Public Transportation Trends Expose Ecological, Economic and Social Crossroads

As report shows public transit use in US is soaring, communities say 'we need to do better'

U.S. travel by public transportation soared last year to its highest level in nearly six decades, a report revealed Monday--marking what many say is a positive step that underscores the need for broader environmental and social justice.

"This is a very good thing with respect to global climate conditions, but we need more improvements nationwide," said Barbara Lott-Holland co-chair of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, in an interview with Common Dreams. "If we are serious about reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, we need to dramatically change the mode of transportation from single passenger automobiles to zero emissions public transit."

With a record 10.7 billion trips nationwide, public transportation use has been climbing for decades, reveeals the report released by by the American Public Transportation Association. Ridership is up 37.2 percent since 1995, yet the U.S. population has only increased 20.3 percent since then. Furthermore, the report finds that 2013 was the eighth year in a row that ridership exceeded 10 billion trips across the country, amounting to an increase of 1.1 percent from the previous year, compared with a 0.3 percent increase in vehicle miles nation-wide.

Virginia Miller, spokesperson for APTA, told Common Dreams that use of public transportation increased "when the economy started to come back." She said that "nearly 60 percent of trips on transit are for work commute," citing data the association collected between 2000 and 2005.

Yet, Lott-Holland says that many who ride public buses are those hardest hit by growing social inequalities and displacement. "People are riding buses more because, with gentrification of our neighborhoods, poor people and black and brown people have to go farther to seek work and education and health care," she said. "Because the country now is putting more money into military and law enforcement and less into social services, people have to travel farther to receive those services. And more people are using public transportation because they can't afford a car."

An increase in mass transportation use was not universal, with a decline in some major urban centers, including Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, and Boston. In many cities and towns, public transportation is not affordable, and as Lott-Holland explains, the access that does exist has been hard-won by local communities. "In Los Angeles, we have been fighting for accessible mass transit since 1994," said Lott Holland.

For this reason, public transit sits at the intersection of social and environmental justice, said Lott-Holland. "The burning of fossil fuels has a negative impact on the climate and people," she explained. "In black and brown neighborhoods, there is more asthma, as our neighborhoods are exposed to more to toxic gases due to more refineries and entrance and exit ramps."

"If we are serious about fighting back as far as air quality and the planet, we need to do better. Transportation is a public good that has to be defended."


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