Tribute to MLK: Public Transportation as a Civil Right
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on this bus, now on permanent display at The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. Photo by Chuck Miller.

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on this bus, now on permanent display at The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. Photo by Chuck Miller.

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, celebrated as a federal holiday in the United States, TheCityFix salutes the courageous leaders of nonviolent activism and the civil rights movement, especially those who fought hard for equality on public transportation.

Many of the most visible protests of American segregation laws in the 1950s and ’60s appeared on public buses. Afterall, it was Rosa Parks who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., setting off a chain of events that became known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, during which blacks refused to board city buses in opposition to the city’s policies of racial segregation on public transit. The boycotts ultimately led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 1956 to declare these laws of segregation unconstitutional. Other people known as Freedom Riders protested similar types of laws by riding interstate buses into the South. Buses also featured prominently in the desegregation of schools.

As we pay tribute to the past, it’s important to remember that disparities still exist in public transportation. “While African Americans are no longer required to move to the back of the bus or surrender their seats, public transit continues to be central to the struggle for civil rights,” writes social justice advocate Tyler Falk, based in Indianapolis, Ind., where “the city’s poor and non-white communities are being left behind because of the dismal transit options,” similar to the situation in many other places.

In New York City, the lowest-paid workers have the longest commutes to work, which limits the geographic range of job opportunities for residents in communities with high unemployment. And the city’s cuts in transit services have affected the cities’ poorest residents the most, too.

In Washington, D.C., housing and transportation costs represent almost 47 percent of the median household income, which means “for many working families, the combined [burdens of costs] may be too great to bear.”

In San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system was blamed for neglecting low-income African American and Latino communities–and favoring affluent visitors–with a new proposed elevated rail line to the Oakland Airport. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) agreed and denied funding for the project, saying it violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Guillermo Mayer of the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates pushed for more affordable transportation, like bus rapid transit, as an option “to save money, keep fares low and protect service for Bay Area residents.”

For other stories like this, read this Q&A on with Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder and chief executive officer of the research and advocacy organization, PolicyLink, discussing “the central role that transportation policy has always played in the struggle for civil rights,” especially for low-income Americans. Some of the statistics are striking:

One is that the bottom fifth of the nation, the poorest fifth of Americans, spend 42 percent of their annual household budget on an automobile budget, more than twice the national average. So for people who are poor, owning an automobile is a burdensome thing.

Nearly 25 percent of African-Americans do not have access to a car, compared that with 7 percent of non-Hispanic whites. You have nearly the same number of Latinos who do not have access to a car. So this is huge, this is not an isolated problem. For people who are spending too much of their income—over 40 percent just to own a car—clearly this has a devastating impact on the economy in terms of all of the things that people cannot do and cannot participate in.

Looking towards the future, “It’s not that the poor need custom solutions or designs tailored to meet their needs, rather cities need mass transit systems that are accessible and affordable,” as EMBARQ’s Transport and Urban Planning Associate Aileen Carrigan said in our “Megacities on the Move” series.

Globally, the civil rights movement on public transportation also means meeting the needs of other disadvantaged communities, in addition to racial minorities and the poor, including…

Women, because “improving transit conditions for women is compatible with improving access to services and the quality of public space and mass transit for everyone.”

The homeless, because, like in Rio or Honolulu, “good public transit…could be the answer to combat poverty and help ensure that people stay in homes or shelters, not in the streets.”

The disabled, because, like in Istanbul,  “a disability is only a disability when the environment or circumstances make it one. For instance, a person in a wheelchair might not be able to find work; this is not because of being in a wheelchair but because of environmental barriers like inaccessible buses, roads or staircases.”

To learn more about building support for equality in public transportation in the United States, visit these resources:

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