"Service cuts and fare increases caused by MTC's under-funding mean that today, there is increasingly no seat on the bus at all for the urban poor." -- Reverend Andre Shumake
Fifty years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, transportation equity is still a crucial issue for communities of color across the country. While legal segregation of public transportation is a thing of the past, one only has to step onto any urban bus system to see that racial inequality is alive and well in the United States.
The passing of Rosa Parks, a pioneer of transportation justice, reminds us of the distance we have traveled, and is a fitting occasion for a rededication to undertaking the hard journey toward justice.
On December 5, 2005, exactly 50 years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott started, music and poetry rang out against the stony facade of Oakland's City Hall as Bay Area bus riders and transportation justice advocates gathered to honor the memory of Rosa Parks.
Joy Gospel Choir started the event with passionate songs of celebration and spiritual resistance, and their uplifting rhythms were well complemented by thoughtful reflections from Reverend Ruth Elliot from Allen Temple Baptist Church of Oakland, Joshua Abraham from the Ella Baker Center, and Sylvia Darensburg and Communities for Better Environment, the co-plaintiffs in a discrimination lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) which controls public funding for Bay Area transportation systems.
Rev. Andre Shumake of the Richmond Improvement Association said that "for years the MTC has under-funded AC Transit and the transportation needs of low-income people in comparison to highways and rail built to serve affluent suburban commuters. Service cuts and fare increases caused by MTC's under-funding mean that today, there is increasingly no seat on the bus at all for the urban poor."
Members of Kids First!, an Oakland youth group fighting for social justice, performed a skit about transportation justice at the event. Kids First organizer Julie Iny said that the students in the group are part of the third generation of activists to follow the paths blazed by Rosa Parks in the 1950s -- and they want to be the last generation of high school students whose education is compromised by an unjust transportation system.
Iny pointed out that because Oakland Unified School District doesn't fund the familiar yellow school buses seen in suburban districts, Oakland high school students rely on AC Transit buses to get to school and to after-school programs. On the bus, they sit -- or stand -- with the other nearly 80 percent of AC Transit riders who are people of color.
Iny reported that because AC Transit doesn't provide enough buses to cover the routes to school, the buses that Kids First members ride are crowded, messy and unreliable. She said it's not unusual for children to be late for school because an overcrowded bus passed them by while they waited at a poorly lit bus stop with no shelter.
To make matters worse, bus fares are high because the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) refuses to fund AC transit or any other operator to prioritize the needs of low-income people; as a result, 61 percent of students surveyed by Kids First have had to use their lunch money to pay for transportation to school.
Richard Marcantonio, an attorney with Public Advocates, lawyers in the lawsuit against MTC, said: "As a result of MTC's knowingly discriminatory funding practices, AC Transit riders receive a public subsidy of only $2.78 per trip while CalTrain passengers receive more than five times that -- $13.79." As a result of this unequal funding, AC Transit has been forced to
cut bus service and raise fares.
At the event, Urban Habitat unveiled a new issue of its quarterly journal, Race, Poverty and the Environment entitled "Moving the Movement: Transportation Justice, 50 Years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott." The issue has a wealth of stories about the fight for civil rights and equal rights in transportation.
Ben Jesse Clarke and Lila Hussain are staff members at Urban Habitat. Clarke is the editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment. You can order copies online at www.urbanhabitat.org. Or call Urban Habitat for more information at (510) 839-9510.