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It's Rosa Parks' Birthday. Let's Honor Her Legacy by Continuing Her Struggle!

Transit equity cuts across race, class, jobs, and climate. Let's get organizing.

"Transit is an arena of continuing struggles for racial, economic and environmental justice," Sen writes. (Photo: Library of Congress)

February 4, 2019 marks the 106th birth anniversary of visionary movement leader Rosa Parks. Anniversaries such as this are not just moments for celebration. They are a time to rededicate ourselves to the struggles they commemorate.

Rosa Parks is best remembered for her role in the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. The legally sanctioned racial discrimination in access to public transit that the bus boycott campaign targeted has ended. But barriers to adequate public transit access remain, making it harder for people — particularly people of color and poor people — from being able to get to jobs, school, and wherever else they need to go. The lack of adequate public transit service also exacerbates environmental disparities and climate change.

"Barriers to adequate public transit access remain, making it harder for people—particularly people of color and poor people—from being able to get to jobs, school, and wherever else they need to go."

Only 5.2 percent of commuters nationwide use public transit to get to work, but 11 percent each of Black and Asian-American commuters and 7.7 percent of Latinx commuters use transit. People of color are clearly more dependent on transit.

This is partly because of vehicle ownership disparities. Nationwide, 84 percent of households own vehicles, but the corresponding numbers are 69 percent for Black households and 78 percent for Latinx households.

Yet when it comes to reductions in transit service, communities of color bear the brunt.

In Portland, Oregon, transit service cuts have been steepest in Black and Latinx neighborhoods, where — as one Census Bureau analysis observed — residents often have to “negotiate obstacles such as busy and dangerous intersections, poor street lighting, and limited sidewalk availability” just to get to their bus stop.

In San Francisco, communities of color are impacted by long wait times and overcrowded buses compared to the citywide average, even as fares have risen.

In Minnesota's Twin Cities, the transit agency was planning a commuter rail line that would pass through a historically Black community without even stopping there — after cutting bus service in the community. Fortunately, the federal government stepped in and compelled the agency to change course.

These are just three examples of a wider trend.

Proximity of transit stops doesn't guarantee access either. For low-income households, fares are a critical determinant of access. From 1990 through 2014 (the latest year for which we have data), nationwide average transit fare per trip decreased 2 percent when accounting for inflation. (A word of explanation — most of us have experienced transit fares increasing, which they have in terms of face-value dollars. In inflation adjusted terms, however, they fell slightly over this period.)

In the same period, however, the 10th percentile of household income (the income such that 10 percent of households earn less) actually fell 4.7 percent in inflation adjusted terms — meaning, the rate at which poorer households became poorer outstripped the slight fall in transit fares. Concretely, this means that poor households spent a greater share of their income on transit in 2014 compared to 1990.

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To this mix of lack of service for communities of color and rising fares as a share of income for low-income households, add the environmental impact of our auto-dependent transportation system, a dependence perpetuated by underinvestment in transit.

Automobile engines emit pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, which are strongly associated with asthma and other illnesses. And some populations are disproportionately more exposed to these pollutants than others. A 2017 study found striking racial disparities in transportation-related nitrogen dioxide emissions, with Black, Latinx, and Asian-America populations being exposed to significantly more than white neighborhoods.

More transit use (especially electrified transit) will reduce these exposures and narrow the disparities. Even a traditional internal combustion engine bus consumes about 15 percent less fuel per passenger transported than a personal car. Less fuel consumed translates into less emissions of any kind.

"Transit is an arena of continuing struggles for racial, economic and environmental justice. And with the needed investment and the right policies, transit can be a key component of the transition to a just and climate-friendly economy, and can create lots of good union jobs."

Internal combustion engines also emit carbon dioxide, which traps solar radiation and warms the planet. A hotter planet means more blistering heat waves, violent storms, devastating droughts and wildfires, and rising seas. These phenomena pose an existential threat to humanity worldwide and in the United States.

As with everything in our unequal society, climate change impacts aren’t equally distributed. Black Americans are 52 percent likelier to be exposed to extreme heat than their white counterparts. Native Alaskan communities are losing their ancestral homelands to rising seas. And disasters such as hurricanes have a particularly devastating impact on places like Puerto Rico, which has a 44.4 percent poverty rate that’s almost three and a half times the national rate of 12.3 percent — and no representation in Congress.

Transportation is the largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. economy. Clearly, expanding and electrifying public transit to give large numbers of people a meaningful alternative to driving to work can go a long way in reducing our emissions. Doing so will give us a better chance of avoiding the most dangerous impacts of climate change, and begin to reverse the profound injustices that characterize our unequal, warming world.

But investing in transit expansion isn’t all about undoing the bad. It’s also about expanding the good. Transit creates lots of good jobs. In 2017, there were more than 176,000 bus drivers in the U.S., with median hourly wages of $19.61, and more than 12,000 streetcar and subway operators in the U.S., with median hourly wages of $31.93. Compare this to the $18.12 median wage for all occupations and the $15.19 median wage for all transportation occupations.

Plus, many of these are union jobs. The 190,000 members of the Amalgamated Transit Union and the 140,000 members of the Transport Workers Union include large numbers of transit workers. Union membership gives these workers legally protected rights on the job that non-union workers lack. And union members earn more — the median weekly earnings of union workers is $1,041, compared to $829 for nonunion workers.

So transit is an arena of continuing struggles for racial, economic and environmental justice. And with the needed investment and the right policies, transit can be a key component of the transition to a just and climate-friendly economy, and can create lots of good union jobs.

So let’s organize for better, more accessible public transit for all to honor Rosa Parks’ legacy.

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Basav Sen

Basav Sen

Basav Sen directs the Climate Justice Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. He's the author of the recent report "How States Can Boost Renewables, With Benefits for All."

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