Photo: Stephen Yeargin

February 4, 2019; WKRN (Nashville, TN)

On February 4th, the nation celebrated Transit Equity Day, in honor of the late Rosa Parks, who would’ve turned 106 years old. The holiday is intended to draw attention to transit as a civil rights issue and an important element of a climate-safe future.

Across the nation, community groups and nonprofit organizations marked the holiday through a wide array of awareness-building activities, ranging from events by the Bus Riders Unite program in Portland, Oregon, which seeks the reinstatement of the Rider Advocate program to make the system safer for people of color who depend on it, to advocates in New Jersey pushing for the electrification of New Jersey’s transportation system. In Nashville, a group called Music City Riders United (MCRU) participated in public actions to demand transportation equity throughout the city, focusing on the discrepancy and placement of bus shelters throughout the city. MCRU is a campaign of Workers’ Dignity, a nonprofit dedicated to economic justice through organizing and developing solutions to wage theft and systemic abuse of workers throughout the greater Nashville area. For nonprofits addressing equity, the MCRU campaign shows how concerted public engagement and awareness can lead to transit equity progress.

“Transit equity” is an issue and term that may be new to some. The Center for Social Inclusion explains the importance of transit equity:

Accessible, affordable transportation is critical to the lives we live. Residents of communities of color and poor white communities, whether rural or urban, must travel to obtain better jobs, secure educational opportunities and get quality health care. Too often competing interests result in transportation policies that unintentionally leave low-income Americans stranded. To achieve equity in transportation policy, we need to craft and catalyze strategies that help rural and urban communities of color get the investments needed to spur mobility in every sense of the word.

As an issue, transit equity is rooted deep in American history, with racism playing a major role in several chapters of the development of our country—from the construction of the transcontinental railroad, to the development of suburban neighborhoods across racial divides, to transportation serving as a galvanizing issue during the civil rights movement. In fact, in his book A Testament of Hope, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. connected accessible public transportation and employment opportunities, calling urban transit systems “a genuine civil rights issue.”

Today, transit equity is a central issue for many marginalized communities. As NPQ has written about before, effective public transit planning is important for ensuring affordable, accessible, and convenient transportation options that contribute to the well-being of many disenfranchised communities. Yet, there is a growing schism between communities with access to transportation and those without, which is reflected in accessibility and job proximity. While there are multiple reports that illustrate this growing gap, a 2015 report from Brookings entitled “The growing distance between people and jobs in metropolitan America” shows how this impacts low-income communities and neighborhoods of color. Sixty-one percent of high-poverty census tracts and 55 percent of neighborhoods with a majority of people of color experienced declines in job proximity between 2000 and 2012, meaning that these areas consequently had higher travel times to jobs. When combined with the realities of public transportation, which many low-income communities depend on, the picture illustrates why transit equity is so important: Urban areas offer higher-paying jobs but are inaccessible to many communities, with only 30 percent of urban jobs nationally being accessible via a 90-minute ride on public transportation, leaving many low-income communities without access to higher paying jobs because of limited transportation options.

With this background, transit equity is a central issue for many economic justice organizations, including Workers’ Dignity and their MCRU campaign, as it represents a pathway to economic opportunity that is vital. The MCRU campaign is rooted in principles of equity, and utilizes public awareness campaigns, advocacy, and community organizing as key strategies to facilitate change.

Recently, MCRU released its Bus Route Report Card: Nashville Bus Riders Highlight Key Transit Priorities, which is a compilation of grades by over 600 riders on 36 different routes of the Nashville’s WeGo public transit system. The report compiles responses based on 10 standards of quality public transportation and analyzes the results. The report found that the highest-rated bus routes based on safety, accessibility, convenience, reliability, and other measures are in predominantly white neighborhoods, while routes rated lower are in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.

The takeaway from the report is more than simply grades, however, as there are tangible and real world needs that MCRU seeks to address. Some of these include:

  • Increasing public safety investments, as 14 of the top 20 most dangerous pedestrian crossings are in working-class neighborhoods, and there have been 1,636 pedestrians injured and 78 fatalities after being struck by vehicles in dangerous intersections since 2014
  • Expanding bus service to 24-hours for low-income night shift workers
  • Increasing bus frequency in heavily populated working-class neighborhoods on weekdays
  • The building of bus shelters at every bus stop in the city, with a priority on neighborhoods historically neglected by city services

In addition to raising awareness about the need for public transit investments, through its community organizing efforts, MCRU has gained several substantial victories to improve the public transit system and address transit equity. These victories include the institution of free bus transfers (saving each rider about $540 monthly); expanded hours on nights and weekends for routes; reduced bus fares across the board; eliminating the 24-hour reservation requirement for AccessRide, which serves many disabled riders; and the inclusion of a bill pay kiosk after the public transit system cut bus service to the Nashville Electric Service.

While these accomplishments are to be lauded, more transformational changes are needed, ones that require major public investment. One issue is that public transit improvements and initiatives are funded through ballot measures, which often pit voters who rely on public transit against voters that don’t use it as often. And the scope of these measures is incredible. According to the Eno Center for Transportation, which houses a database of all transportation ballot measures, in the 2018 fall election cycle, there were over 250 transportation measures in 25 states, amounting to a potential $55 billion investment in transportation. Nashville was one of the cities with a measure, which failed by a 2-to-1 margin. The measure sought sweeping changes to the transit plan, along with an investment of more than $5 billion. MCRU and Workers’ Dignity launched the People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing, and Employment (PATHE) in conjunction with Nashville’s transit measure to advocate that community benefits agreements and considerations were included in the plan.

Ultimately, transit equity is a vital issue for every community. By considering the role transit plays in people’s lives, nonprofits can leverage their influence to ensure that their constituencies have access to equitable transportation options that can lead to a healthier and more secure future.—Derrick Rhayn