Why Transit Equity Matters

Feb. 4, 2019
Today marks the birthday of Rosa Parks, who made history in 1955 when she refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Today marks the birthday of Rosa Parks, who made history in 1955 when she refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The ensuing Montgomery bus boycott resulted in the landmark Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.

Despite the court’s decision, the question of what it meant to “ride with dignity” persisted: 15 years after the integration of Montgomery’s buses, in A Testament of Hope, Martin Luther King Jr. drew the connection between access to affordable public transit and employment opportunity.

King made the case that transit systems did not do enough to help poor people access opportunities for gainful, meaningful employment, leading him to conclude that urban transit systems were “a genuine civil rights issue.”

The importance of Dr. King’s insight -- that fundamental civil rights include more than the right to vote and ride in any seat on a bus -- has taken on new relevance in recent years. People across the country continue to fight for King’s vision of transit equity, which, in the context of climate change, has expanded to include environmental justice. Today, on Transit Equity Day, thousands of people in communities from Charleston, South Carolina to Tacoma, Washington and everywhere in between, are mobilizing to take action for “civil rights and a climate-safe future”.

Central to the concept of transit equity is the notion that transit is a fundamental public good that we all benefit from, regardless of age, race, or class. Transit’s immense value to disadvantaged communities is key to King’s framing of transit as a civil right, but public transit’s cascading economic effects impact all of us. It’s true that transit systems -- and riders -- are more likely to be located in urban areas, where population density and traffic congestion make transit especially necessary. According to analysts at the Pew Research Center, 34 percent of Black people and 27 percent of Latinx people in American cities report taking public transit regularly, while 14 percent of transit passengers are white.

But transit can -- and needs to -- play an important role in other parts of America as well. In a recent poll, 85 percent of suburban respondents and 79 percent of rural respondents agreed that government should help fund public transportation. In rural communities in particular, even though populations are declining, rural transit ridership increased by three times as much as urban ridership (7.8 percent vs. 2.3 percent) between 2007 and 2015.

Rural areas have larger percentages of elderly residents and people with disabilities, two groups that have increased need for accessible public transit options -- needs which often go unmet in rural communities, where transit access is usually limited, despite demand. About one-third of the U.S. veterans who are enrolled in the Veterans Affairs health care system live in rural America, and face similar challenges around using transit to access medical care. Rural Indigenous communities face transit and transportation inequities that are broader and more challenging than those in non-Indigenous communities and present significant barriers to economic development.

Regardless of where folks live, access to public transit impacts all Americans. Transit riders are primarily between the ages of 25 to 64 -- the years when people are starting new careers, building families, and getting ready for retirement. Access to job opportunities is key during that time. Research by planning experts Dan Chatman and Robert Noland shows that increasing public transit allows greater numbers of workers to connect more efficiently with a wider array of jobs, which increases wages and economic activity. Transit allows all this to happen because buses and rail cars can carry workers in and around cities more efficiently than personal vehicles. The effect is strongest in large cities that already have robust transit systems, and would probably be enhanced by policies that encourage equitable development around transit hubs -- something that planners in Fort Worth have an eye on. The Fort Worth City Council is getting closer to breaking ground on a diverse portfolio of real-estate developments designed to provide walkable access to the area’s commuter rail for people who prefer transit to driving.  

The power of Rosa Parks’ activism and the Montgomery bus boycott still feels fresh today. Thanks to her, and many others, support for robust, accessible, and well-connected public transit systems continues to thrive across the country.

To learn more about Transit Equity Day, visit the Labor Sustainability Network here

Christy Veeder is the National Program Director at Jobs to Move America. Her work focuses on increasing awareness and support for equitable, high-road job opportunities in the manufacturing sector.