. But today the line is in jeopardy because of low ridership, and activists are asking for the transit agency’s assistance in educating patients about bus availability.

* In Gary, Indiana, which has the largest African American population in the state, Michele Nanni of the Hoosier Environmental Council is pushing for a more sustainable regional transportation plan. A loose voting bloc has been organized, made up of community representatives and transit operators, to support policies that address both environmental and social justice concerns. Although the region’s long-term plan is still based on highway use, Nanni has succeeded in making the planning process more accessible to the public.

As Nanni and other activists have found, one of the basic solutions to transportation problems is encouraging citizen participation in the planning process. For the first time, such participation is legally mandated; through the landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). ISTEA changed the power dynamic by enhancing the role of metropolitan planning organizations and the governor, and by adding a significant new player: the public.

Enhanced political strength through education and advocacy will help to level the playing field and create a partnership on transportation planning, eventually leading to transportation systems that fulfill both social and ecological needs.

Another tool for public inclusion is Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (1964). ISTEA’s planning regulations explicitly require states and metropolitan planning organizations to be consistent with Title VI, which states that: “No person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” This can be interpreted to mean that the planning process must allow representation of diverse groups in decision making, make the transportation system accessible to all populations, and have a fair ratio of transit and highway expenditures by region. For example, in Los Angeles, the Labor/Community Strategy Center has sued the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on the grounds that bus riders, who are low-income and overwhelmingly people of color, have had to increase the amount of their bus fares to pay for suburban projects, whose riders are mostly white and have higher incomes.

The Civil Rights Act and ISTEA have laid the legal groundwork for change in this arena. With environmentalists and social justice advocates joining forces to significantly improve the transportation planning process to be much more inclusive, there is a greater opportunity to hold government accountable and to design transportation systems that serve us all.

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