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Access for All: Transit Cuts Hit U.S. Cities’ Less Fortunate
A sign informs riders that 6th Avenue and Union Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn is no longer a bus stop. Photo via transportationnation.org.

Starting this weekend, more than two dozen bus routes in NYC will disappear. Photo via transportationnation.org.

This summer TheCityFix started a new series, Access for All, about how we can use sustainable transportation development to ensure increased accessibility for poor city dwellers, particularly in developing countries. Now, with 84% of U.S. transit agencies facing service cuts and fare hikes, we are witnessing in the United States how poor, socially excluded groups suffer the most from public transit cuts.

As transit agencies across the country face massive deficits – and cut services to make up for it – cities’ most disadvantaged residents will be hurt the most.

It seems a bit ironic that as we write about a new BRT in Johannesburg – which gives poorer residents an alternative to the informal, reckless van services they used to depend on – New York City is expanding such “dollar cab” services to try to make up for MTA service cuts (more than 50 bus routes have been eliminated or restructured, and 3 subway lines have been scrapped).

Commuter vans known as dollar cabs - which actually cost $2 or $4 - have flourished in New York's informal transit market, particularly in Brooklyn and Queens. Photo via wnyc.org.

Commuter vans known as dollar cabs - which actually cost $2 or $4 - have flourished in New York's informal transit market, particularly in Brooklyn and Queens. Photo via wnyc.org.

NYC’s dollar cabs operate mostly in the informal sector, although a small percentage are licensed by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC). They look just like regular vans, and are particularly popular along Brooklyn’s and Queens’ major arteries, like Flatbush Avenue. The city up until now has tried to ban the private commuter vans from MTA-serviced routes; most of the vans – licensed or unlicensed – ran along these routes anyway.

Now, for the first time, the city is granting the TLC-licensed vans designated stops along three to six of the more than two dozen terminated routes.  Most of the service cuts are in areas of the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, where residents already faced some of the longest commutes in the city. Starting soon, the TLC dollar cabs servicing the scrapped MTA routes will be distinguishable from the rest (we don’t know how they’ll be marked, yet); the TLC also says it will simultaneously step up enforcement of illegal vans.

Still, while this might help to placate Brooklyn and Queens residents affected by the service cuts, it comes nowhere near providing a replacement for MTA services in those boroughs – in large part because anyone who takes the vans to reach an MTA hub will not have the benefit of a single fare.

Now that the buses are gone, passengers who start taking the vans to get to an MTA station will have to pay at least $2 in addition to the $2.25 for a subway or bus ride; before, they got a free transfer from the bus to the subway.

Needless to say,  such changes affect the cities’ poorest residents the most, especially since the service cuts are concentrated in the outer boroughs where living is cheaper. (Transportation Nation recently profiled the communities on bus routes that have been cut.) They exacerbate social exclusion of poor people, people of color, immigrants, the elderly and the disabled.

To emphasize this point, Laura Barrett, director of the Transportation Equity Network, quoted Dr. Robert Bullard in the Huffington Post yesterday:

Nationally, only seven percent of white households do not own a car, compared to 24 percent of African American households, 17 percent of Latino households, and 13 percent of Asian American households. African Americans are almost six times as likely as whites to use transit to get around. In urban areas, African Americans and Latinos comprise over 54 percent of transit users (62 percent of bus riders, 35 percent of subway riders, and 29 percent of commuter rail riders).

Barrett’s full article provides details about how service cuts and fare hikes across the country, including in Washington D.C., will make U.S. cities more unequal.

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