The History Of Transit Justice

Transit justice, the idea of providing equal access to public transportation services is an extremely helpful form of infrastructure provided by United States tax dollars (Environmental Health Coalition, n.d.). Throughout history, transit systems have provided people with the means of getting where they need to go on a relatively affordable budget, however it is often noted that public transportation systems are heavily biased and unequal toward minority users. Utilizing affordable, environmentally-friendly public transportation would cut down on emissions from vehicles, extending the life of planet Earth. Although it may be great in theory to realize the benefits of public transportation, there are also economic concerns and legal ramifications that are paired with public transportation for regulatory purposes.

Public transportation is one of the most important, and usually most overlooked, aspects of infrastructure in countries all over the world. For the people who are dependent on public transit, the availability of affordable transportation can mean the difference between having an adequate ability to get home, to work, and to entertainment venues, or not. Often however, public transportation is inadequate to serve the needs of the communities who demand it the most. Transit justice, the idea where “all neighborhoods have equal access to alternative transportation and no communities are overburdened with the pollution from cars on neighborhood streets or freeways”, is a necessity to a sustainable community, yet it is usually underprovided (Environmental Health Coalition, n.d.).

History of Transit Justice

The history of transit justice dates back to the colonization of the United States. More specifically, transit justice began when African slaves were involuntarily transported from Africa to the American colonial possessions (Marcantonio & Brenman, n.d.). During the era of slavery, the Underground Railroad, a path of safe houses for slaves to use to escape the pro-slavery southern States and gain entrance into the northern anti-slavery States, was one of the first public transit pathways. While the actual number is unknown, scholars believe that an upwards of 100,000 slaves traveled the Underground Railroad on their way to freedom (Connors, n.d.).

By the late 1890s after the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves, the Supreme Court shot down the 1883 bill to secure “the full and equal enjoyment” of “public conveyances on land or water”; as a result, many public facilities in numerous states were branded as “white-only” (Marcantonio & Brenman, n.d.). Obvious segregation of this magnitude was unsettling in the African-American community, bringing about the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of “separate but equal” facilities for African-American citizens. The ruling handed down in Plessy v. Ferguson bolstered the status quo for almost a half-century after its enactment in 1896. (Marcantonio & Brenman, n.d.).

As the Civil Rights movement was booming in Washington during the 1950s, too was the demands for abolishing segregation and creating equal access to public infrastructure. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education struck down “separate but equal” found in Plessy v. Ferguson and public schools now had to be integrated. Although the integration of schools was a huge breakthrough in the journey to end segregation in the United States, other forms of public transit such as buses were still segregated. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus to a white person, prompting her arrest and the emergence of the Martin Luther King, Jr. era of the Civil Rights movement. At the time, King was the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in Montgomery, Alabama, and in 1956, the MIA filed a suit in federal court against the segregation of public city buses. King and the MIA won the suit in federal court and the city of Montgomery refused to acknowledge the ruling, taking the case to the Supreme Court, where the federal court’s ruling was upheld. Segregation on public buses was now unconstitutional (Marcantonio & Brenman, n.d.).

In the post-World War II American society, many whites began leaving central cities for the previously non-accessible suburbs. This phenomenon, called the “white flight”, was fueled by federal policies that were in place to support the emigration of white citizens from the cities to the suburbs. Policies put into action such as the interstate highway system, mortgage tax cuts and loans, and the GI Bill made it privy for white Americans to move due to the accessibility of such policies to whites that were inaccessible to African-Americans (Marcantonio & Brenman, n.d.). As white Americans moved out of cities, minorities were often left behind and experienced a crumbling tax base leading to underfunded schools, infrastructure projects, and less access to jobs. As the government saw cities struggling to stay afloat, urban renewal projects were enforced. Although these projects originally had good intentions, they ended up doing more harm and centralizing segregation and poverty (Marcantonio & Brenman, n.d.).

In today’s society, central city poverty is often still exacerbated by the problems with the urban renewal policies of the post-World War II era. Furthermore, in 1983 it was found that health and environmental hazards, specifically hazardous waste facilities, were more prevalent in low-income, African-American communities than they were in middle- and upper-class white communities. President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Executive Order was one of the first Environmental Justice campaigns to, “encompass fairness in the distribution of both the benefits and the burdens of public decision-making” and “provided a new lens for structural inequality” (Marcantonio & Brenman, n.d.). As the inequalities faced by inner-city citizens grew more and more recognized by the general public, commissioners and politicians have been working to try and change the disproportions found in the systems of central city poverty and public transportation issues.

Science of Environmental Harm

Public transit has been viewed as one of the foremost ways to create a more sustainable community through constraining the effects of vehicle emissions on the environment. Trading in a single-occupant vehicle for the public bus system, “conserves natural resources, reduces air pollution and harmful ozone levels” (DART First State, n.d.). Being able to conserve the resources available to the globe is of extreme importance to the wellbeing of society. For example, gas emissions that are released into the air at an extremely high level often come from private vehicles. As these gases are released, they break down the ozone layer of the earth, protecting global citizens from sea level rises and harmful radiation. Once the ozone layer is depleted, there is no way to rebuild it, making it of tremendous value. By riding public transportation instead of driving a single-occupant vehicle, citizens could reduce carbon monoxide emissions by close to 80%, as buses only emit 20% of what a single-occupant vehicle does per mile (DART First State, n.d.).

Moreover, riding on public transit systems saves 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline annually. Gasoline, a non-renewable resource, is often a point of contention in the United States for many reasons (Courtney, 2011). Primarily, we depend on foreign oil to fuel our vehicles, boats, and other transportation items. Even though the United States does manufacture its own oil, more comes from overseas, where tensions can be high. Gas prices in the United States fluctuate widely due to the conditions of where the oil is extracted, making it expensive. Furthermore, once gasoline is used up, it is no longer available for millions and millions of years, classifying it as a non-renewable resource. By conserving the amount of gasoline being used, global oil reserves will last much longer than if the gas is being spent carelessly.

Economic Issues

Transit financing a major economic problem facing public transit justice. Public transportation is funded by taxes and when tax revenue declines, so does the availability and quality of equal public transportation accessibility. Often when preparing the budget, as in the case of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, deficits do not come from lack of fares, but lack of tax funding that the Authority expects to receive (Freemark, 2009). When budget deficits arrive, transit agencies begin looking for ways to reduce costs, whether it be in quantity of buses or route available or raising fares. By reducing the quantity of buses and routes available to citizens who depend on them, it makes transit justice a nil topic. What routes and buses were once equal no longer are given the reduced schedule the bus will run on due to budget cuts. Raising prices also may may it difficult for some extremely low-income bus riders to pay for the fare they were accustomed to paying before. This being said, these impoverished bus riders may lose their job from lack of money to pay for the fare to get to work if the fare were to rise out of their zone of money they can spend. In either case, it is impossible to secure transit justice due to unequal routes and bus fare prices rising.

Pertinent Laws and Policies

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the most prominent piece of legislation surrounding transit justice. Under Title VI, “each Federal agency is required to ensure that no person is excluded from participation in, denied the benefit of, or subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, sex, or disability.” (U.S. Department of Transportation , n.d.) Following this further, the Federal-aid Highway Act of 1970, “requires consideration of the anticipated effects of proposed transportation projects upon residences, businesses, farms, accessibility of public facilities, tax base, and other community resources.” (U.S. Department of Transportation , n.d.) Also, Executive Order 12898: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, “requires that each Federal agency shall, to the greatest extent allowed by law, administer and implement its programs, policies, and activities that affect human health or the environment so as to identify and avoid ‘disproportionally high and adverse’ effects on minority and low-income populations.” (U.S. Department of Transportation , n.d.)

Politics and Implementation Issues

While improving equal access to public transit is always considered an enhancement to the status quo, there are often political issues from both sides of the spectrum which arise during discussion of how to implement the policies to ensure transit justice. The ever-prevalent issue of equal access in public transportation is usually paired with racial and civil rights issues. As equal access to public transit is much more common in mostly-white suburbs, trying to implement egalitarianism in mostly-minority inner cities is rarer and spurs more debate. For example, the case of the Ohio suburb of Beavercreek trying to bar the Ohio Regional Transit Authority from making bus stops from Dayton, a mostly-minority city. in the town depicts this racially-motivated controversy (Keyes, 2013). Beavercreek commissioners made unreachable hurdles to try and prevent the RTA from building the stops. A civil rights group in Ohio, Leaders for Equality in Action in Dayton (LEAD), filed suit against Beavercreek claiming discrimination under the Federal Highway Act; the suit found the actions taken by Beavercreek to be discriminatory and ordered them to work with the RTA to create the stops without hurdles (Keyes, 2013).

Resistance Movements

Minority groups in cities where transit justice is non-existent have begun to fight against repression of not having equal access to safe, reliable public transportation. Resistance groups’ main focus points are often on affordable fares, representation in government with regards to transportation issues, bus shelters, and handicapped-accessible vehicles (Bullard, 2005). A prodigious case of a resistance movement surrounding transportation justice is that of the Tucson Bus Riders Union. The Union, formed in 2011, is a resistance movement which was created in response to the talk of fare hikes for bus riders. Supported by many members of the community and the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, the Tucson Bus Riders Union effectively stopped the fare hikes, resulting in the safeguarding of a low-income fare reduction and a bus depot. After the win, the Tucson Bus Riders Union grew to over two-thousand members in 2014 (Roe, 2015).

Creative Solutions for Environmental Remediation

In order to construct the best environment for transit justice to thrive, solutions must be formulated to change the status quo. Economically, the entire community that would be affected by a spending decision should be implicitly involved in the decision itself (Climate Access, 2010). By seeking the input of lower-income and minority communities, the communities most affected by spending decisions, those people can feel involved in the decisions. Furthermore, the promotion of accountability and transparency provisions would provide the public with ensuring equality in transportation. Transportation funds should also be spent directly for sidewalks and bike lanes and away from highways and roads. Spending funds on sidewalks and bike lanes allow communities with little access to these commodities to have more transit justice than pouring money into already-standing roadways (Climate Access, 2010).

Clearly, transit justice is extremely important to American citizens. From its sorrowful roots in slavery to the revitalized attention paid to the environment in recent years, providing equal access to public transportation is vital for citizens to live and work in an ever-growing society, as well as to try and preserve our planet. In the future, the next generations should pay attention to the environment and be more aware of the benefits of public transportation through providing economically sustainable actions.

10 September 2019
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