[sustran] USA: The connection between transportation and social justice

Todd Edelman edelman at greenidea.eu
Sun Oct 31 05:29:47 JST 2010


Do the rights thing
Angela Glover Blackwell talks about the connection between 
transportation and social justice
by Sarah Goodyear 29 Oct 2010 9:51 AM

"This issue is too important to be left to transportation 
professionals," says Angela Glover Blackwell.

Angela Glover Blackwell would like to remind you that transportation is 
a civil rights issue.

Blackwell is the founder and chief executive officer of PolicyLink, "a 
national research and action institute advancing economic and social 
equity." Their slogan is "Lifting Up What Works." They believe that the 
people at the grassroots, closest to the nation's problems, should be a 
central part of figuring out solutions.

Transportation has emerged as a signature issue for PolicyLink. The 
group now chairs the newly formed Equity Caucus, part of Transportation 
for America, calling on federal policymakers to see equity and social 
justice as a key part of transportation planning.

Blackwell recently was invited to the White House, along with many 
governors, mayors, and other elected officials, to give her perspective 
on President Obama's proposed $50 billion infrastructure plan. She was 
the only public policy advocate to attend.

She talked to us by phone about how she was able to influence the 
discussion that day, about how public transit cuts are devastating to 
low-income Americans, and about the central role that transportation 
policy has always played in the struggle for civil rights.

Q. How was it that you came to be invited to sit at that table with the 

A. I was thrilled to be invited to the table, and I'm quite sure that 
the reason that I was invited is because just the week before, 
PolicyLink and Transportation for America launched the Equity Caucus 
[see their principles here].

[At] that launch that nearly 200 people attended in the Cannon Office 
Building, Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) talked about 
transportation in a way that just made it so real. There were people 
there who had tears in their eyes, I understand, from listening to him 
talk about what transportation means to elderly people trying to get 
around, to mothers trying to earn a living.

I think that [we were invited because of] our focus on people, our focus 
on equity, our focus on public transportation, and our determination 
that this issue is too important to be left to transportation professionals.

Q. So there you were. Tell me what you were able to contribute.

A. You probably saw the list of who attended. There were governors, 
mayors, transportation secretaries past and present, labor leaders. When 
the president came in, after greeting people and saying a couple of 
opening remarks, he said, "We're going to start off this conversation 
hearing from Gov. [Ed] Rendell [D-Penn.] and from Angela." So I was just 
so pleased to see the equity perspective frame the conversation right at 
the top.

After my remarks, several people referred back to them. In particular, 
they picked up on the people focus. I think that those people who care 
about transportation have recognized that it is too often an insular 
conversation, and the people who are impacted most by the decisions 
aren't engaged at all.

Q. You talk about creating an awareness that there are people who are 
constituents for public transportation. Do you see that increasing at 
the grassroots level?

A. I am definitely seeing more engagement. We're seeing real concern in 
Chicago, in St. Louis, about the cutbacks in public transportation, what 
that means for people.

The Transportation Equity Network is organizing all over to make sure 
that grassroots people in communities -- who are concerned about their 
livelihoods and their futures, and how little they're able to get out of 
their monthly incomes -- they're really getting involved. I think we're 
beginning to see the beginning of a movement stirring all across the 
country of people making their voices heard on this issue.

Q. Could you talk about the importance of public transportation to 
people with lower incomes, working-class people? And how that figures 
into the larger economic picture?

A. Yes. There are a couple of things I want to point out in that regard. 
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.

For people who don't have access to cars and depend on public 
transportation, the current crisis is devastating. More than 110 cities 
have public transit routes that are at risk. Children can't get to 
school; people can't get to work. 80 percent of the nation's systems are 
either considering or have recently enacted fare increases or service cuts.

But here's something else that Americans need to know. Spending on 
transit generates more jobs than spending on highways. If our nation's 
20 metro areas shifted just 50 percent of their highways funds to 
transit, they would create over 1.1 million new transit-related jobs in 
over 5 years. That's without spending a single dollar more.

Q. It strikes me that something strange has happened in this country, 
that now when people talk about public transit, we get a polarized 
political situation where people sometimes say, "Cars are what ordinary 
folks use. Investing in public transit, that's what this urban, 
sophisticated elite wants."

A. I have heard that. Part of the reason is because there are two things 
going on in this country at the same time. One is that we have 
continuing, entrenched urban poverty, with the communities that have 
always been left behind continuing to be left behind.

At the same time that we have that continuing harsh reality, we have 
many enlightened people living in metropolitan areas who recognize that 
for the sake of climate, we need to get out of our cars and use more 
public transportation, we need to live in denser communities, we need to 
connect in communities that are diverse and enjoy the cultural 
activities that reflect this nation. These people are often moving into 
cities -- Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Manhattan in New 
York -- and enjoying the fruits of urban life, looking for safe, 
efficient public transit, and wanting to live near transit stops so that 
they can be more efficient in the use of their income.

Often this is what people see as gentrification, and people in poor 
communities often fear that if a community starts to gentrify, they may 
be pushed out of the communities.

What we have to remember is that the majority of people who use public 
transportation in this nation are people of color, low-income people. 
That is what keeps our system going. If we are going to begin to invest 
in it, we need to invest in it leading with equity, asking, How do we 
build modern public transportation systems that serve those people who 
have been the backbone of utilizing public transportation? Who need it, 
not because it's the smart thing to do, but it's the only thing for them 
to do in order to stretch their dollars and respond to their reality of 
not having a car? This notion that public transit is [only] for the 
affluent who are looking for a different lifestyle is a false notion.

Q. I've heard you refer to access to transportation as a civil rights 
issue. I would like to hear you speak to that.

A. It is interesting that transportation, in recent years, has not been 
framed as a civil rights issue, because most of the civil rights 
struggle in this country has centered around transportation, in one way 
or another, starting with Plessy v. Ferguson [in 1896]. That had to do 
with access to train cars. Then we have Rosa Parks sitting down on a 
bus. We had the Freedom Riders trying to do something to show that black 
people ought to be able to ride a bus across jurisdictions, they ought 
to be able to ride through the South on a bus without having to go to 
the back of the bus. The whole urban renewal, which people often call 
"black removal," because that's what happens, in the 60s, was a fight 
around highways coming in, going right through communities that had been 
vibrant, often destroying the financial district in an African-American 

So if you go all the way from Plessy v. Ferguson right up to the urban 
renewal, you will see that the fights have often been around 
transportation, and how transportation decisions have been made. Also 
the interstate highway system, the roads that have been built that 
allowed for the expansion from cities into suburbs, often had a 
devastating impact, as people abandoned city schools, and moved to 
suburban schools, leaving poor people of color in city schools, with 
fewer resources, less political clout, and often abandoning the 
neighborhoods and the infrastructure that made those neighborhoods strong.

I think one of the things that the Equity Caucus is doing is bringing in 
the civil rights movement to once again reclaim the fairness issue 
involved in transportation policy thinking.

Q. Anticipating what the Congress is going to look like after the 
midterm elections, what do you think the prospects are for advancing 
these arguments?

A. I have been reading the past week the book Nixonland by Rick 
Perlstein. I'm just in the first quarter of it, and I have been struck 
by how it was not a bright line between Republicans and Democrats on 
some fundamental issues. There were liberal Republicans who were proud 
to be associated with the civil rights acts that were getting passed in 
the '60s. There were liberal Republicans who were real advocates for 
civil rights, even before those civil rights. I'm sure there were 
Republicans and Democrats who always agreed -- without even thinking 
about party lines -- when we were talking about the future of the nation 
and how important its infrastructure was to it. Infrastructure used to 
be one of those issues that did not divide, but pulled together.

It ought to be obvious to anyone looking at the global economy that 
those nations with the infrastructure are the ones that are going to do 
the best. So while it is probably safe to assume that if the Congress 
becomes more Republican that having the support for infrastructure 
investment in public transportation will become a divisive issue, it's 
shocking to me. It shouldn't.

Q. Well, there is a lot going on that really doesn't make any sense.

A. It's too true.


Sarah Goodyear is Grist’s cities editor. You can follow her Twitter feed 
at http://twitter.com/buttermilk1.


Todd Edelman
Green Idea Factory,
a member of the OPENbike team

Mobile: ++49(0)162 814 4081

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