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MLK Day 2013: Why Transportation is Still a Civil Rights Issue

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Transportation provides access to opportunity and serves as a key component in addressing poverty, unemployment, and equal opportunity goals while ensuring access to education, health care, and other public services. The American society is largely divided between those with cars and those without cars. Without a doubt, "transportation apartheid" is firmly and nationally entrenched in our society. We are all grateful for the young charismatic Atlanta Baptist minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first successful boycott of a public transit system in the nation. Dr. King came to Montgomery, Alabama in 1954 to pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. King along with Rosa Parks and their allies waged a frontal assault on Jim Crow and transportation racism--a struggle that ignited the modern civil rights movement in the United States.

A 2010 poll from Transportation for America found 82 percent of American voters say that "the United States would benefit from an expanded and improved transportation system," including rail and buses. A 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council poll found 66 percent of Americans want more funds allocated to public transportation. The survey also found 59 percent of Americans believe the current U.S. public transportation system is "outdated, unreliable and inefficient."  

Enforce Transportation as Civil Rights. Transportation as civil rights issue dates back more than a century beginning with the Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court decision. Clearly, transportation remains a civil rights issue in the twenty-first century. If transportation planners are going to adequately serve residents of diverse ages, races, and income levels, they need to address basic issues of equity and social justice. Much of Dr. King's work is yet unfinished as detailed in a number of my books that document the impact of transportation racism, urban apartheid, and suburban sprawl on black life in cities and metropolitan regions. Nevertheless, Dr. King's legacy lives on in the transportation justice movement whose intergenerational leaders continue to challenge unfair and discriminatory transportation policies.  These advocates are calling for equitable and fair policies that promote equal opportunity for all.  

Expand Transportation to Address Social Inequality.  How we fund and build transportation impacts equity. Cuts in public transit have a negative ripple effect in people of color communities since they are less likely to own cars and face higher than average unemployment, poverty, and economic hard times. Cutting transit service and raising fares will only exacerbate social inequality. Spending on transportation is lowest in metro regions with strong public transit systems. On average, Americans spend about 18 cents out of every dollar earned on transportation expenses. Generally, Americans spend more on transportation than they do on food, education, and health care. Public transit riders save on about $1,400 in gas per year. The nation's poorest families spend more than 40 percent of their take home pay on transportation. The working poor spend a much higher portion of their income on commuting. Improving public transportation in urban centers could lower costs and raise living standards for low-income households. Americans who live in areas served by public transportation save more than $13 billion in congestion costs annually.

Enhance Transportation to Reduce Economic Isolation. The economic isolation of people of color is complicated by inadequate public transit (limited, unaffordable, or inaccessible service and routes, and security and safety concerns), lack of personal transportation (no privately owned car available to travel to work), and spatial mismatch (location of suitable jobs in areas that are inaccessible by public transportation). Almost 70 percent of jobs in the 100 most populous U.S. metropolitan areas are not within a 90-minute, one-way transit trip; and more than 700,000 households in the 100 most populous U.S. metropolitan areas that lack access to a vehicle also have no public transportation service available.  No other group in the U.S. is more physically isolated from jobs than African Americans.  Accroding to UCLA scholar Michael Stoll, more than 50 percent of blacks would have to relocate to achieve an even distribution of blacks relative to jobs; the comparable figures for whites are 20 to 24 percentage points lower.

Build Transportation to Support Healthy People and Healthy Communities.  The 2010 American Public Health Association report, At the Intersection of Public Health and Public Transportation: Promoting Healthy Transportation Policy, clearly documents that the built environment, including transportation systems, directly and indirectly affect human health by influencing a wide range of environmental, physical and social factors. Reduction in motor vehicle emissions can have marked health improvements. For example, a CDC report found that "when the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 brought about a reduction in auto use by 22.5%, asthma admissions to ERs and hospitals also decreased by 41.6%."   Asthma has an environmental link. This problem is exacerbated for people of color who are more likely than whites to live in nonattainment areas.   A 2001 CDC report, Creating a Healthy Environment: The Impact of the Built Environment on Health, points a finger at transportation and sprawl as major health threats.  All built environments are not created equal. The built environment has been linked to rising asthma rates--a disease that disproportionately impact low-income persons and people of color.   African Americans are 30 percent more likely to have asthma than non-Hispanic Whites, in 2010. In 2009, African Americans were three times more likely to die from asthma related causes than the White population. African Americans had asthma-related emergency room visits 4.5 times more often than White.  It costs a whopping $76.6 billion annually to cover the health expenses of American children who were sick because of exposure to toxic chemicals and air pollutants in 2008.

Transportation-induced environmental threats have become major justice and equity concerns in low-income and people of color communities. Some transportation and related land-use decisions affect the health and safety of residents in a harmful way, specifically by reducing opportunities for physical activity, polluting the air (which also contributes to the climate crisis), increasing likelihood of traffic incidents, and exacerbating poverty and inequity. The dominant transportation and related land-use policies favor sprawl, auto-dependent growth. Sprawl is unhealthy and is fueled by the "iron triangle" of finance, land use planning, and transportation .

Support Green Transportation that Improves Air Quality.   The American Lung Association State of the Air 2012 report shows the nation is making steady progress in cutting air pollution. Still, over 127 million people (41 percent of the nation) still suffer pollution levels that are too often dangerous to breathe. Of the 25 cities with the most ozone pollution, 22 saw improvements in air quality over last year's report. Transportation-related sources account for over 30 percent of the primary smog-forming pollutants emitted nationwide and 28 percent of the fine particulates. Emissions from cars, trucks, and buses cause 25-51 percent of the air pollution in the nation's nonattainment areas. Reduction in motor vehicle emissions can have marked health improvements. Air pollution threatens the health of millions of Americans, especially urban residents. Air pollution from vehicle emissions causes significant amounts of illness, hospitalization, and premature death. Air pollution claims 70,000 lives a year, nearly twice the number killed in traffic accidents. Moving to "greener" and "cleaner" transportation will save lives and money.

Expand Transportation that Reduces Carbon Footprint. Addressing transportation equity will have positive impacts beyond improved mobility and access to opportunity, but will have added health benefits by reducing deadly air pollution, decreasing automobile dependency, and shrinking the carbon footprint mitigating climate change.  According to the Energy Information Agency (EIA), the transportation sector is the second largest source of CO2 emissions--at 33.1 percent of total emissions.   Only the electric power sector is larger wit 40.5 percent of the total CO2 emissions. Public transportation reduces petroleum consumption by a total of 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline, representing 11.5 million gallons of gasoline per day. Public transportation saves more than 37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. From 1996 to 2006, U.S. transportation greenhouse gas emissions increases represented almost one half (47 percent) of the increase in total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Promote Transportation Infrastructure Investments That Secure Our Future.  According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), every $1 invested in public transportation generates $4 in local economic activity. Every $1 billion invested in the nation's transportation infrastructure supports 36,000 jobs. The clean energy investment agenda could improve the accessibility and convenience, improve air quality, and reduce air-pollution related illnesses. Local residents could save 1 - 4 percent of their incomes if they increase their use of public transportation to between 25 percent and 50 percent of their local travel. Households that limit their use to one car could reduce their living costs by roughly 10 percent. Transportation investments if used equitably can bring new life and vitality to much needed urban neighborhoods, communities and regions and can promote equal opportunity for all.   

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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