Transit Equity Could Transform Our Communities — Let’s Not Wait Any Longer

Elmenar Lord, a longtime resident of Riverdale in Clayton County, Georgia, was forced to quit her job with the IRS in 2010 when her bus line stopped running. Without a car or license, she struggled to find work. She was forced to rely on government assistance programs like food stamps just to get by. Even routine activities like going to the doctor or attending church became huge logistical challenges. Elmenar often missed appointments or paid for expensive taxi rides to get around. For her, the restoration of bus service in her area was a lifeline.

Elmenor’s story is not unusual — it’s emblematic of a disparity that affects many low and middle income people, and particularly women of color. On an average day, women account for more than 60 percent of the people riding buses and trains in Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago.

Today, people in 15 cities across the country are participating in Transit Equity Day in honor of Rosa Parks’ birthday, underscoring the critical role transportation access plays in our fights for good jobs, affordable housing, and healthy cities. With Rosa Parks’ arrest and the launch of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, millions woke up to the pervasive racism and inequality that grew out of our legacy of slavery and still influences the access people of color have to housing, jobs, and self determination.

For the Partnership for Working Families, the fight for justice in our transportation systems is about working people riding green public transportation that gets them home in time to have dinner with their families. It’s about seniors being able to get to their doctor’s appointments. It means teenagers can get to school and back safely and efficiently. It’s about having options of decent, affordable housing that’s near a bus or train line.

In the Atlanta, Georgia area, we’ve seen what can happen when people organize for transit investment that serves underserved communities. Partnership for Working Families affiliate Georgia STAND-UP was part of a campaign to pass a one-cent sales tax that would bring MARTA back into Clayton county after five years of no transit service. This is critical in an area where 7.1 percent of households don’t have access to a car and the infrastructure was not designed for easy or safe walking, biking, or transit to daily needs. A full 43 percent of the commuters coming to work in Clayton live outside the county, and 44 percent of the county’s commuters leave the county for work elsewhere.

Throughout most metro areas, communities are experiencing the push-pull of the need for cleaner, climate-friendly, affordable transit, with the threat of gentrification. One example is Denver, Colorado, where many of the same residents who fought for improved bus routes and expansion of the light rail have been priced out of their neighborhoods and will not benefit from those improvements.

Denver is in the midst of a large-scale transit-oriented development project, which includes widening a major interstate and bringing commuter rail lines into historically low income neighborhoods of color. Housing prices are skyrocketing and displacement is rampant. Our affiliate, United for a New Economy, is making sure community members are at the table to advocate for permanent affordable housing, reduced fares for low income commuters, and local hire guarantees.

In Seattle, the light rail brought gentrification and the threat of displacement in Seattle’s Rainier Valley and threatened to undermine the goals of extending public transit. Recently, our affiliate Puget Sound Sage has partnered with community organizations in south Seattle to win commitments for an infill station and a community-driven process for shaping that development, which will take into account housing needs, local businesses, and cultural institutions that are important to helping the community thrive.

Transit equity also means investing in transportation projects that provide quality jobs in underserved areas. For every $1 billion invested in public transportation, an estimated 36,000 jobs are created; and every $1 invested generates almost $4 in economic benefits, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Transit investment is in the headlines these days, with debates over how many billions will be invested in our aging infrastructure. What we know about transit jobs is that they create career paths for women and people of color, and when we organize, we can ensure that those jobs pay living wages and help keep people in their communities.

Transit justice also means the right to a stable climate. That will require a rapid cut in the burning of the fossil fuels that emit the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that cause climate change. And one of the easiest, fastest, and cheapest ways to do that is public transit that runs on clean, renewable energy.

As you get on your bus or train, or pass through a toll plaza on this Transit Equity Day, think about what transit justice looks like in your community. Let’s work towards a system where everyone has the ability to get where they need to go, to be treated with dignity, and to build a stable life for themselves and their families. Let’s continue the struggle that Rosa Parks began in 1955 for transit equity.