"Race, Poverty & Transportation,"by Rich Stolz March/April 2000 issue of Poverty & Race
For decades, minorities have fought against the discriminatory impact of transportation planning and practices in their communities.
Transportation equity was a critical element of the civil rights movement from its beginning. In 1946, the Supreme Court ruled segregation in interstate bus travel unconstitutional. It was no accident that Rosa Parks chose as her protest the laws requiring Blacks to ride in the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Several years later, the Freedom Rides through the South provided powerful testament to the extraordinary courage of individuals acting together to change what is wrong about society.
Today, the movement continues, and the goal is basically the same: a publicly funded system, paid for by all, should benefit all equally. But as is often the case with issues that intersect race and poverty, easier said than done.
A Race & Transportation Roadmap
Transportation is a fundamental, yet often overlooked, element in the struggle for equality of opportunity. Access to reliable means of transportation impacts quality of life, financial security and freedom of movement. Too often, poor and minority people find themselves unable to find or get to their jobs or the grocery store, to bring their children to childcare, or to accomplish all the other daily tasks many of us take for granted. These difficulties speak to symptoms of poverty and transportation in-equity.
Assets and income of course have a lot to do with transportation access. Studies show that only 6% of welfare recipients own cars, and of course lack of transportation is a critical barrier to finding and keeping a job. Without access to their own vehicles, many poor and minority households must rely on public transportation or fragile arrangements with friends and neighbors.
Poor and minority households usually must devote a larger percentage of their income to transportation-related expenses. Adding insult to injury, in most parts of the country low-income households must put up with inadequate and often deteriorating public transportation systems.
Efforts to address these unfair burdens on low-income and minority households are constantly frustrated by archaic and unaccountable transportation planning practices that reflect the political strength of white and suburban residents and businesses and the road-building industries.
Organizations seeking to challenge “business as usual” are stymied by the fact that the federal government has no accurate, coordinated or reliable system to track how its own transportation funds are spent. And people at the local or state level looking for this information generally encounter significant resistance or incomprehensible spreadsheets. Despite new federal laws in the last decade and some progress in a handful of locations across the nation, transportation planning practices still lack meaningful opportunities for public participation and fail to adequately address inequitable impacts on minorities.
Low-income and minority communities also bear the brunt of transportation infrastructure improvements that sweep through and destroy neighborhoods. The federal highway program of the 50s and 60s, like the urban renewal program, displaced tens of thousands of mainly low-income, minority household. Currently, for example, in Seattle, community activists are fighting to prevent a proposed light rail system from displacing minority-owned businesses. In most cases, activists are unable to prevent highways from cutting their communities in half, and more often than not the jobs created by these projects are inaccessible to the unemployed residents of these neighborhoods.
Exacerbating unfair distribution of burdens on minority communities are significant demographic and political changes over the last several decades. Increasingly, metropolitan regions are divided, on the one hand, between low-income minority enclaves, usually concentrated in central cities or unstable older communities, and on the other hand, wealthier, politically powerful communities often located in suburbs. As jobs and wealth move further out into suburban communities, poor and minority households in and near central cities are increasingly isolated from economic opportunity. Transportation is a key potential element to bridge this distance.
The fruits of inequitable transportation planning practices and policies are pervasive unemployment in low-income communities, higher rates of asthma and other pollution-related problems among children of color, and compromised public safety. An outrageous 1995 incident was the death of Cynthia Wiggins in Buffalo, New York, killed when forced to cross a seven-lane highway in order to get from the bus stop to her job in a suburban mall because the mall barred city buses from driving into its parking lot (although suburban and tourist buses were permitted).
What is Transportation Equity?
An equitable transportation system would:
• ensure opportunities for meaningful public involvement in the transportation planning process;
• be held to standards of public accountability and financial transparency;
• equally prioritize efforts to revitalize poor and minority communities in addition to expanding infrastructure;
• ensure benefits and burdens from transportation projects (e.g., jobs, pollution, etc.) are equally distributed across all income levels;
• provide high quality services to low-income minority communities.
Quite a bit still separates vision from reality. But community groups and some transportation planners are attempting to envision what such a system might look like. In the meantime, several tools are available to people working to improve transportation equity in their own communities:
Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century.
In 1991, Congress enacted the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which established a new focus on regional planning and community involvement in the nation’s transportation system. These principles were carried over into the 1998 Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century (TEA-21). Thanks to activism by community organizations, TEA-21 re-authorized processes that support regional planning and accountability, and added requirements meant to ensure public involvement and access to information in the transportation planning process.
Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
This provision prohibits discrimination by any program receiving federal assistance. Under Title VI, it is only necessary to demonstrate discriminatory effect rather than the more difficult threshold of discriminatory intent.
Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice.
In 1994, President Clinton issued an executive order on environmental justice directing federal agencies to conduct their programs, policies and activities that affect human health and the environment so as to ensure that people may participate in planning processes that impact their communities, are not unfairly denied benefits or discriminated against on the basis of their race, color or national origin. Authority for this order derives from Title VI.
Last year, the Federal Highway Administration released an internal guidance on environmental justice, addressing the agency’s intent to prevent disproportionately high and adverse impacts on minority and low-income communities.
Joint Transportation Guidance on Title VI Requirements.
In 1999, the Federal Highway and Transit Administrations released further guidance with respect to implementation of Title VI requirements in metropolitan and statewide transportation planning. The guidance directs federal transportation agencies to scrutinize potential civil rights and environmental justice impacts in the metropolitan certification process.
Clean Air Act.
In jurisdictions not in compliance with federal air quality guidelines, communities have additional leverage to try to influence transportation planning decisions. Failure to attain federal air quality standards could lead to diverting funding from pollution-causing projects to environmentally friendly investments.
Jobs Access and Reverse Commute Competitive Grant Program.
As part of TEA-21, Congress created the Jobs Access Grant Program to supplement welfare-to-work transportation activities. Authorized for five years beginning with FY1999, and administered by the Federal Transit Administration, the program funds jobs access projects that provide transportation options to welfare recipients and other low-income people trying to get to jobs and job opportunities, as well as work-related support services like child care and job training.
A Growing Movement
Montgomery, Alabama. Montgomery Transportation Coalition.
If Rosa Parks were in Montgomery today, she would be lucky to catch a bus, let alone ride in a front seat. Used primarily by low-income African Americans, Montgomery’s transit system came under a nearly fatal attack in 1998. The mayor abandoned the city’s fixed route bus system and implemented a new Demand And Response Transit (DART) system. Montgomery now has no bus stops, bus shelters or bus routes. And until last fall, the transit system was in danger of being scrapped entirely for lack of riders.
These changes took place amid growing racial geographic segregation and tension between white and Black members of the city council. The City described its actions publicly as fiscally necessary, even as Montgomery received large federal transportation subsidies to fund renovation of non-transit improvements. Poor Blacks felt the brunt of the change as they continued to struggle to get to work and other destinations.
Under new city leadership, and growing support for a reliable public transportation system, spurred by the Montgomery Transportation Coalition and its allies, a proposal for a return to fixed bus routes has been floated. Montgomery demonstrates how politically vulnerable basic services most people take for granted can be to racist politics.
Northwest Indiana. Interfaith Federation.
In 1999, the Interfaith Federation of Northwest Indiana (a coalition of congregations in the central cities and suburbs of Gary, Hammond and East Chicago) succeeded in persuading the federal government to hold the Northwest Indiana regional transportation planning agency accountable for that region’s discriminatory transportation system. Every three years, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), which are responsible for devising plans for how federal funds should be spent regionally, must be examined by the federal government to ensure that their activities are in compliance with federal laws and regulations. If an MPO is decertified or found out of compliance, it may be forced to temporarily forfeit federal transportation funds for its region.
The Federation demonstrated that years of poor planning had placed disparate burdens on the region’s minority and low-income population, subjecting it to pollution and harmful health impacts, lack of access to jobs and economic opportunity, and contributing to suburban sprawl and divestments from urban centers. The MPO was therefore “conditionally” certified, pending corrective actions. Over the next several months, it must demonstrate a process by which it will comply with federal rules.
Los Angeles. Labor/Community Strategy Center.
For the better part of the last decade, the LA Bus Riders Union, the Labor/Community Strategy Center and legal allies have fought a drawn-out battle with the LA Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The Center, aided by the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, demonstrated that the MTA’s actions had discriminatory impact on poor minority bus riders, on the basis of Title VI and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Los Angeles bus riders experienced worse services, less security and benefited from fewer subsidies than rail riders. Almost 94% of the MTA’s users are bus riders, 80% of them are people of color. The MTA spent only 30% of its resources on buses, 70% on rail, which carries only 6% of its riders and serves a primarily white ridership. The MTA also spent significantly more money per rider on security to protect rail users than it did on bus users.
A court-ordered consent decree in 1996 required the MTA to address the needs of transit-dependent residents in future long-range plans, major capital projects and annual budgets. It also required the MTA to invest $1 billion more in transit, including mandated bus purchases, to improve the regional transit system, and reduce overcrowding.
Los Angeles. Alameda Corridor Jobs Coalition.
In 1998, the Alameda Corridor Jobs Coalition (ACJC) secured a significant victory for minority and low-income people seeking work in transportation construction projects. The Alameda Corridor construction project, a railroad project, involves digging a 20-mile long, 30-foot deep, 50-foot wide trench, lining it with concrete, and then building 26 highway overpasses over it. The tunnel is designed to speed movement of cargo from the region’s ports to rail yards near downtown LA.
As is often the case, this major project will cut through and disrupt primarily low-income, minority communities. Several years earlier, the Century Freeway was built right next to two of the region’s largest public housing developments. The people living there got all of the noise, dirt and traffic, but none of the jobs. With this new project coming through, residents sought some return for the disruption.
ACJC successfully organized to win a major hiring agreement with the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority. It guarantees that 30% of all hours worked by new hires will go to local community residents.
ACJC’s victory speaks to ongoing struggles within the transportation industry to diversify its workforce to embrace women and minorities and women- and minority-owned businesses.
The Transportation Equity Network.
In 1997, a national coalition of grassroots organizations, staffed by the Center for Community Change, came together to find common issues that it could insert into the Congressional debate on the reauthorization of ISTEA. This coalition, the Transportation Equity Network (TEN), successfully persuaded Congress to include in TEA-21 a requirement for public involvement by transit-dependent constituencies; a statutory requirement for public involvement in the metropolitan planning certification process; and a requirement that MPOs provide a public accounting for how federal funds are spent in their regions. TEN also participated in the coalition that helped win the federal Jobs Access and Reverse Commute competitive grant program.
The organizations involved in TEN include faith-based coalitions fighting for metropolitan equity among suburbs and central cities, statewide coalitions advocating for improved welfare-to-work programs, neighborhood groups organizing to win jobs for low-income members, and membership organizations trying to have a say in the transportation decisions that impact their lives. TEN demonstrates that a broad-based constituency can be built around race and transportation issues.
TEN and the Center for Community Change have also begun working closely with new national and local allies. Environmental groups concerned with air quality and containing suburban sprawl, civil rights organizations concerned with disparate impacts of transportation investment, community development groups interested in transportation-related strategies for community revitalization, and human needs organizations concerned with welfare reform all are coming together around transportation issues.
TEN is now working to ensure that the regulations implementing its victories in TEA-21 are written in a manner that will meet the needs of local communities and organizations. Activists and their allies in the transportation planning world across the country are now working to develop methods to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to illustrate, or map, how transportation investments are distributed across regions. Taking this a step further may allow communities to visually demonstrate the benefits and burdens of transportation projects on different populations. TEN is advocating regulations that will make such analyses an industry standard.
The intersections among race, poverty and transportation are complex. They involve federal law and local planning processes. They challenge governments to describe what is meant by compliance with civil rights laws and principles of environmental justice. They are given meaning by community activism and the experiences of everyday people.
Rich Stolz is a policy specialist at the Center for Community Change (1000 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Wash., DC 20007, 202/342-0567), where he staffs the Transportation Equity Network and the Center’s transportation and welfare-related initiatives. RichS@commchange.org
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