Transportation is a Civil Right
By Fawn Johnson
Correspondant, National Journal
That's not all. The coalition wants President Obama to personally intervene in the negotiations between the Transportation Department and the LACMTA. DOT slammed the city for implementing service changes without conducting a legally required analysis about the impacts on minority and poor riders. But the federal government has not gone so far as to require the city to reverse its decisions, which agitates the bus riders.
"We're framing this fight right now as a fight over the future of our city," said Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles. Mann says the city's emphasis on rail commuting is gentrification at its worst--harming the most disadvantaged populations who rely on bus service. "The rail system is going to bankrupt the transit system," he said.
The protest is a potent reminder that transportation systems are about more than state budgets, contracts, and traffic manipulation. A transit system sets the character for an entire city. Even the best-intentioned changes to it can have devastating and unexpected consequences.
What are city residents entitled to when it comes to mass transit? Do the same rights apply to road access? Does it make sense to consider access to transit or roads a civil right? If so, how does that change the policy conversation? How can city officials stay cognizant of the needs of various populations? What rights do city and state governments have with regard to their transportation systems? How can transportation officials balance the needs of everyone while staying within their budgets?
The law is on their side
Laura Barrett, Executive Director, Transportation Equity Network
The Bus Riders Union is a charter member of Gamaliel's Transportation Equity Network. We stood with the Bus Riders and their appeal to FTA and will continue to do so. We can't trade one form of transit for another. We need to increase access to transit for everyone, instead of picking light rail over buses - both are important and both are needed to create a truly integrated transit system that will improve LA's economy.
Is access to transit a civil right? The FTA seems to think so: On March 8 of 2011 Federal Transportation Administrator, Peter Rogoff wrote to the heads of major transit agencies reminding them of their obligation to ensure that service and fare changes don’t have a discriminatory impact on minorities or people of low income. Administrator Rogoff’s letter reminded the heads of major U.S. transit agencies that a budget crisis is no excuse for violating civil rights. In a time of economic crisis, it’s more important than ever to ensure that service and fare changes don’t put those most vulnerable among us at a disadvantage.
As the letter stated:
[C]ompliance with Title VI [of the 1964 Civil Rights Act] is especially important when launching service or fare changes that may be necessitated by financial difficulties. … Specifically, public transportation agencies serving large urbanized areas are required to conduct a service and fare equity analysis at the planning and programming stages to determine whether service and/or fare changes have a discriminatory impact.
People of color are up to six times more likely to depend on public transportation than white Americans. As a result, the epidemic of service cuts and fare hikes around the country are having a devastating impact on the ability of millions of Americans to access jobs, education, health care, and opportunity. America was founded on the promise of equal opportunity for all. If the current budget slashing is having a discriminatory impact on people of color, we are betraying that ideal. We can and must do better, because we’re all in this together.
In LA that means that the FTA must protect the civil rights of bus riders as vigorously as possible: it's the right thing to do and their own regulations demand it.