Transportation Racism

One hundred and sixteen years after the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, fifty-six years after the Supreme Court ended the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and forty-eight years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, government discrimination in transportation has not ended.  In this section we will look at racism in transportation policies showing that the policies are clearly not colorblind.  

All across the country, people of color and poor people do not have equal access to transportation.  Access to transportation, influences ones upper social mobility and allows people to achieve better social and economic opportunities.  Current transportation policies that favor roads over public transit, suburbs over cities create and enforce racial and economic inequality.  They help to further polarize communities on the basis of class and color, and municipalities need to stop transit racism and revisit their public transportation agendas.

As stated earlier the term racism refers to any policy practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.  Institutionalized racism is part of the culture and history of the United States, it’s in the water and engrained into our society Transportation racism is the creation of racist, separate and unequal public transportation systems

Ever since the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished the enslavement of Black people in the United States, Blacks have struggled to end discrimination on buses and trains.

In 1892, a black man, (actually he was biracial), named Homer Plessy who could easily pass for white,

Homer Plessy

decided to challenge a Louisiana law that required separate train cars for Whites and Blacks.  Plessy intentionally boarded a car reserved for Whites and knew he would be arrested.  The case made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court.  In 1886 the U.S. Supreme court upheld Louisiana’s Separate Car Act that called for segregated seating in railroad cars.  The case better known as Plessy v Ferguson ushered in an era of separate but equal.  Transportation racism dates back to the concept of separate but equal which was set in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld segregated seating on railroad cars.  In 1953 Blacks in Baton Rouge Louisiana staged the first successful bus boycott against racial discrimination.  This was followed by the infamous and successful 1955 Montgomery Alabama bus Boycott when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man.

The 1954 case Brown v. the Board of Education was also partly about transportation racism.  The famous civil rights case was a class action law suit.  One of the cases, Biggs v. Elliot was about getting a bus to transport kids to and from school.  The kids that went to the white schools in Calendon County, South Carolina, road the bus back and forth to school, the kids that went to the Black segregated school had to walk because the school board of Clarendon County refused to provide bus for the kids that went to the segregated schools.  The parents sued and this case became part of the famous Brown v. the Board of Education. 

Today, blacks are physically isolated from the means to upward mobility, in other words jobs.  Blacks tend to own fewer cars or no cars when compared to whites and transportation in most areas of the United States in inadequate.  Another part of transportation discrimination is the problem of Sprawl.

In their book, Sprawl City: Race Politics, and Planning in Atlanta the authors analyzes and critique the crisis resulting from urban sprawl in the Metropolitan area of Atlanta, Georgia.  The book puts sprawl related concerns as a core environmental justice and civil rights issue. The book focuses on how government housing, education, and transportation policies have aided and in some cases subsidized separate but unequal economic development and segregated neighborhoods.  The authors explain the causes and consequences of sprawl, and outlines policy recommendations and an action agenda for coping with sprawl-related problems, both in metropolitan Atlanta and around the country.

The authors define Sprawl as “random, unplanned growth characterized by inadequate accessibility to essential land uses such as housing, jobs and public services that include schools, parks, green space and public transportation.  Typically strip centers, low density residential housing, and other isolated, scattered developments leapfrog over the landscape without rhyme or reason.  Sprawl fueled growth pushes people further apart geographically, politically, economically, and socially.  The economic boom times that drive sprawl creates unequal opportunities. Developments in the suburbs often mean empty storefronts in the city’s core.  The government creates more roads that lead to the suburbs s but do not create public transit to the suburbs.  Without public transportation to the suburbs, new jobs, created by suburban business development are out of reach to city residents who do not have cars.  This creates the concentration of poverty in the city’s urban core.  Sprawl is not a necessary by-product of metropolitan growth and economic development. Growth can be planned and managed.  Sprawl drives up transportation cost.  Families are spending more money to drive further distances to work, school, etc.  There are more cars on the road which creates more pollution due to traffic congestion.  According to the CDC sprawl is a major health threat and during the 1996 Olympics games there was a 22.5% reduction traffic and a 42% reduction in Asthma related emergency room and hospital visits.

Transportation equity (TE) is where concerns extend to disparate outcomes in planning, maintenance, and infrastructure development.  Transportation is a key component in addressing poverty, unemployment, equal opportunity, and ensuring equal access to education, employment, and other public services.  Transportation equity is about fairness, access, and opportunity to better transportation that will take people to where the jobs are located.  Transportation equity looks at the negative environmental costs of transportation and scrutinizes discrepancies in resource allocation and investment.  It also seeks to address unequal outcomes in planning, operation and maintenance and infrastructure development.   Transportation equity focuses on the distribution of benefits and enhancements among the various population groups, especially among low income and people of color communities.

There are three general types of transportation equity, Horizontal Equity focuses on fairness of cost and benefit allocation between individuals and groups who are considered comparable in wealth and ability.  Vertical Equity with Regard to Income and Social Class is concerned with allocation of cost between income and social classes.  Vertical Equity with Regard to Mobility Need and Ability focuses on how well an individual’s needs are met compared with others in their community.

Cost and benefits associated with transportation developments are not randomly distributed.  The discriminatory effects of transportation projects can be included under three categories of inequity Procedural Inequity, Geographic Inequity and Social Inequity.  Procedural Inequity results when transportation decisions are not carried out in a uniform, fair and consistent manner with involvement of diverse public stake holders.  Geographic Inequity results from the geographic and special impacts of transportation decisions.  These impacts affect rural, urban, and central-city neighborhoods differently.  Such as physically being located on the wrong side of the tracks and receiving substandard services.  Social Inequality results when transportation benefits and burdens are not randomly distributed across population groups.

Access to transportation, whether public or private, influences ones upper social mobility and allows people to move into better social and economic opportunities.  The book Highway RobberyTransportation Racism & New Routes to Equity links the inequalities in transportation to larger economic, health, environmental justice, and quality of life issues.  The book shows that publicly funded segregation jeopardizes health and limits economic opportunities, and creates feelings of frustration and isolation.  The authors demonstrate how transportation policy and urban planning create and enforce racial and economic inequality.  Highway Robbery asserts these current policies will further polarize communities on the basis of class and color, and the authors in this anthology demand that cities and states revisit their public transportation policy agendas.

Changes in zoning have made it possible for suburbs to increase their share of office space, while the urban core of cities see their share declining.  Federal and state transportation funds favor roads and highways that lead to the suburbs and favor suburban commuters and auto owners over people who are dependent on public transit for their transportation needs.  Transportation users suffer rundown buses, long waits, longer rides, poor connections, service cuts, overcrowding, and daily exposure to some of the environmental pollutants from cars.  A few years ago I read an article that related that several members of congress felt that spending money on public transportation was a waste of time.  The belief was that government spends money on public transit, yet most Americans do not use it.  Thus, public transit is a waste of money.  This is not the entire picture of what happens with public transportation.

Far too much of our transportation dollars are spent on roads and highways at the expense of communities of color, the government encourages people to use their cars and not public transportation.  Federal tax dollars build and subsidize the roads, freeways and public transit systems.  The government builds highways to the suburbs and then subsidizes the construction of suburban homes.  In other words the government gives tax breaks to home owners who buy newer homes, basically paying people to move out to the suburbs, another term is middleclass welfare.  The transportation projects of building the roads out to the suburbs, have the unintended consequence of dividing, isolating and disrupting some communities while imposing inequitable economic, environmental, and health burdens on them.

Suburban communities benefit from the building of the roads and highways while the cities bear the burden and pay the cost in poor health and loss of jobs.  Many children who live in areas near an interstate suffer from asthma that is probably caused by pollutants that come from the exhaust of cars.

Moreover the federal government spends more money on highways than on public transit.  These new roads are built that lead to the suburbs without significant public transportation service, and thereby open up those areas for development and new jobs.  The result is people leave the city, move to the suburbs where the jobs are located, this takes jobs out of the cities core. Thus, highway spending shifts people and jobs to areas without public transit, thus gutting transit ridership.

Transportation is a key component in addressing poverty, unemployment, equal opportunity, and ensuring equal access to education, employment, and other public services.  Transportation equity is about fairness, access, and opportunity to better transportation that will take people to where the jobs are located.  Transportation equity looks at the negative environmental costs of transportation and scrutinizes discrepancies in resource allocation and investment.  It also seeks to address unequal outcomes in planning, operation and maintenance and infrastructure development.   Transportation equity focuses on the distribution of benefits and enhancements among the various population groups, especially among low income and people of color communities.

In the city of Atlanta transportation policies are implicated in land-use patterns, unhealthy air, and suburban sprawl in metropolitan Atlanta.  Transportation and land-use plans contributed to social, economic, and racial inequities.  Race shaped the path of land-use planning and public transportation in metro Atlanta.  Racism has kept the Atlanta region economically and geographically divided.  Atlanta metropolitan area has a regional transit system in name only.  The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) serves just two counties, Fulton and DeKalb.  The original plan called for a five-county regional transit system.  In the 1960s, MARTA was hailed as the solution to the region’s growing traffic and pollution problems. Atlanta’s white economic and political elites, led by Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr., pushed for a rapid-rail system that they felt would market Atlanta as a “cosmopolitan” New South city.  White suburbanites did not want public transit or blacks in their communities.  For whites in Atlanta MARTA has stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly through Atlanta.”

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) attempted to level the playing field between Highway and transit investment.  This law changed existing patterns where the federal government covered about 90 percent of the cost for highway and about 75 percent of the cost for transit.  This caused the local governments to invest their funds in highway transportation because the federal share was bigger.  This law also allowed states to be flexible in their highway funds and move funds to transit and other alternatives.  ISTEA has since expired and was replaced with the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) that authorized federal funds to improve the nation’s transportation infrastructure. TEA-21 expired 2003 and was replaced with TEA-3 to rejuvenate urban areas through transportation redevelopment, increased transit and sustainable alternatives to urban sprawl.  TEA-3 adhered to civil rights laws and affirmed the principles of environmental justice.

Race still matters in the United States and the deterioration of urban public transportation is totally do to racism and must be addressed.  Transit racism (TR) was responsible for the death of 17 year old Cynthia Wiggins of Buffalo, New York.  Wiggins was unable to secure a job in Buffalo but was able to find work in the mall. On her way to work Wiggins was crushed by a dump truck while crossing a seven lane highway because the number 6 bus, used by mostly inner city blacks was not allowed to stop at the suburban Walden Galleria Mall.  Members of the Wiggins family and members of the black community charged the Walden Galleria Mall with using the highway as a racial barrier to exclude some city residents.  The case was settled 10 days after it was filed with several million dollars left to Wiggin’s son.

Transportation racism is also responsible for a large part of the deaths that occurred during and after the Hurricane Katrina.  Forecasters predicted that Hurricane Katrina was going to be deadly, government officials knew that nearly 134,000 residents-most of them poor and black did not have transportation and would be stuck in New Orleans and would not be able to evacuate.  The government failed to provide transportation to evacuate people before the Hurricane and continued to fail in evacuating people after the hurricane.

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