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Bus Riders Fight for Their Right to Service, 55 Years After Montgomery

by Bob Allen and Marcy Rein

Fifty-five years to the month after the start of the Montgomery bus boycott, people of color can sit wherever they want on the bus-when and if one arrives. Bus operators all over the country are slashing routes in response to deepening deficits. This loss of service denies people who depend on transit their civil rights in deep, daily, grinding, unmistakable ways. 

Bus riders in Oakland, California and throughout western Alameda and Contra Costa Counties lost nearly 15 percent of their AC Transit routes in 2010.  

"We are the heart throb of this city," AC Transit driver Lorenzo Jacobs said, speaking at a May 2010 public hearing against the cuts. "When you start cutting service, you're cutting opportunities out there for people who are doing whatever they're doing in their lives. When you cut lines, you're affecting people's lives, their everyday lives," he said.  

The service cuts directly impact  Oakland youth, who need AC Transit to get to school because the district doesn't run yellow school buses; they hurt seniors and people with disabilities who can't drive, and low-income families who can't afford cars. Lack of mobility cuts off opportunities for work and education, enforces inequality and persistent segregation. African-Americans and Latinos are far less likely than whites to own cars. Nationally, around 62 percent of city bus riders are African American and Latino. Nearly 80 percent of AC Transit riders are people of color.  

Bus riders and their allies who take on this 21st century civil rights fight confront institutional obstacles at every turn. In their efforts to protect and expand service, they contend with financing policies and decision-making structures that are stacked against them, and they lack access to the courts to seek redress. And few political leaders champion the needs of transit riders in general and bus riders in particular.  

Funding priorities from the federal government on down shortchange bus riders while favoring drivers and rail passengers. Eighty percent of federal transportation funding goes to highways, and only 20 percent goes to transit. Virtually all of the  $500 billion in the Federal Surface Transportation Authorization goes to capital costs versus supporting day-to-day operations of buses.  

On a regional level, the San Francisco Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) privileges costly expansions over core urban operations. It consistently slights bus operators in favor of rail services such as CalTrain and BART that have a much higher proportion of white and wealthier riders. While AC Transit was looking at a $56 million deficit, the MTC was working hard to help BART find an additional $70 million to build  the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) tram project. That $70 million was needed to replace federal stimulus funds BART lost by failing to follow proper civil rights guidelines when they approved the OAC.  

The structure of the MTC itself disenfranchises city-dwellers and people of color. The 19-member commission controls transportation planning and funding for nine counties in the Bay Area. Because each county gets two seats at most, residents in large urban counties--like Santa Clara, which includes the 930,000-person city of San Jose--get far less representation than smaller and less diverse counties like Napa, with its 135,000 people.  

Challenging the unfair distribution of transportation resources in court has been much harder since a 2001 Supreme Court decision barred individuals from filing lawsuits over transportation policies that have discriminatory impacts on the basis of race, color or national origin. By taking away the "private right to action," the Alexander v. Sandoval decision deprived transit activists of a legal tool that has played a key part in civil rights cases.  

After more than a year, the movement centered in Montgomery won the legal end to Alabama's segregation laws. Today's transportation justice advocates are pushing for civil rights in transit on many levels. Riders and drivers have joined forces to try save bus service in dozens of cities around the country, as they are doing in the East Bay. These efforts should gain fresh energy with the inauguration of the new national leadership of the ATU, which represents bus drivers in many U.S. cities.  

A Bay Area coalition of civil rights, faith-based, community and environmental groups is pursuing legal challenges to discriminatory funding. The non-profit law firm Public Advocates filed the administrative complaint on behalf of Urban Habitat, TransForm and Genesis that cost BART the stimulus funds for the OAC. In a follow-up complaint, they have charged MTC with failing to ensure that agencies and programs it funds are respecting civil rights. In addition, Public Advocates has filed a class action suit against MTC's funding practices, which is pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Undaunted by the hostile climate in the new Congress, the new national coalition called “Transit Riders for Public Transportation” (TRPT) aims to flip federal transit funding priorities and strengthen anti-discrimination tools. TRPT draws together grassroots groups from all over the country who put transportation central to the fight for civil rights, recognizing that low-income communities and communities of color will remain trapped in second-class status until the transportation system serves everyone equally.  

For more information on the fight for transportation justice, see the new issue of Race, Poverty & the Environment, available online at http://urbanhabitat.org/rpe/tj/12-10. 

Bob Allen is the Transportation Justice Program Director at Urban Habitat. Marcy Rein is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Race, Poverty & the Environment.

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