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Traffic grinds to a standstill on a Los Angeles freeway in this March 25, 2015 photo. (Photo: Eric Demarcq/Flickr/cc)

New Report Shows How US Transportation System 'Fuels Inequality'

Favoring cars over public transit has "consequences for racial and economic justice, the environment, and more," the Institute for Policy Studies warns.

Brett Wilkins

U.S. transportation policies prioritizing automobile use over public transit are leaving the poor and people of color behind, exacerbating inequality and the climate emergency. That's according to a new report published Wednesday by the Institute for Policy Studies. 

"For decades, the federal government has allocated about four times as much funding to roadways as it has to public transit such as buses and subways."

The ISP report—entitled How the U.S. Transportation System Fuels Inequalitynotes that "for decades, the federal government has allocated about four times as much funding to roadways as it has to public transit such as buses and subways."

"This policy choice has consequences for racial and economic justice, the environment, and more," warns ISP's Basav Sen, the paper's author. 

The report reveals that while the extent of U.S. roadways measured in lane-miles increased by 9% between 1990 and 2020, "public transportation systems have an accumulated maintenance and repairs backlog that is estimated by different sources as between $90 billion and $176 billion." 

According to Sen: "When transit systems are poorly maintained, the frequency and reliability of service suffers, making transit a less viable form of personal transportation. Faced with unreliable (and for as many as 45% of people in the U.S., nonexistent) transit systems, people often have no choice but to drive a personal vehicle to get to work, medical appointments, the grocery store, or anywhere else."

This means that people without cars are excluded, with some groups affected far more acutely than others.

As Sen explains: 

Personal vehicle ownership rates by households are distinctly lower for people of color than for white people, as seen from U.S. Census Bureau data. Barely more than two-thirds of Black households own vehicles, compared to about 82% of all households and 86% of white households.

The same data show even more striking disparities in vehicle ownership by household income, with only 61% of households in the lowest income quintile owning a vehicle, compared to 90% of households in the highest income quintile.

"A transportation system where people have to rely on their own vehicles doesn't merely exclude those who don't own vehicles—it imposes a severe financial burden on poorer households that do own vehicles," Sen notes. 

"U.S. transportation policies privileging roadways and personal vehicles over all other modes of travel have not served the economic and transportation needs of all," he adds. "They are a public subsidy for disproportionately white, wealthier households, at the expense of the rest of the population."

The report contends that "transforming U.S. transportation policy priorities from its current overemphasis on (and excessive funding for) roadways at the expense of all other forms of transportation will clearly serve the needs of people of color and low-income people by providing them more affordable and accessible mobility choices that don’t require them to own cars."

"But such a transformation will also create another important economic benefit for these currently underserved communities, in the form of good jobs," says Sen. "Transit jobs are good blue-collar jobs, with high wages compared to the economy-wide average." 

"Subway and streetcar operators, for example, have a median [hourly] wage of $33.38, which is more than 50% higher than the median wage for all U.S. occupation," he explains. "Even entry-level transit workers make relatively high wages. Subway and streetcar operators who are in the bottom 10% of wage earners in their occupation earn a median of $19.66 per hour. That's nearly twice the median for workers in the bottom 10% wage group for all U.S. occupations."

Given these benefits, Sen asks, "why, then, has this shift not happened?"

"The industry's campaign contributions to Manchin are nearly four times their contributions to the next highest recipient."

Industry lobbying pressure, backed by political campaign donations, are a major impediment to change, the report shows. 

"Political campaign contributions by the oil and gas industry over the last five election cycles (2012 through 2020) have totaled $485 million, including $140 million in the last election cycle alone," Sen writes. "In the current (2022) election cycle, a huge share of oil and gas money has gone to just one politician—Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va). The industry's campaign contributions to Manchin are nearly four times their contributions to the next highest recipient."

"Manchin was part of the group of senators who came up with the bipartisan infrastructure bill... which continues the long-standing practice of allocating a disproportionate share of funding to highways at the expense of other modes of transportation," the paper notes. "Clearly, fossil fuel interests are rewarding him for serving their interests."

The new report comes ahead of the fifth annual Transit Equity Day, observed each year on February 4, the anniversary of civil rights icon Rosa Parks' birthday. According to IPS, "a network of transit rider organizations, unions, civil rights organizations, and climate and environmental justice organizations" will lift up "demands for affordable, accessible public transit for all, powered by electricity from renewable sources, and with good union jobs."

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