Transportation access: Building a path to opportunity

By Shoshanna Spector

Imagine being dropped in the middle of the wilderness, feeling isolated, disconnected and without the means to get where you need to go. That’s how millions of people feel when they lack access to transportation and live in neighborhoods that are cut off from jobs, well-stocked grocery stores and medical care.

These are people like Tim Vaughn, who rises each day at 3:30 in the morning to get to his job by 7 a.m. For Tim, a reliable bus route to work is a ticket to opportunity and well-being. But in Indianapolis, where he lives, opportunity and well-being are not equally available to all.

As Congress debates funding the federal transportation budget, lawmakers should understand the reason that investing in transit in such communities as Indianapolis can help bridge that gap. Despite some 5,000 new manufacturing jobs being added to the Indianapolis region each month, half of the children who live in the region go to bed hungry each night. A key reason is that workers, many of whom are parents like Tim, can’t get to the new jobs that are being created because they live in neighborhoods far from transit stops or routes.

Tim’s bus route to work ends at 80th Street, but his job is on 96th. Each day, he walks another hour after he gets off the bus to get to work. It takes a total of three hours to commute to his minimum-wage job at the local mall. The amount of time Tim spends getting to and from work means he’s gone 14 hours a day. He misses seeing his two young children when they awake in the morning, and he isn’t there to tuck them in at night.

Tim knows that a sufficient bus route is linked to a better quality of life. That’s the reason that he and other Indianapolis residents joined last year to expand bus routes in the city. They succeeded in getting a $1.3 billion tax measure passed to support public transit. Taxpayers will invest $56 million a year into expanding bus routes — a move that will triple access to transit for communities of color, generate 45,000 good jobs and ensure that people in high-poverty neighborhoods and those who face unique barriers to employment (such as former felons) are first in line for those jobs.

The outcome in Indianapolis shows what can happen when neighbors in a community come together to fix systems so they work for everyone. The lessons we learned that helped us succeed are as follows:

  • First, we built a broad coalition of more than 120 organizations that included representatives from labor, business and the faith community so that everyone would see the benefit of investing in public transit for jobs, education and healthy families. Studies show that communities with stronger transit systems are linked with fewer incidents of chronic health problems. Moreover, according to a 2015 Harvard study, access to transit is a critical factor in a person’s odds of escaping poverty.
  • Second, we put racial equity at the center of our campaign. In fact, ignoring race wasn’t an option. Although access to public transportation is an economic issue that affects all races, its impact on the African-American community is particularly acute. One in 9 African-Americans depends on public transit to get to work, compared to 1 in 33 whites.
  • Third, we relied on trusted, credible messengers to stress the importance of transportation access. We made sure neighbors talked to neighbors, bus riders shared their stories with non-bus riders, and faith leaders engaged with congregants.
  • Finally, we focused on enlisting people who are traditionally excluded from such campaigns — those of color, low income and youth. Members of these groups were among the strongest champions for reform.

At a time when the country is so politically divided, it’s hard to be hopeful that we can bridge our differences to work toward solutions. But our experience shows that, when given a choice, people will stand up and vote for inclusion and for the common good of a community.

Systems change requires relationship change. The lesson for others is that, when everyone is invited to the table to solve a problem, the resulting sense of purpose and trust can move a community forward. The power we have built to advance transit equity in Indianapolis is not weakening. Rather, it has strengthened our community’s resolve to work together to lift other barriers to opportunity so that everyone can thrive.

Shoshanna Spector is executive director of the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network, which helps marginalized people and faith communities act collectively for racial and economic justice. Reprinted with permission from “Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.