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The Planet

Public Transit Meets Environmental Justice: The Road to Change

The Planet, June 1997, Volume 4, number 5

by Julian Bond

On Dec. 1, 1955, when Rosa L. Parks declined to vacate her seat for a white passenger on a segregated Montgomery, Ala., bus, her refusal was as much about the literal and mundane as it was about the symbolic and revolutionary. Mrs. Parks -- after a hard day's work -- just wanted to get home. Some of our biggest struggles in the civil rights movement have centered around seemingly mundane issues like access to public transportation. However unremarkable it may seem, transportation -- from the Underground Railroad to the Boston school buses -- has always played a central role in the lives of average folk.

Recently, public transit supporters in Washington honored Mrs. Parks for her protest on behalf of people of color and workers who -- like her -- are dependent on public transportation. The commemoration of Mrs. Parks also kicked off a campaign by 200 groups and individuals who are calling on Congress to continue supporting public transit by reauthorizing the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. Nearly 50 years after Rosa Parks decided she was too tired to suffer the indignity of having to stand, we are facing a new urban- transportation crisis, due less to discrimination against individuals than incidentally discriminatory economic-investment policies.

Across the country, but particularly in cities with predominantly poor and minority populations, public transportation is disappearing. Severe service cuts in Birmingham, Montgomery and other Southern cities are hitting low-income, working people hard. And in Mobile, Ala., the bus system shut down altogether in 1995.

Yet many of these cities are leveraging federal money to finance a highway- building boom, erecting bypasses and outer beltways to accommodate suburban sprawl partially caused by "white flight." The working poor, elderly and disabled are left stranded as the subsidization of roads increases at the expense of transit. Those welfare recipients who will soon be required to find jobs will not be able to get to the suburbs where job growth is strongest unless they have a car. Given that the American Automobile Association estimates that it costs more than $5,000 to own a car, public transportation is the only alternative for millions.

Historically, federal transportation investments have helped create this spatial mismatch between jobs and workers who need them most. Forty years of building highways to outlying communities reduced the cost of development in those areas to the detriment of older, urban areas.

ISTEA, passed in 1991, began to reverse the conditions that allowed wealth and economic opportunity to buy a car and move out to the suburbs. Up for congressional renewal this year, ISTEA requires state and metropolitan transportation agencies to consider social and economic issues in planning. Most significantly it requires public participation in decision-making about community transportation needs, giving a voice to those most dependent on public transit -- low-income city dwellers.

For the first time in history, ISTEA allowed highway funds to be used for public transit -- to renew neighborhoods in Chicago and Oakland, Calif., and to bring inner-city residents to jobs in and around St. Louis, Baltimore and Los Angeles. Subsequent regulations also applied Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to federal transportation projects, ensuring that protections against discrimination were in place. President Clinton's Executive Order on Environmental Justice refreshed this commitment in 1994 by asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to ensure that the community and environmental impacts of transportation facilities did not disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color.

That has not stopped a coalition of state highway departments, well-paid lobbyists and members of Congress from proposing to again increase federal spending on highways at the expense of transit, the environment, the economy and social concerns. The coalition is seeking increased funding for new roads, which are more profitable than repairing older roads in urban areas. Their proposal, known as "Step 21," would "devolve" federal money to the states for use without federal oversight -- in effect gutting environmental and metropolitan planning protections. Calling environmental protections and prohibitions against transportation discrimination "special treatment," the Step 21 coalition is working for the repeal of the Executive Order on Environmental Justice and has suggested that public involvement -- that is, local control --- be optional instead of required.

A strengthened ISTEA is only part of what will necessarily be a multi-leveled effort to revitalize urban communities and help move the people who live there toward independence, toward work. But no access to transportation means no access to jobs.

Civil rights activist Julian Bond, a member of Environmental Media Services, teaches at American University and the University of Virginia.

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