Moving the Movement

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This issue of Urban Habitat’s journal, Race, Poverty, and the Environment, presents an analysis of transportation equity that can help build the movement for civil rights and environmental justice. Featuring contributions from leading practitioners in the field and a cross-section of voices from the grassroots, it reveals a transportation and land use system that harms urban quality of life; damages the planetary environment; promotes wars for resource domination; and supports racism and class-based segregation. Published on the 50th Anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, this issue also draws on historical victories in transportation equity—such as the initial desegregation of public transit—to help identify the pressure points in the system which present opportunities for progress.

In every urban center in the country there are organizations challenging unequal access to transportation, coalitions fighting the burdens which international goods movement places on poor communities, and groups struggling for systemic reforms. This issue presents many case studies of successful local organizing from the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and other communities of color.

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Demonstration at MTC by Kids First and Transportation Justice Working Group Photo(c) J Moses Ceasar 2005

About This Issue

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As the new editor, I am pleased to add another volume to the nation’s only journal dedicated to the intersection of Race, Poverty, and the Environment. This issue, we seek to knit together an analysis of transportation equity that can help build the movement for civil rights and environmental justice. Featuring contributions from leading practitioners in the field and a cross-section of voices from the grassroots, it paints a picture of a transportation and land use system that harms urban quality of life; damages the planetary environment; promotes wars for resource domination; and supports racism and class-based segregation. Our current transportation system puts poor people, people of color, and the public at large at the receiving end of damaging resource extraction, pollution, and slow, dangerous transit.

Published on the 50th Anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, this issue also draws on historical victories in transportation equity—such as the initial desegregation of public transit—to help us identify the pressure points in the system which present opportunities for progress. Eva Paterson, president of the Equal Justice Society, and Richard Marcantonio and Guillermo Mayer of Public Advocates, analyze the legal parallels of our current inequity to the past. Eric Mann, Robert Bullard, and Clayton Thomas-Muller contribute articles that unravel the congested auto–highway–petroleum nexus and point us toward strategies for change.

From the Bechtel bonanza of the Big Dig in Boston, to every day decisions on vendors for highway and transit construction, corporate lobbyists twist public policy away from the public interest and toward privatized solutions, which serve the middle and upper classes. Andrea Buffa and John Gibler take a look at the corporate role in transportation infrastructure. With my co-author Hana Baba, we also take a look at Oakland’s privatized public port, where collusion between global multinationals, such as Wal-Mart and local real estate elites, cut the public out of a role in their own government. Simultaneously, these same forces build in dependence on petroleum transportation in order to fuel an economic system that creates sweatshops in far off countries, drives locally owned-businesses out of existence, and erects auto-centric mega-malls.

Of course, our communities are fighting back. In every urban center in the country there are organizations challenging unequal access to transportation, coalitions fighting the burdens which international goods movement places on poor communities, and groups struggling for systemic reforms. We present many case studies of successful local organizing from the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and other communities of color.

Faced with the ongoing disaster of an economic system that is imprisoning the poor in jobless apartheid, polluting the air, wasting resources, and failing to move people to where they need to go, activists are organizing a multi-faceted strategy. The inspiring legacy of the civil rights movement, as epitomized by the late Rosa Parks, lives on in these efforts.

As we move the movement on transportation justice to the next level, we should keep economic power in sight when asking why governmental agencies systematically exclude poor and working people from planning processes. Who owns? Who controls? In the long term, democratic control of our common economic resources is the long-term solution to racist inequality.

Ben Jesse Clarke
Editor, RP&E

From the Director's Desk

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.

Since Urban Habitat’s founding in 1989, transportation justice has been a driving force behind our mission to advance social, economic, and environmental justice in the San Francisco Bay Area. The region’s transportation system is the lifeline that connects people to their jobs, homes, schools, childcare, and other essential services. When broken, entire communities are denied access to the fundamental resources and opportunities that they need to survive. In all too many of our communities, poor access to transportation is the norm.

Over the past few years, Urban Habitat has focused its involvement in transportation through the Transportation Justice Working Group (TJWG) of the Social Equity Caucus, a coalition of diverse Bay Area organizations and agencies. We have worked hard over the last two years to protect programs and funding that supports public transit services in low-income communities, including a recent victory that saved reduced-fare bus passes for youth.

Most people don’t realize that school-provided buses have all but vanished from many of the urban areas in the Bay Area. The majority of low-income youth today rely upon public transit to get to and from school. Over the past year, the TJWG has pressured local and regional decision-makers to preserve the level of affordable transit for low-income students in the East Bay. Until there are dedicated funds earmarked for youth passes, the TJWG will continue to apply pressure and build a broader coalition to fight for regional affordable transportation for low-income students.

Urban Habitat is also working to increase funding to the Lifeline Transportation Program which is the Bay Area plan to provide an equitable level of transportation service for low-income communities. Despite the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s own finding that the plan would require more than 109 million dollars annually, they provide only about nine million dollars a year; instead pouring vast sums into expensive rail projects that primarily serve suburban riders.

In addition to our work with the TJWG, Urban Habitat is also partnering nationally with leading transportation justice activists to design an equity analysis tool to evaluate transportation program impacts on the needs of low-income communities and communities of color. With an accurate tool for measuring real-life outcomes of transportation policy, we can hold decision-making bodies accountable to the needs of transit-dependent populations.

Building regional power to improve transportation in our urban centers is a key part of the national environmental justice agenda. The authors and organizations featured in this issue are strong leaders who demonstrate that our movement reaches into every part of this nation and is a critical factor in bringing social justice issues back in to the center of the public and political agenda.

With this issue, we welcome aboard Editor Ben Jesse Clarke whose work with media justice, poverty rights, and tenant issues well prepares him for this project. We hope you enjoy this issue of Race Poverty & the Environment and encourage you to visit our new website at

In solidarity,

Juliet Ellis
Executive Director

WEB SPECIAL: The Anatomy of Transportation Racism

In 1892, 30-year-old Black shoemaker Homer Plessy was arrested for sitting in a “white” car of the East Louisiana Railroad. His refusal to sit in the “colored” car brought the weight of Louisiana’s Separate Car Act—an 1890 act that provided separate railway carriages for white and Black passengers—upon him. While Plessy contended that the Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, he was found guilty. Plessy appealed the ruling to the Louisiana Supreme Court and lost. Determined to fight for his civil rights, Plessy appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but lost once again.

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In May 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld the Separate Car Act of Louisiana that called for segregated “white” and “colored” seating on railroad cars. The Plessy v. Ferguson decision ushered in the infamous doctrine of “separate but equal.” Reaching beyond the scope of transportation, the Plessy doctrine embraced many other areas of public life, such as rest rooms, theaters, and public schools, and provided legal basis for racial segregation in the United States. On behalf of a seven-person majority, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Henry Brown wrote the following:

"That [The Separate Car Act] does not conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery…is too clear for argument…A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored race—a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color—has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races.…The object of the [Fourteenth Amendment] was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either."

In 1953, a year before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka struck down Plessy’s “separate but equal” doctrine, African Americans in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, under the banner of the United Defense League, staged the nation’s first successful bus boycott against transportation racism. African Americans accounted for the overwhelming majority of Baton Rouge bus riders and two-thirds of the bus company’s revenue. The United Defense League’s economic boycott effectively disrupted the financial stability of the Baton Rouge bus company, costing it over $1,600 a day.

In December 1955, on the heels of the Baton Rouge bus boycott and the Brown decision, Rosa Parks, a 43-year-old black seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man in defiance of local Jim Crow laws—igniting the modern civil rights movement. E. D. Nixon, the highly respected black labor leader who had organized the Black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union in Montgomery, bailed Parks out of jail and gained her consent to use her case to challenge Jim Crow.

Park’s action sparked new leadership around transportation and civil rights. Local Black leaders met at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and Formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). They elected twenty-six-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr.—at the time, a little known minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—as their spokesperson. Though Blacks were tired of seeing half-empty buses pass them up because the drivers were saving seats for whites, Blacks were fighting for more than a seat on the front of the bus. They were demanding Black bus drivers, more stops in Black neighborhoods, and elimination of the practice of forcing Black riders to pay at the front of the bus but enter through the back. The MIA, which led the bus boycott, inspired blacks not only to defy Jim Crow segregation on the buses, but to confront institutional racism that permeated all aspects of Black life in America.

The MIA organized a volunteer car pool to transport boycott participants. The sophisticated transportation system devised by the MIA proved to be an effective weapon against the Montgomery bus company. In a matter of days, the MIA organized 48 dispatch and 42 pick-up stations, creating car pools that operated with military precision. The Montgomery police quickly began arresting drivers and handing out tickets for overloading cars. Passengers waiting for rides were harassed and some were arrested for loitering. Still, no amount of police harassment managed to break the backbone of the 381-day bus boycott.

In February 1956, the MIA filed suit in the U.S. District Court challenging the legality of segregated buses. Shortly thereafter, King and some 90 other activists were arrested for conspiring to organize a boycott. King’s trial made national news and exposed the ugly face of Jim Crow transportation. In June 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the MIA.

Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized that racism in its many forms was holding Blacks back economically and that Blacks were being denied the basic rights that white Americans took for granted. In his speeches, he made it clear that the racism being fought in the Montgomery transit system was not an isolated occurrence, but that racism permeated every American institution.

"When you go beyond the relatively simple though serious problems such as police racism, however, you begin to get into all the complexities of the modern American economy. Urban transit systems in most American cities, for example, have become a genuine civil rights issue—and a valid one—because the layout of rapid-transit systems determines the accessibility of jobs to the Black community. If transportation systems in American cities could be laid out so as to provide an opportunity for poor people to get to meaningful employment, then they could begin to move into the mainstream of American life. A good example of this problem is my home city of Atlanta, where the rapid-transit system has been laid out for the convenience of the white upper-middle-class suburbanites who commute to their jobs downtown. The system has virtually no consideration for connecting the poor people with their jobs. There is only one possible explanation for this situation, and that is the racist blindness of city planners."

By linking the unequal treatment on and access to buses with the violation of constitutionally guaranteed civil rights, the MIA and their leaders built on the foundation laid by the United Defense League boycott in Baton Rouge. The Montgomery bus boycott was a turning point for many reasons. It introduced nonviolent direct action to the Black South and demonstrated the collective power of a united Black community. The basic organizing principles that came out of Montgomery were implanted in the nationwide civil rights movement and changed America forever. The Black masses would no longer be treated as second-class citizens, relegated to the back of the bus. They demanded to be treated as Americans.

This article is excerpted from the volume: Highway Robbery, Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity,edited by Robert D. Bullard, Glenn S. Johnson, and Angel O. Torres. Highway Robbery confirms the obvious and ignored truth: equality in transportation has been established in name only. Case by case, Highway Robbery shows how—a half-century after the Montgomery bus boycotts—chronic inequality in public transportation is firmly and nationally entrenched. Published by South End Press.

Robert D. Bullard is the Ware Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. He is the author of fourteen books, his most recent work being Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity (South End Press, 2004).



For an in-depth account of the Plessy v. Ferguson court case, see Brook Thomas, ed., Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. martin, 1997).

Keith Weldon Medley, “The Sad Story of How ‘Separate but Equal’ Was Born”, Smithsonian magazine (February 1994): 106.

Justice Henry Billings Brown, “Majority Opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, in Desegregation and the Supreme Court”, ed. Benjamin Munn Ziegler (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1958), 50-51.

Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York: The Free Press, 1984), 17-25.

Ibid., 52.

Robin D. G. Kelly, “Freedom Riders (The Sequel),” The Nation (February 5, 1996): 18-21.

For detailed history of the Montgomery Bus boycott, see Roberta Hughes Wright, The Birth of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Southfield, MI: Charro Press, 1991).

James Melvin Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., repr. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991), 325-326. Dr. King’s essay was first published posthumously in January 1969.

Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 58.

Ibid., 233.

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Global Analysis and Strategies

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An Environmental Justice Strategy for Urban Transportation

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Across the United States, federal and state transportation funds favor suburban commuters and auto owners at the cost of the urban poor, the working class, the lowest income communities of color, the elderly, high school students, and the disabled. People dependent on public transit for their transportation needs suffer dilapidated buses, long waits, longer rides, poor connections, service cuts, overcrowding, and daily exposure to some of the worst tail-pipe toxins.


The movement for first-class, regional transportation systems that give priority to the transitdependent requires the mobilization of those excluded and marginalized from politics-as-usual, and will challenge the pro-corporate consensus. Equity demands a mass movement of funds from the highway and rail interests to bus systems, from suburban commuters, corporate developers, and rail contractors to the urban working class of color. Such a transformation will not happen—cannot happen— until a mass movement of the transit-dependent is built from the bottom up.

A Transit Strategy for the Transit-Dependent
In 1993, the Labor/Community Strategy Center (LCSC) in Los Angeles founded the Bus Riders Union (BRU)—now the largest multi-racial grassroots transportation group in the U.S.—with more than 3,000 members representing the roughly 400,000 daily bus riders. The BRU’s 12 years of organizing, significant policy and legal victories, and analytical and theoretical expertise can be used as a resource for the urgent work of mass transit reconstruction in U.S. urban communities.

The needs and the leadership capacity of the urban working class of color must play a central role in developing sustainable communities. We must aim to: reduce suburban sprawl; promote ecological and environmental public health; create non-racist public policy; and focus on the transportation needs of society’s most oppressed and exploited. The needs of the working class and communities of color are both an end in themselves and an essential building block of any effective organizing plan.

The transit-dependent are defined as those who depend on public transportation for their mobility and personal viability because of income (unable to afford the purchase or maintenance of a car), age (too young or too old to drive), or disability. It is the lowwage workers, the people of color, the elderly, the high school students, and the disabled who must be at the center of any viable transit strategy.

The deterioration of urban public transportation is racially coded and must be addressed with an explicitly anti-racist perspective. In every major urban area in the United States, the low-wage workforce is at the center of the region’s political economy—the domestic, department store, convenience store, electronic assembly, garment, hotel, and restaurant workers, the security guards, and the street vendors. These workers often have children, rent apartments rather than own homes, use public transportation, and have family incomes of $15,000 to $20,000 a year. Everything they do—transporting children to and from schools and childcare facilities; going to work; looking for work; attending community colleges; even enjoying modest forms of recreation— depends upon a viable public transportation system.

Public Health vs. Culture of the Automobile
Any serious movement that prioritizes public health over corporate profit, especially with regard to toxins and air pollution, must draw some very radical political and policy conclusions. As Barry Commoner, the noted environmental scientist, observed, the only effective way to radically reduce airborne toxins is to ban them before they are produced.

With regard to the internal combustion engine and the auto industry, it would be best if there were the most stringent restrictions on auto emissions, combined with some radical restrictions on auto use. The problem is that there can be no effective mass movement to drastically reduce fossil fuel and automobile usage until there is a well-developed public transportation system. This brings us up against the legendary automobile/highway lobby, and something else: the deeply ingrained culture of the automobile, which cuts across every social and economic class in this society, not just the white, middle-class suburbanites.

Unfortunately, the car culture has won the hearts and minds of many low-income people, including Blacks and Latinos. Given the centuries of housing segregation and discrimination, it is not surprising that a fancy car has become one of the few attainable symbols of status and upward mobility in communities of color. This cultural attachment can only be challenged if the public transportation system can at least meet the people’s transit needs as efficiently as the car.

Public Health vs. Corporate Science
If organizers are indeed successful in using public health arguments to challenge the cultural obsession with the automobile, we will still be faced with overcoming the corporate counter-attack on public health science. In the debate about air toxins, corporate ‘scientists’ have shown themselves to be masters of the art of obfuscation and sometimes, outright lying.

It is generally agreed that most criteria pollutants and air toxins take years, or even decades, to generate cancers and other diseases. But that is all the more reason to restrict their production in the present. However, organizers from impacted communities have found that approaching government regulatory agencies, such as the Air Quality Management District of Southern California (AQMD), and talking to them in common-sense public health terms— “your chemicals are killing me,” or “my daughter cannot breathe from the asthma,” or “if you know a chemical is carcinogenic, why do you produce it in the first place?”—gets them nowhere.

The offending industries characteristically respond with a battery of scientists and lawyers arguing for multi-causality, meaning that the cancer or leukemia could have been caused by the chemical plant in question, or an oil refinery down the road, or any of the many known carcinogens in our air and water. They may have debates about actual exposure levels (“We acknowledge emitting known carcinogens into the air but we cannot be sure that your daughter was directly exposed to those emissions”) and dosage levels—reflected in parts per million and even cancers per million! They may acknowledge the link between benzene and leukemia, but will deny that the benzene emissions from their cars is sufficient to cause leukemia, just as cigarette companies argued that their products are neither addictive nor deadly. To spend a day dealing with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the AQMD, or any other similar agency, is to feel a sense of futility and exhaustion. It is as if the people are on trial and have to carry the burden of proof even as the system asserts that known polluters and carcinogens are innocent until proven guilty.

Over the years, however, we have found that public health education is a powerful organizing tool. Low-income residents come to enjoy the science as much as anyone else, and they enjoy challenging corporate science. They understand that a social movement, while rooted in passion and direct experience, can be greatly strengthened by a little knowledge of anatomy, physiology, toxicology, and epidemiology. The victory of the Bus Riders Union in forcing the MTA to abide by its clean-fuel standards and drop its plans to purchase diesel buses is a positive example of grassroots science defeating corporate science in the arena of public policy and public debate.

Transportation Justice Demands
A comprehensive list of demands for a renewed transportation justice movement will be long, but following the successful Future of Transportation organizing conference in Los Angeles this year, we currently see the following as central to any serious movement.

Low-priced public transportation—24/7
A common complaint across the country is that urban and rural bus systems are coming undone at the seams but the government continues to fund the insatiable highway lobby (80% of all federal funds) and boondoggle rail projects. At $200 million per mile for ‘light rail’ and $350 million per mile for subways—in construction costs alone—these projects generate constant budget deficits. This in turn leads to massive fare increases and service cuts in urban and rural bus systems all over the United States and Canada, forcing low-income people to fall back on unreliable, gas-guzzling, often uninsured cars. What is needed instead is aptly expressed by the chant: “We need a 50-cent fare/and $20 passes/mass transportation/ belongs to the masses.”

A clean fuel, bus-centered mass transit system
As a model, the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union plan proposes the deployment of 600 buses and 50 community jitneys, covering hundreds of miles and hundreds of thousands of riders, for a $1.5 billion price tag, which includes capital and operating costs. This plan is in sharp contrast to the typical ‘light rail’, which covers six to eight miles and serves no more than 15,000 riders for the same price. The efforts of the rail lobbyists to characterize the Riders Union and other civil rights groups as “narrow and protest-based” (read Black, Latino, Asian, female, and low-income, as opposed to the white, suburban, privileged, car-riding constituencies who supposedly embody the “broader” view) can easily be repudiated. Plus, a growing number of transit planners are coming around to accepting the idea that replacing automobiles on the existing highways and surface streets with a clean fuel, bus-centered, rapid transit system, is the way to go.

Paying attention to dirty-atsource clean fuels
As Clayton Thomas-Muller from the Indigenous Environmental Network has pointed out, many clean fuels, such as compressed natural gas and hydrogen, are very dirty at the source. There are growing violations of Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and impacts on public health from coal mining, oil exploration, the extraction of natural gas, and other ‘dirty-atsource’ energy schemes. We need less energy altogether and a focus on truly renewable energy sources.

We need to place public health and the survival of Third World nations at the center of our U.S. environmental organizing work. The U.S., with just six percent of the world’s population, consumes and abuses 25 percent of the world’s resources. We need a radical restriction of this toxic lifestyle, beginning with a major challenge to the auto industry. As nations around the world face devastating extreme weather events, we have to take this message to the Black, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Indigenous communities, as well as the white middle-class and workingclass communities: the future of the planet is at stake.

Mass Transit: The Heart of the New Revolution
Transportation is a great multifaceted issue around which to build a movement, because it touches so many aspects of people’s lives. Transportation affects public health, access to jobs, childcare, housing, medical care, education, and more. It is inextricably tied to the history of the civil rights movement now and in the past. Now it has taken on a life and death urgency because of the public health crisis and global warming brought on by the automobile. Public transportation can be a great unifier—bringing together people of all races and classes who seek a saner, healthier world in which wars for oil and energy are exposed and opposed.

Eric Mann, Kikanza Ramsey, Barbara Lott-Holland, and Geoff Ray are members of the Labor/Community Strategy Center.

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Moving the Movement for Transportation Justice   |     Vol. 12 No. 1    |      Winter 2005       |       Credits


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All Transit Is Not Created Equal

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Follow the transportation dollars and one can tell who is important and who is not. While many barriers to equitable transportation for low-income and people of color have been removed, much more needs to be done. Transportation spending programs do not benefit all populations equally. The lion's share of transportation dollars is spent on roads, while urban transit systems are often left in disrepair. Nationally, 80 percent of all surface transportation funds is earmarked for highways and 20 percent for public transportation. Generally, states spend less than 20 percent of federal transportation funding on transit.[1] Some 30 states even restrict the use of the gas tax revenue—the single largest source of transportation funding—to funding highway programs only.[2]

In the real world, all transit is not created equal. In general, most transit systems tend to take their low-income “captive riders” for granted and concentrate their fare and service policies on attracting middle-class and affluent riders.[3] Hence, transit subsidies disproportionately favor suburban transit and expensive new commuter bus and rail lines that serve wealthier “discretionary riders.”

What We Pay
On average, Americans spend 19 cents out of every dollar earned on transportation—an expense second only to housing. Transportation costs range from 17.1 percent in the Northeast to 20.8 percent in the South, and eat up more than 40 percent of the takehome pay of the nation’s poorest. This is an especially significant statistic for African American households, which typically earn 35 percent less than the average white household.[4]

How We Get Around
The private automobile is still the most dominant mode of transportation for every segment of the American population and provides enormous employment access advantages to its owner. Automobile ownership is almost universal in the United States with 91.7 percent of households owning at least one vehicle. According to the 2001 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) released in 2003, 87.6 percent of white people, 83.1 percent of Asians and Hispanics, and 78.9 percent of African Americans rely on the private car to get around.[5] Clearly then, a lack of car ownership—especially among low-income people of color— combined with an inadequate public transit service in many central cities and metropolitan regions only serve to exacerbate social, economic, and racial isolation.

Living near a seven-lane freeway is not much of a benefit for someone who does not have access to a car. Nationally, only seven percent of white households do not own a car, compared to 24 percent of African American households, 17 percent of Latino households, and 13 percent of Asian American households. African Americans are almost six times as likely as whites to use transit to get around. In urban areas, African Americans and Latinos comprise over 54 percent of transit users (62 percent of bus riders, 35 percent of subway riders, and 29 percent of commuter rail riders).

How Race Defines Space
In 2000, population in the U.S. was 69 percent European American, 12 percent African American, 12.5 percent Hispanic, and 3.6 percent Asian American. In the nation's 100 largest cities, people of color comprise nearly half of the population.

In the major metropolitan areas where most African Americans, Latinos, and Asians live, segregation levels changed little between 1990 and 2000. Black-White segregation is still significantly higher than segregation levels for other ethnic groups. The average white American lived in a neighborhood that was 80 percent white, eight percent Hispanic, seven percent Black, and four percent Asian. Similarly, the typical African American lived in a neighborhood that was 51 percent Black, 33 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic, and three percent Asian.[6]

Three-fifths of all Blacks live in ten states—New York, California, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina, Maryland, Michigan, and Louisiana—and nearly 55 percent of them live in the South. The Northeast and Midwest each had 19 percent of the Black population in 2000, and the West had about 10 percent. Over 88 percent of Blacks live in metropolitan areas and 53.1 percent live inside central cities.

For the nation’s 36.4 million African Americans,[7] race clearly underlies and intersects with other factors in explaining the socio-spatial layout of most of our cities, suburbs, and metropolitan regions, and a host of other quality-of-life indicators, such as the location of job centers, housing patterns and land use, the quality of air, transportation, and schools, streets and highway configuration, commercial and business development, and access to health care.

When Jobs Go Suburban
Central cities contain 20 percent of all workers and account for 69 percent of all transit use. On the other hand, suburbs account for half of all workers but generate only 29 percent of all transit trips. Nationwide, nearly 60 percent of transit riders are served by the ten largest urban transit systems and the remaining 40 percent by the other 5,000 transit systems.

In recent years, many jobs have shifted to the suburbs and communities where public transportation is inadequate or nonexistent. The exodus of lowskilled jobs to the suburbs disproportionately affects central city residents, particularly people of color, who often face a more limited choice of housing location and transportation in growing areas. Between 1990 and 1997, jobs on the fringe of metropolitan areas grew by 19 percent versus four percent in core areas.

The suburban share of the metropolitan office space is 69.5 percent in Detroit, 65.8 percent in Atlanta, 57.7, percent in Washington DC, 57.4 percent in Miami, and 55.2 percent in Philadelphia. Getting to these suburban jobs without a car is next to impossible. It is no accident that Detroit leads in suburban “office sprawl.” Detroit is also the most segregated big city in the United States and the only major metropolitan area without a regional transit system. Only about 2.4 percent of metropolitan Detroiters use transit to get to work.

The Worst Polluters of All
Transportation-related sources account for over 30 percent of the primary smog-forming pollutants emitted and 28 percent of the fine particulates. Vehicle emissions are the main reason why 121 Air Quality Districts in the U.S. are in noncompliance with the 1970 Clean Air Act's National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Over 140 million Americans, 25 percent of them children, live, work, and play in areas where air quality does not meet national standards.[8] Emissions from cars, trucks, and buses cause 25 to 51 percent of the air pollution in the nation's non-attainment areas. Transportation related emissions also generate more than a quarter of the greenhouse gases.[9]

Improvements in transportation investments and air quality are of special significance to low-income persons and people of color who are more likely to live in areas with reduced air quality. National Argonne Laboratory researchers discovered that 57 percent of whites, 65 percent of African Americans, and 80 percent of Latinos lived in the 437 counties that failed to meet at least one of the EPA ambient air quality standards.[10] A 2000 study from the American Lung Association shows that children of color are disproportionately represented in areas with high ozone levels.[11] Additionally, 61.3 percent of Black children, 69.2 percent of Hispanic children, and 67.7 percent of Asian American children live in areas that exceed the 0.08 parts per million ozone standard, while only 50.8 percent of white children live in such areas.

Asthma—The Price of Pollution
Air pollution from vehicle emissions causes significant amounts of illness, hospitalization, and premature deaths. A 2002 study published in The Lancet shows a strong causal link between ozone and asthma.[12] Ground-level ozone may exacerbate health problems such as asthma, nasal congestion, throat irritation, respiratory tract inflammation, reduced resistance to infection, changes in cell function, loss of lung elasticity, chest pains, lung scarring, formation of lesions within the lungs, and premature aging of lung tissues.[13]

Air pollution claims 70,000 lives a year, nearly twice the number killed in traffic accidents.[14] A 2001 Center for Disease Control report, “Creating a Healthy Environment: The Impact of the Built Environment on Health,” points a finger at transportation and sprawl as major health threats.[15] Although it is difficult to put a single price tag on the cost of air pollution, estimates range from $10 billion to $200 billion a year.[16] Asthma is the number one reason for childhood emergency room visits in most major cities in the country. The hospitalization rate for African Americans is three to four times the rate for whites and they are three times more likely than whites to die from asthma.[17] Moreover, Blacks and Hispanics now comprise 52.6 percent of the 43 million Americans without health insurance. Nearly one-half of working-age Hispanics (46 percent) lacked health insurance for all or part of the year prior to the survey, as did one-third of African Americans (30 percent). In comparison, one-fifth of whites and Asian Americans (21 and 20 percent, respectively) in the 18 to 64 age group lacked coverage for all or part of the year.[18]

Energy Security or ‘War for Oil’?
Today, transportation accounts for about half of the world oil demand, and road vehicles are responsible for over 70 percent of transportation energy consumption. In addition to the health and environmental reasons for moving beyond oil to more secure and sustainable alternative fuels, there are compelling energy security and economic strength reasons to invest in clean fuels technology.

The United States accounts for almost one-third of the world’s vehicles, with over 217 million cars, buses, and trucks that consume 67 percent of the nation’s oil. Transportation-related oil consumption in the U.S. has risen 43 percent since 1975. With just five percent of the world’s population, Americans consume more than 25 percent of the oil produced worldwide.[19] More importantly, with almost 60 percent of our oil coming from foreign sources, ‘war for oil’ looms as a constant scenario, with the burdens of war falling heaviest on the poor, the working class, and the people of color who make up a disproportionately large share of the all-volunteer military. (Although African Americans represent only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 20 percent of the war dead in the current conflict with Iraq.)[20]

Seeking an End to Transportation Racism
Discrimination still places an extra “tax” on poor people and people of color who need safe, affordable, and accessible transportation. Many of the nation’s transportation-related disparities have accumulated over a century, and it will likely take years, great effort, and plenty of resources to dismantle the deeply ingrained legacy of transportation racism.

The effort has begun with grassroots leaders from New York City to Los Angeles demanding an end to transportation racism. They are spreading the word that transportation dollars are aiding and abetting the flight of people, jobs, and development to the suburban fringe. They are fighting for affordable fares, representation on transportation boards and commissions, and their fair share of transit services, bus shelters, handicapped accessible vehicles, and other transit-related amenities. Some groups are waging grassroots campaigns to get “dirty diesel” buses and bus depots out of their neighborhoods. Others are struggling to get public transit systems linked to job and economic activity centers, and to get workers a livable wage so that they, too, can have transportation options.

Robert D. Bullard is the Ware Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. He is the author of fourteen books, his most recent work being Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity (South End Press, 2004).

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  1. Thomas W. Sanchez, Rich Stolz, and Jacinta S. Ma, Moving to Equity: Addressing Inequitable Effects of Transportation Policies on Minorities. Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University (2003).
  2. R. Puentes and R. Prince, Fueling Transportation Finance: A Primer on the Gas Tax. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution (2003).
  3. Mark Garret and Brian Taylor, “Reconsidering Social Equity in Public Transit,” Berkeley Planning Journal 13 (1999): 6-27.
  4. G. Scott Thomas, “Racial Income Gap is More Like a Chasm,” Business First of Buffalo (December 16, 2002)
  5. John Pucher and John L. Renne, “Socioeconomics of Urban Travel: Evidence from the 2001 NHTS,” Transportation Quarterly 57 (Summer 2003): 49-77.
  6. John R. Logan, Separate and Unequal: The Neighborhood Gap of Blacks and Hispanics in Metropolitan America. Albany, NY: Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research, University of Albany (October 13, 2002).
  7. U.S. Census Bureau, Facts for Feature: African American History Month, February 2002 (January 17, 2002), found at
  8. American Lung Association, State of the Air 2002 Report, Executive Summary.
  9. “Statement of James S. Cannon on Behalf of INFORM, Inc.” Testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, Washington, DC (7/10/01).
  10. Dee R. Wernette and Leslie A. Nieves, “Breathing polluted air: Minorities are disproportionately exposed,” EPA Journal 18 (March/April, 1992): 16-17.
  11. American Lung Association, “Fact Sheet: Children and Air Pollution,” (September 2000) found at Accessed December 1, 2002.
  12. McConnell, R, Berhane, K, Gilliland, F, London, SJ, Islam, T, Gauderman, WJ, Avol, E, Margolis, HG, and Peters, JM, “Asthma in Exercising Children Exposed to Ozone: A Cohort Study. The Lancet, 359 (2002): 386-391.
  13. U.S. EPA, “Review of National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone, Assessment of Scientific and Technical Information,” OAQPS Staff Paper. Research Triangle Park, NC: EPA, 1996; Ozkaynk, et al. “Ambient Ozone Exposure and Emergency Hospital Admissions and Emergency Room Visits for Respiratory Problems in Thirteen U.S. Cities,” in American Lung Association, Breathless: Air Pollution and Hospital Admissions/Emergency Room Visits in 13 Cities. Washington, DC (1996).
  14. Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts, “Air Pollution Fatalities Now Exceed Traffic Fatalities 3 to 1,” Earth Policy Institute (September 17, 2002),
  15. Richard J. Jackson and Chris Kochtitzky, Creating a healthy environment: The impact of the built environment on public health. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control (2001).
  16. D. Bollier. How smart growth can stop sprawl: A briefing guide for funders. Washington, DC: Essential Books, (1998).
  17. Centers for Disease Control. Death rates from 72 selected causes by year, age groups, race, and sex: United States 1979-98. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics (2000).
  18. Karen Scott Collins, Dora L. Hughes, Michelle M. Doty, Brett L. Ives, Jennifer N. Edwards, and Katie Tenney, Diverse Communities, Common Concerns: Assessing Health Care Quality for Minority Americans. A report from The Commonwealth Fund (March 2002) found on the Fund website at
  19. Joanna D. Underwood, “Weaning Oil Dependence Helps World Security,” The Earth Times (November 8, 2001).
  20. David R. Segal, “Alumni Perspective: U.S. Forces in Iraq—Whose Lives were on the Line,” Binghamton Alumni Journal 11 (Summer 2003) found on the State University of New York at Binghamton website at; Thomas Hargrove “Conflict with Iraq: Study Shows 20 Percent of War Deaths are Blacks,” Naples Daily News (April 12, 2003) found at
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Energy Exploitation on Sacred Native Lands

Courtesy of the Indegenous Environmental Network

The link between unsustainable energy consumption in the Americas and the destruction and desecration of Indigenous homelands and culture is undeniable. As Indigenous peoples, we reject the proposition that our traditional lands should be sacrificed at the altar of irresponsible energy policies.

Indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada, and throughout the Americas have experienced systematic and repeated violations by oil, gas, mining, and energy industries of our treaty rights, particularly those that protect our traditional lands. Oil and gas developments have consistently violated our human rights and caused unconscionable damage to traditional territories that have sustained us since time immemorial.

In the United States, in contrast to other regions of the world, about 2/3 of all oil use is for transportation. (In most of the rest of the world, oil is more commonly used for space heating and power generation than for transportation.) Obviously, a transportation and energy policy that is so heavily dependent upon fossil fuel is unsustainable. Fossil fuels have a destructive life cycle, which encompasses extraction, transportation of these raw materials via pipeline, truck, and tanker to refineries, and the processing and shipment of the final product.

For the Indigenous peoples historically traumatized by colonial conquest and subsequent treaty violations, an energy policy dependent upon fossil fuels creates yet another cycle of destruction characterized by the devastation of sacred sites, the drying up of aquifers, micro-climate changes, and the poisoning of our air and soil with toxins.

With the birth of the environmental justice movement over twenty years ago, Indigenous grassroots activist groups, traditional societies, and organizations, such as the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), answered a call to action in support of indigenous communities disproportionately targeted for energy resource extraction and development. These groups have recently developed campaign strategies to help tribal community organizers working to either halt energy resource development on Native lands altogether, or force it to be more environmentally and culturally responsible. The strategies often involve providing long-term support to grassroots leaders as they pressure their tribal governments to make informed choices about the direction tribal economies ought to take, especially in regard to dependency on a fossil fuel energy paradigm.

Most consumers in the United States are unaware that the price they pay for gasoline does not reflect the cost of the devastation caused by the oil and gas extraction and refining process to the livelihoods and economies of Indigenous and other low-income communities. Most U.S. consumers simply take what they need to feed their addiction to energy and ignore the disproportionately large price that Indigenous and other low-income communities pay for a fossil fuel–based energy policy. Nor do they fully comprehend the true implications of this policy in terms of catastrophic global warming and severe climatic changes.

Natural Gas: Not an “Alternative” Fuel
Despite the failure of the Bush administration to endorse the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon dioxide releases, many cities are adopting their own standards for good climate stewardship, fuel efficiency initiatives, and energy conservation measures. Some cities with diesel-fueled transportation systems are seeking more environmentally friendly alternatives, such as compressed natural gas buses, or light rail and bus systems that run on electricity. This could do wonders for reducing carbon dioxide, other toxic emissions, and smog created by fossil fuel–dependent transit systems. These changes would be first steps towards addressing the environmental injustices experienced by low-income and urban Indigenous communities in our inner cities.

However, we often fail to take into account the fact that mass transit systems powered by electricity are connected to a grid that gets its power from the burning of fossil fuels. In short, America’s reliance on centralized power for heating, transportation, and water services only results in more pressure on Indigenous peoples and our lands.

Contrary to corporate claims and media spin, there is no such thing as clean coal or clean natural gas. And despite the new technologies around cleaner, coal-fired power plants and cleaner-burning natural gas options, the fossil fuel industry and its economic system is steering us towards catastrophic environmental destruction.

With 35 percent of the United States’ fossil fuel located either directly on or near Indigenous lands, we are the target of a renewed form of colonization characterized by largely unrestrained corporate exploitation of Native lands and peoples, resulting in ecological devastation and gross violations of human rights. An apt metaphor for the current situation is the period, about 300 years ago, when Jesuit Priests in black robes came into Indigenous communities promising a better quality of life through Christianity. At the time, church and state were virtually inseparable. Today, the same may be said of the relationship between states and corporations, with capitalism as the new religion. The Jesuit Priests have been replaced by corporate Chief Executive Officers in black suits who come into our homelands promising our communities and tribal leaders a better life through industrialization. What results is a change in our attitudes towards the sacredness of Mother Earth.

The chain of oil production, from exploration and transport to refining and distribution, is also a chain of destruction. First, forests are cut for seismic exploration, holes are drilled, and sludge pits filled. Next, the refining process releases deadly toxins into the air. Finally, vehicles contribute to smog and pollution. These environmental costs go largely unaccounted for, conveniently masking the actual costs people in the United States and around the world pay for profits amassed by a few. In recent years, Indigenous communities in North America have begun to document the environmental destruction caused by energy industries, in an attempt to expose the real price of oil.

The burning of oil, gas, and coal, known collectively as fossil fuels, is the primary source of humaninduced climate change. By burning these fuels, humans are releasing carbon that has been sequestered in the ground for hundreds of millions of years and are emitting carbon dioxide into the planet’s thin and chemically volatile atmosphere at an unprecedented rate. Climate change, if not halted, will result in increased frequency and severity of storms, floods, drought and water shortages, the spread of disease, increased hunger, displacement and mass migration of people, and social conflict. The homelands of the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic regions are literally melting away before their eyes.

The humans of Mother Earth have too much reliance on fossil fuels. To halt the damage resulting from their use, the industrialized countries must find more ecologically sound energy sources that don’t threaten the delicate balance that sustains all life. The people of the world need to re-evaluate their energy consumption patterns and embrace a transition away from dirty and destructive fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. Sustainable energy has a minimal impact on the healthy functioning of the local and global ecosystems. It is energy with very few negative social, cultural, health, and environmental impacts, and which can be supplied continuously to future generations on Earth.

Examples of Energy Exploitation

Alaska North Slope: Cumulative Impact
A classic example of the destructive nature of oil and gas development may be seen in its impacts on Alaska Native peoples and the sensitive Arctic ecosystem. Alaska’s North Slope industrial complex is larger than Rhode Island and emits more carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide than the entire metropolitan Washington D.C. area annually. After 35 years of oil and gas development in the North Slope, only one percent of the proposed six billion dollar remediation has been completed.

Powder River Montana: Coal Bed Methane
Indigenous tribal nations in Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Oklahoma are currently being pursued by the coal bed methane (CBM) industry promoting CBM development as an economic solution for tribes. This fossil fuel raises serious concerns about the protection of surface and ground water supplies, irrigation systems, wildlife, and the health and welfare of Indigenous communities, plus, the social and cultural impacts.

CBM development requires miles of roads, pipelines and power lines, massive reservoirs, and numerous noise-polluting compressor stations. Montana, for example, can expect 10,000 to 26,000 CBM wells at its Powder River Basin. A development of this size would also include 9,000 miles of new roads, 28,000 miles of right-of-way for power lines and pipelines, up to 4.7 million acres of land, and 4,000 high sodium wastewater impoundments. These wells are in addition to the 50,000 expected on Wyoming’s portion of the Powder River Basin. Much of this rapid expansion of the gas industry in America is a result of industry and government having known for some time that global oil production would peak, circa 2004.


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Canada and Alaska: Natural Gas Pipelines
Currently there are two mega-infrastructure projects being pushed hard by governments and energy corporations in Canada and the United States—the Alaska and McKenzie Valley natural gas pipelines. The projects are attempting to bring millions of cubic feet of natural gas from the north slope of Alaska and the northern region of Canada’s Northwest Territories to consumers in the lower 49 states of the U.S. The suspicion is that both these projects will attempt to link up with the booming Alberta tar sands development, which is believed to hold roughly 1.7 billion barrels of shale oil. It is the intention of U.S. and Canadian energy companies to expand the oil sands development into a multi-region operation capable of providing the U.S. with enough oil and gas to diversify its energy supply and further solidify its energy security. This cannot happen without an energy source large enough to support the separation of oil from the sand deposits. Hence, the 40 billion dollar price tag for these projects.


Fort McMurry, Alberta, Canada: Tar Sands
The Dene are the Indigenous people of Alberta and the Northwest Territories of Canada. They have had their lands fragmented and destroyed by the tar sands development—one of the most energyintensive oil extraction processes. Sand is mined and oil separated from it using fresh water from rivers and lakes. The waste ponds created by this toxic process covers vast tracks of land in the heart of the Dene territory and can even be seen from outer space. Most of the oil taken from Dene lands is sold directly to the U.S. market.

Fort Berthold North Dakota: Oil Refineries
The Fort Berthold Environmental Concerns Committee (North Dakota), a tribal grassroots group of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara), is trying to stop a proposed oil refinery and production facility on the Fort Berthold reservation. One of two refinery proposals in the U.S. this project, if approved, would produce fuel piped directly from the Alberta oil sands with severe economic, environmental, social and spiritual consequences for the Affiliated Tribes.

Clayton Thomas-Muller is a Cree Indian and a Native energy organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network.

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We are the target of a renewed form of colonization by largely unrestrained corporate exploitation of Native lands and peoples.

End Race Discrimination in Public Transport Today

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On December 1, 2005 freedom-loving people throughout the country will celebrate an act of political resistance. On that day, fifty years ago in Montgomery, Alabama, an African American department store seamstress and civil rights activist refused to follow the bus driver’s order to let a white passenger take her seat. She did not move from her place on the Cleveland Avenue bus until the police came to arrest her. In an interview during the boycott, she said, “I had been pushed as far I could stand to be pushed.”

Rosa Parks’ heroic act sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped launch the Civil Rights Movement. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called a meeting at the Holt Baptist Church, Montgomery’s African American community filled the hall to overflowing. A young preacher, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., urged the crowd to boycott Montgomery’s buses to protest the arrest and to fight against the racist practices of the bus company. An aroused community came together to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).

The boycott began on the cold, cloudy morning of December 5, 1955. African Americans walked to work, to school, to church, to meetings. No one rode the buses. A few with cars, arranged rides for friends and strangers, coordinating carpools through the MIA. Black taxi drivers cut prices to ten cents a ride, the equivalent of a bus fare.

As the weeks wore on, the white establishment— aghast at the economic clout of the missing black passengers—fought back with harassment and threats. Carpool drivers and people waiting for rides were arrested for loitering. Black cab drivers were threatened with fines.

When the arrests and insults could not break the boycott, white supremacists switched to terror and violence. African American pedestrians were physically assaulted and pelted with racist insults and threats. On January 30, 1956, Dr. King’s home was firebombed.

For more than a year, the African American community of Montgomery walked. Their footsteps resonated throughout the country, all the way to the United States Supreme Court. On November 13, 1956 the high court ruled that Alabama’s segregation laws were illegal. A month later, federal injunctions forced the city and the bus company to comply with the Supreme Court ruling.

Rosa Parks’ courageous step ignited a movement that successfully challenged legal segregation in public transportation, in schools, at lunch counters, public restrooms, and swimming pools. How tragic, that the heroism of Rosa Parks is being celebrated at a time when stark inequality based on race has again been laid bare in this country.

Just a few months shy of the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as forecasters warned of Hurricane Katrina’s deadly approach, tens of thousands of African American residents of New Orleans—many of whom lacked vehicles to ride to safety—were abandoned by our government. Officials were aware that an estimated 134,000 residents of New Orleans—including 35 percent of the black population and 59 percent of poor black households—did not have transportation and would not be able to evacuate when Katrina struck. Yet, our government did nothing to provide emergency transportation. After the hurricane, many waited days for assistance to arrive. Survivors were corralled into the Superdome and the convention center and even pushed off a freeway bridge back into New Orleans by Sheriff’s deputies from a neighboring white parish. The desperate images of stranded families with lethal waters roiling around them shocked and dismayed us with the same intensity as images of the police dogs and fire hoses assaulting black protestors during the Civil Rights Movement.

The lack of transportation for the poorest victims of Hurricane Katrina is a stark reminder of this nation’s racist inequity. Over one-third of New Orleans’ African Americans do not own a car. In cities across the nation, African Americans and Latinos comprise over 54 percent of transit users. Nationally, African Americans are almost six times as likely as whites to use public transit. Not surprisingly, public transportation receives a fraction of the government funding spent on highways and roads. And this difference in funding is systematic, class-based, and race-based.

Fifty years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Alabama Department of Transportation, with a transportation budget of $1.3 billion, provides no public transit funding. Bus service in Montgomery has been cut by 70 per cent; fares have doubled and student and senior discounts have been eliminated. In Alabama and 23 other states, it has actually been made illegal to use state gas taxes for transit. Cities across the country have slashed the transit systems that serve minority neighborhoods.

Bay Area Lawsuit
In the Bay Area, a federal civil rights lawsuit is pending in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, charging the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) with supporting a “separate and unequal transit system” that discriminates against poor transit riders of color.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of African American and Latino AC Transit riders, states that public monies are spent to expand a “state-of-the-art rail system”—BART and Caltrain—for predominantly white, relatively affluent communities, at the expense of a shrinking bus system, AC Transit, for lowincome people of color. [See article on page 20.]

Oakland resident Sylvia Darensburg is the lead plaintiff in the case. Like many AC Transit riders, Darensburg depends completely on the bus service for all her family’s transportation needs. Like Rosa Parks, she has been pushed too far and she is ready to fight back—by challenging discrimination with the support of community organizations, civil rights advocates, and public interest lawyers.

While BART and Caltrain riders have historically enjoyed increasing service, AC Transit riders have suffered service cuts, including cuts to critical evening service, which for many AC Transit riders provides the only means available for commuting to and from work or school.

“Fifty years after Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, poor people of color are still fighting for a seat on the bus,” says Darensburg.

In Montgomery, Cleveland Avenue has been renamed Rosa Parks Avenue. But as the drama of death, destruction, and discrimination in the wake of Hurricane Katrina made visible to all—there must be many more changes before we can fulfill Rosa Parks’ legacy.

Eva Paterson is the president of the Equal Justice Society a civil rights organization based in San Francisco, California.

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Bay Area Transit--Separate and Unequal

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When the late Rosa Parks protested an apartheid bus system 50 years ago, transit riders in Montgomery, Alabama, whether black or white, poor or well-off, all rode the same bus. Today’s segregation, while less obvious, is in some ways more pernicious. Affluent whites have left urban bus systems the way most left New Orleans on the eve of hurricane Katrina: in their cars. Of those who commute on public transit, most now ride deluxe rail systems, leaving people of color to rely on a second-class and deteriorating bus system.

This is the scenario many low-income communities of color face in the San Francisco Bay Area, where substandard bus service operates as a “separate and unequal” transit system. Darensburg v. Metropolitan Transportation Commission, filed in April, 2005 by East Bay bus riders and civil rights advocates against the region’s transportation planning agency, challenges today’s pervasive and insidious form of discrimination.

The suit takes it name from Sylvia Darensburg, who lives transit inequity every day. An African-American mother of three living in East Oakland, Darensburg fights her way out of poverty by working days and attending college classes at night. Since she cannot afford to own a car, she is entirely dependent on public transit provided by the AC Transit bus system. In the 1970s, Darensburg remembers bus service that was reliable, cheap, and safe. Over the intervening decades, that system has spiraled downward. Inadequate bus service today severely limits Sylvia’s access to many higher-paying jobs that are inaccessible by public transit. Even reaching jobs a few miles away in downtown Oakland is an arduous journey: She rides two buses with long waits for each, a trip that can take an hour each way.

Getting to college classes can take even longer, due to the elimination of bus routes and evening service. And she must walk up to 12 blocks at night to get home from the nearest bus stop in her neighborhood. Even routine errands like grocery shopping are physically draining experiences. “Every day, from the time I get up, I plan to get the bus,” Darensburg says. “This affects your physical health.”

Since most school districts in the East Bay do not provide yellow school bus transportation, thousands of low-income youth also rely on the bus on a daily basis to get to and from school. On top of reliability, affordability is also an issue for many of these youth. In a recent survey of Oakland and Berkeley students, 61 percent said they skip lunch to pay for the bus ride home.

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The hardship and frustration that Darensburg and these youth face each day is shared by tens of thousands of low-income African American, Latino, and Asian residents, including seniors and people with disabilities, who rely on bus service provided by AC Transit. As California’s largest bus-only operator, AC Transit provides service to many communities with high poverty rates, running buses from North Richmond through Oakland and into southern Alameda County. Nearly 80 percent of AC Transit’s riders are people of color, and over 70 percent have incomes below $30,000. Nearly 60 percent are, like Darensburg, entirely transit dependent: They have no means of transportation other than public transit to get to essential destinations, such as jobs, school, grocery stores, and social services. Many of those who do have cars own older vehicles that they cannot afford to operate and maintain on a regular basis.

Despite the urgent needs of AC Transit’s overwhelmingly minority ridership, the region’s transportation planning agency, MTC, has continuously under-funded AC Transit over a period of decades, causing a precipitous decline in bus service and repeated fare hikes. MTC controls nearly $1 billion annually in federal and state transit dollars, and in turn controls the quantity and quality of public transit services available to communities throughout the region. Rather than prioritize the needs of its most vulnerable transit users, or even operate in accordance with basic principles of cost-effectiveness, MTC has favored costly rail expansions for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and Caltrain. These deluxe commuter rail systems, linking suburbs to major downtown business districts, serve riderships that are disproportionately white and affluent.

Discriminatory Funding
People of color make up two thirds, and whites, a third of all transit users in the Bay Area. But whites make up a disproportionate share of BART and Caltrain passengers: 43 percent and 60 percent, respectively. White rail riders also have significantly higher incomes than AC Transit bus riders: 75 percent of BART riders have incomes over $30,000, and 53 percent of Caltrain riders have incomes over $75,000. In addition, 80 percent of BART riders and 83 percent of Caltrain riders own private automobiles.

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Fully aware of these racial and income disparities, MTC gives rail riders a significantly greater public subsidy for each trip they take than it gives to AC Transit bus riders. AC Transit passengers receive a subsidy of public funds of $2.78 per trip. By contrast, BART riders receive more than double that —$6.14—and Caltrain passengers receive $13.79, nearly five times more than a passenger of AC Transit. As a direct result, service levels on these commuter rail systems have reached an all-time high, while services continually decline, and fares rise, for AC Transit bus riders.

East Bay communities and activists have repeatedly asked MTC to change its inequitable funding practices. In April 1998, Carl Anthony co-founder of Urban Habitat, along with 26 other organizational cosigners, wrote MTC to oppose the agency’s proposed 1998 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). Questioning the mobility benefits that new highway projects would bring people of color, Anthony’s letter urged MTC to conduct a comparative analysis to see how much of its $88 billion in funding would benefit high-income versus low-income communities, or whiter communities versus communities of color. MTC rebuffed the community’s criticism and refused to perform the equity analysis requested by Anthony.

In early 2001, a large group of African-American ministers in North Richmond wrote to MTC seeking equity in the funding between AC Transit and commuter rail services. The ministers pointed out that MTC itself had ranked an AC Transit bus project in the Richmond area of western Contra Costa County, with a population that is 69 percent minority, as the most cost-effective project considered in MTC’s 2001 RTP. This bus initiative would have cost a mere $0.75 per new rider, and served an overwhelmingly low-income community of color. MTC refused to fund this project despite its small price tag. Instead, MTC devoted $2.3 billion to the least cost-effective projects: two commuter rail projects—one for BART and the other for Caltrain—both designed to serve disproportionately white, suburban populations, at a much higher cost per new rider.

In adopting its 2001, Regional Transportation Plan MTC again refused to conduct a comparative analysis of the disparity between the benefits its funding conferred on high-income, whiter transit riders, and those it conferred on low-income riders of color. Indeed, up to the present day, MTC has yet to conduct such an analysis.

In November 2004, MTC was asked to perform just that kind of analysis by its Minority Citizens’ Advisory Committee (MCAC), which adopted a set of simple environmental justice principles. These principles asked MTC to “[c]ollect accurate and current data essential to understanding the presence and extent of inequities in transportation funding based on race and income,” and to “change its investment decisions as necessary to mitigate identified inequities.” MTC has so far failed to adopt, much less implement, these guiding principles. To the contrary, it repeatedly attempted to stonewall MCAC’s efforts by contending that the principles wrongly presumed that inequities existed, and that further study was required “to define ‘inequity.’” At the same time, it aggressively lobbied the MCAC to water down its recommendations.

In April 2005, AC Transit bus riders of color, in coalition with civil rights and labor groups, filed the Darensburg action in federal court. The suit, brought as a class action on behalf of all current and future AC Transit riders of color, seeks to end MTC’s racially discriminatory funding practices. The suit alleges that MTC violates federal and state civil rights laws by channeling funds to benefit predominantly white rail riders at the expense of AC Transit bus riders of color. In addition to plaintiff Sylvia Darensburg, Vivian Hain from East Oakland, and Virginia Martinez from Richmond are individually-named plaintiffs. Two organizational plaintiffs have also joined the suit: Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 192. The Darensburg lawsuit is an important tool in the long struggle for equity in Bay Area transportation funding. But that long community struggle demonstrates the essential role that a sustainable grassroots constituency must play in any long-term solution.

The Bay Area must draw lessons from the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union’s (LA BRU) involvement in winning and implementing their lawsuit against the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). After a two-year legal fight, the LA BRU obtained a consent decree in 1996 obligating the MTA to reduce overcrowding on buses, maintain equitable fares between bus and rail, and create a multi-year and county-wide New Service plan to eliminate transit segregation in Los Angeles. But this historic legal victory did not stop MTA from aggressively resisting change. The agency fought the consent decree up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and stubbornly pursued its costly rail projects while simultaneously implementing new rounds of service cuts for bus routes.

MTA’s aggressive tactics have been thwarted thus far by a highly-organized and committed constituency of low-income and minority bus riders who have engaged in massive protests, direct action, and civil disobedience, as well as careful research, analysis and monitoring, to vindicate their legal rights. Their determined effort has ensured that this legal victory bore concrete results: Since 1994, LA BRU, a force of 3,000 dues-paying bus riders, has secured over 2,000 compressed natural gas (CNG) replacement buses, more than 300 new CNG expansion buses, restored Night Owl service from midnight to 5 a.m., and reduced the price for bus passes and fares.

The victorious Bus Riders Union campaign illustrates that bus riders know better than anyone else what inadequacies they are facing, and are best suited to monitor conditions, set priorities, and apply political pressure to hold public agencies accountable. Like the MTA lawsuit, the ultimate success of the Darensburg case, will largely depend on the existence and participation of a sustainable grassroots constituency of bus riders.

Bay Area transit advocates must also draw on the lessons from Montgomery, Alabama. When NAACP lawyers challenging Jim Crow laws brought suit, they acted in a context created by the mobilization of large numbers of people in boycotts, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience. In these earlier struggles, legal strategies were tied to a broad range of other strategies that were primarily spearheaded not by lawyers, but by organized communities. The success of litigation strategies, both in the immediate sense of prevailing in court and in the broader sense of achieving progressive structural change, has always depended on a close link between legal tactics and community mobilization. In instances where inequity is so deeply ingrained and insulated from democratic participation, litigation is often an essential tool to initiate change. But it is organized constituencies that both create the possibility of change and ensure that legal victories are implemented effectively. That is the case today in the East Bay, no less than it was fifty years ago in Montgomery, Alabama. To achieve transportation justice in the Bay Area, we will need the same sort of grassroots coalitions and coordination that were created in 1955.

Guillermo Mayer is an attorney fellow, and Richard Marcantonio is a managing attorney, with the public interest law firm of Public Advocates, Inc., in San Francisco. They serve as co-counsel on the Darensburg case, together with Lieff Cabraser Heiman & Bernstein, Communities for a Better Environment, and Altshuler Berzon Nussbaum & Demain.

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BART, GM and Bechtel: Protecting Property Values in the San Francisco Financial District

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The Bay Area Rapid Transit system, or BART, has always lived a double life, split between its sleek public presentation and its unadvertised purpose. The ad campaigns and lobby efforts supporting the $792 million bond measure of 1962 to finance the system, presented BART as a cure for traffic congestion and air pollution. The engineering reports at the time, however, plainly discussed the need for a rapid transit system not to ease traffic jams, but to protect and enhance downtown San Francisco property values and direct urban development.

BART’s schizophrenia is no accident. The system was created by and for the San Francisco Bay Area’s urban elite class—engineering firms, oil companies, and banks that all profited enormously from BART’s unusual design. And neither the schizophrenia nor the profiteering are matters of history: BART continues to absorb about 80 percent of the Bay Area’s mass transit budget, and its recent San Francisco Airport extension and the proposed San Jose extension follow upon the same split between public perception and private intent. To this day, BART remains a transit system that subsidizes land speculators and the mishaps of engineering firms, reinforces the regional dominance of the automobile, and displaces most of the economic and environmental burdens onto low-income communities of color.

BART was the product of the Bay Area Council (BAC), initially a state-funded program to guide post-war development in the area. BAC formed a private, nonprofit organization in 1945, after its first year, and secured annual $10,000 donations from members, such as Bechtel Corporation, Bank of America, Standard Oil of California, Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern Pacific, U.S. Steel, and American Trust Company.

In 1951, seven years before light rail lines would be removed from the Bay Bridge, BAC formed a committee to study the creation of a rapid transit system for the nine counties of the Bay Area, helping convince the state legislature to create the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission that same year. The BAC guided the rapid transit plan through various research and planning stages, the creation of the San Francisco Bay Area Transit District in 1957, and the 1962 bond campaign that narrowly passed, only after a successful lobby effort to count the vote over the three county area, rather than county by county, and to reduce the necessary overall vote from 66 2/3 percent to 60 percent.

The Disappearance of the Trollies

In the 1930s, General Motors (GM)—then the largest manufacturer of automobiles in the world—began to purchase electric transit systems in major US cities, destroy them and replace them with bus lines. GM formed subsidiaries with other companies with strong incentives for eliminating electric transit, like Greyhound, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, and Standard Oil of California. By the end of the 1940s, GM had bought and scrapped over 100 electric transit systems in 45 cities and put gas-burning GM buses on the streets in their place. By 1955 almost 90 percent of the electric streetcar lines in the United States had been uprooted and eliminated.

GM and its partners were indicted in 1949 on charges of conspiracy to gain control of public transportation systems to destroy competition to their oil, auto, and rubber products and conspiracy to monopolize the sale of those same products. In 1951, the United States Court of Appeals, Senate District, acquitted GM and its partners of the first conspiracy charge and convicted them on the second. The court fined GM $5,000 and GM’s treasurer, who was a principal actor in one of the subsidiary holding companies, the total sum of one U.S. dollar.

GM and its partners’ actions set the stage for a century of transportation policies designed to establish and protect the hegemony of the automobile, and its reliance on oil. From the design of rail mass transit systems to freeway construction, engineering firms, auto manufacturers, and oil companies have used their position to inflate their profits while reinforcing the dominance of the automobile as the nation’s principle form of transit.   

Aiding in BAC’s BART campaign, San Francisco’s Key System of electric streetcars was purchased by the GM-controlled National City Lines in 1946. (See sidebar.) Its conversion to bus lines culminated in 1958, when the rail lines were removed from the Bay Bridge.

Throughout the campaign, BART advocates sold the project to voters as a much-needed relief program for traffic congestion and air pollution. Bechtel led the BAC Board of Trustees at the time and contributed $5 million to a Stanford research team and later $15,000 to the BART campaign. Bechtel joined with Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Hall, and Macdonald, the New York engineering firm brought in by BAC to conduct initial studies, and Tudor Engineering of San Francisco, to capture the design and construction contract in a no-bid process.

Bechtel and BAC sought a publicly funded rapid transit project to provide commuter access from the suburbs into downtown San Francisco and Oakland. Such a rail line would vastly increase the property values in the downtowns, spurring the construction of high-rise office buildings in downtown San Francisco and pushing suburban growth out in the East Bay.

The locations of BART stations, combined with the inflexibility of the system, favor driving to BART, outward urban growth, and above all else, protect the property values of downtown San Francisco real estate. The predominantly African American neighborhoods in San Francisco and Oakland were either cut out or cut in half. Bayview Hunters Point, San Francisco’s largest African American neighborhood, is perhaps the neighborhood with the least access to BART in the entire city.

Community groups in West Oakland and Richmond both advocated during BART’s early years for a transit system that would aid in making their neighborhoods into self-sufficient communities. They called for job development within their neighborhoods rather than a transit system to take them to suburban jobs. BART proposed doing the opposite, while in the process, ripping up streets in West Oakland, forcing residents to move, and building its Richmond line on an elevated earthen mound that local critics called the Richmond “wall.”

BART officials denigrated West Oakland, describing it as a slum, “both to mitigate BART’s negative impacts on the community, and to argue that Blacks would benefit from better links to suburban jobs, stores, and schools,” writes Joseph A. Rodriguez in his study on BART and West Oakland community groups. “Blacks, on the other hand, argued they had chosen to live in West Oakland and that BART did serious harm to the community, and that they did not want to move or be forced to commute to suburban jobs.”

One West Oakland resident at the time said that the promise of access to suburban jobs was empty. “If we have jobs at all, they are right here.”

Building in Profits
Of the many ways that Bechtel and its partners devised to overcharge taxpayers, the most ingenious, and egregious, is only 3 1/2 inches long.* BART’s tracks were designed and built with a width of 5 feet. The global standard for rail track width is 4 feet, 8  1/2 inches. BART stands alone in the distance between its tracks—a fact that costs Bay Area residents untold millions of dollars.

“That was the biggest mistake,” says Allan Miller, Executive Director of the Train Rider’s Association of California. “I mean, it wasn’t even a mistake. It was done purposefully, just to raise everyone’s profits. Every time you order anything for BART, you have to not only get different parts, you have to actually build the machines to build those parts. Every machine that builds the parts has to be made from scratch. That’s an incredible expense, and they’ve plagued us forever. There is no way out of it.”  

Another problem with the 5-foot width of BART’s tracks is that it is not compatible with any other rail system. This makes it impossible for BART to link with Caltrain or the San Francisco Municipal Railway. It also makes it impossible for BART to use the tracks of abandoned freight lines. This is one of the reasons BART will cost about $200 million dollars a mile to extend to San Jose, whereas Caltrain could extend along old freight lines for about $2 million dollars.

BART was initially planned to survive on fares, but already ran a $40 million deficit in 1974. That year, the state legislature temporarily extended the one-half cent sales tax passed to finance BART’s construction. In 1977, the legislature made the sales tax permanent. By the late 1970s, taxpayers were paying two-thirds of BART’s costs through regressive taxation, meaning that low-income Bay Area residents were paying a disproportionate share for a system that primarily served more affluent suburban commuters.

BART not only caters to the more wealthy suburbanites, it subsidizes their driving by providing “free” parking. Free only means that the individual driver does not have to pay to park his or her car; the cost is spread out over the entire system and hence, disproportionately over low-income area residents. BART has a total of 46,000 parking spaces. The cost to operate and maintain these parking spaces is about one dollar per day per parking spot, or $16,790,000 a year. This is an amazing subsidy for drivers, lowering the overall costs of moving further out and driving to BART. 

Transportation justice activists, such as Public Advocates have denounced the subsidies to BART as part of a pattern of racial discrimination against African Americans and Latinos. (See story on page 20.) They are suing for more equitable funding, but the essential inequity of our current transportation system is built right into the infrastructure of our streets, highways, rails, and bridges by the business-first builders like Bechtel.

John Gibler is a freelance writer on environmental and social justice issues in California, and a former policy analyst at Public Citizen. You can find his recent writing in Colorlines and Terrain.

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  1. Stuart Cohen et al. Transportation Injustice: Why BART-to-San Jose cost overruns will devastate bus and rail service. Oakland: Transportation and Land Use Coalition, 2003.
  2. Peter Hall, Great Planning Disasters. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1982.
  3. Randall Lyman and Tim Redmond, “Behind the BART behemoth.” San Francisco Bay Guardian. November 5, 1997. 
  4. Jason W. Patton, Transportation Worlds: Designing Infrastructures and Forms of Urban Life. Ph.D. Thesis. New York: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. 2004.
  5. Joseph A. Rodriguez, “Rapid Transit and Community Power: West Oakland Residents Confront BART.” Antipode 31:2. 1999, pp. 212-228
  6. J. Allen Whitt, Urban Elites and Mass Transportation: The Dialectics of Power. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1982.
    * Due to a typesetting error, this figure was incorrectly rounded to 4 inches in the first print edition of this article. We regret the error. [Ed.]
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Highway Robbery in Boston: Bechtel

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It’s not surprising that Bechtel was chosen as the designer and manager for Boston’s “Big Dig,” a massive highway construction project which has turned out to be one of the most expensive public works projects in United States history. San Francisco–based Bechtel has been in the construction business for more than 100 years and has carried out some of the largest civil engineering projects in the United States, including the Hoover Dam, as well as thousands of projects all over the world. Also key, Bechtel had close ties with the Reagan administration, which was in office at the time Massachusetts politicians were seeking the federal funding that made the Big Dig possible. Reagan administration Secretary of State George Shultz became Bechtel’s president after his term in office, and he still sits on the company’s board of directors.

The Big Dig is the Boston Central Artery tunnel project, in which Interstate 93 passes under the city. The project carved out a new and wider underground highway directly beneath the elevated central artery in downtown Boston. It primarily serves people outside of Boston who are traveling into the city.

The history of the Big Dig is a case study of the way in which corporations are able to balloon their profits on transportation projects with the help of politicians who protect them from oversight, while inner city communities’ transportation needs remain under-funded or ignored.

In 1990, when Boston started work on the Big Dig, the city also entered into an agreement to build public transportation projects to mitigate pollution caused by the Big Dig. According to a lawsuit filed by the Conservation Law Foundation, it was unjust for the state to spend billions of dollars on a roadway for people outside the city at the expense of people who live inside the city. The transit commitments were meant to serve the communities most affected by the construction and pollution, and several of these commitments were to projects that would improve public transit in the inner city.

Despite accepting the bill for over a billion dollars in Bechtel-caused cost overruns, now the state is saying there is not enough money to complete a number of the projects that would serve low-income, people of color communities.

For example, the communities just to the east of Boston, including Chelsea, which is one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts, are served by the blue line of Boston’s T. The blue line stops abruptly about half a mile from the section of Boston where a large number of jobs are available. It does not connect to the red line, which passes through the jobs corridor on which are the stops for Massachusetts General Hospital—the state’s biggest employer—Harvard, MIT, and numerous biotech and research labs. Under the transit mitigation agreement, the state was to connect the blue line to the red line with a half-mile tunnel. Now the state is trying to take this project off the table.

Another transit commitment that the state is trying to evade is the restoration of the Arborway Line, which was a trolley line that went to Jamaica Plains, a very economically diverse community in Boston that includes some of the poorest housing projects in the city. In 1980, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) ripped up the trolley tracks and promised to replace them. The restoration of the trolley line was part of the transit commitment agreed to by the state. Now the state wants to replace this project with another one.

The Conservation Law Foundation is suing the state, governor, secretary of transportation, and all the other officials who are responsible for following through on these commitments that would benefit low-income people and people of color in and around Boston. But because Massachusetts taxpayers are so sickened by the amount of money that has been paid to Bechtel and other companies for the Big Dig, it’s become very difficult for community groups to win more funding for urban transit.
The Big Bill
The Big Dig was supposed to cost taxpayers $2.5 billion, but the final price tag was an unprecedented $14.6 billion. Rather than be punished for these cost overruns, Bechtel was rewarded with gross revenues of $2 billion. Not only were there cost overruns, but the Big Dig also became infamous for everything, from leaks in the tunnel system to delays and flawed designs. Meanwhile, Massachusetts politicians did not oversee Bechtel and did not charge the company for its errors and mismanagement. Instead, these problems were paid for with taxpayer dollars.

For example, a year-long Boston Globe investigation revealed that at least $1.1 billion in construction cost overruns were caused by Bechtel’s mistakes, including incomplete and error-filled designs, and the company’s failure to survey and measure the elevated roadway before the construction began. In a glaring error by Bechtel, the company failed to include the Boston Fleet Center in its designs, an error that cost taxpayers $991,000 to correct. Instead of paying for these mistakes, Bechtel got additional money to fix them.

The Globe also discovered that despite all the extra money and time spent on the Big Dig, in the end, there were some 3,600 leaks in the tunnels that had to be repaired at a cost of $7.3 million in 2005 alone. On September 15, 2004, one of those leaks burst open, and 300 gallons of water per minute gushed into the tunnel for hours. Although Bechtel will pay for some of the repair of these leaks, Massachusetts taxpayers will inevitably pay as well.

In March 2004, Massachusetts finally sued Bechtel and its partner, Parsons Brinckerhoff for $146 million. Why did it take state politicians so long to hold Bechtel accountable for its mismanagement of the Big Dig? One possibility is the volume of Bechtel money, in the form of campaign contributions, that flowed into the coffers of the Massachusetts politicians who should have been overseeing the Big Dig. According to The Boston Globe, Bechtel, its subcontractors, and lobbyists made at least $225,000 in campaign contributions to Massachusetts politicians between 1991 and 2003. Massachusetts’ former Governor, William Weld, received nearly $25,000 from executives of Bechtel and Parsons between 1991 and 1996. Weld’s chief fundraiser, Peter Berlandi worked simultaneously for the governor and for Bechtel as its “liaison” with the Weld administration. And Attorney General Clint Reilly, prior to taking over the job of cost-recovery on the Big Dig, received $35,000 in donations from lobbyists, lawyers, and executives connected to the Big Dig. Public outcry eventually prompted him to return the money.

Bechtel continues to use its friends in high places to elbow to the front of the line on transportation and energy projects.  As reconstruction contracts are being passed out in the wake of a season of hurricane disasters, Bechtel and allied corporations are taking their places as the key engineers of the “new” New Orleans. Already, corporations with close ties to the Bush administration, including Bechtel, have been awarded no-bid rebuilding contracts. 

Andrea Buffa is the communications director of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights group.  She is a co-author of the report Bechtel: Profiting from Destruction—Why the Corporate Invasion of Iraq Must be Stopped, published by CorpWatch, Global Exchange, and Public Citizen.

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Overcoming Roadblocks to Transportation Justice

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Jobs out of reach, missed health appointments, no access to childcare, inability to attend night classes; these problems all stem from the same root: decades of transportation decisions made without adequately involving low-income families who use transit. There are four major roadblocks to transportation justice: excessive focus on congestion relief; emphasis on capital spending rather than improvements; focus on flashy new projects;  inadequate community feedback mechanisms.

Focus on Congestion Relief
When elected officials and transportation agencies talk about a transportation crisis, they often mean increased traffic congestion on freeways. The big-ticket solutions that agencies propose—widening freeways, extending suburban commuter trains, even express buses—aim at relieving the burden of congestion for people commuting long distances from suburban homes to work. These commuters are more likely than not white, with incomes above average.

However, only one in four trips in the Bay Area involves commuting to work.[1]  Most trips are for shopping, childcare, school, and other daily needs; they tend to be shorter and are more likely to occur outside peak commuting hours.  The obstacles facing low-income families making these trips are a transportation crisis.

Emphasis on Capital Spending
Federal and state transportation funding often can be used only for capital expenses, such as new highway or rail projects. But often, urban low-income and people-of-color communities would rather see  bus services that run more frequently and longer hours, and efforts such as sidewalk and pothole repair which are called “operations” or maintenance expenses.

Because of these restrictions community groups must seize every opportunity to define how new sources of money will be spent. It is also critical to hold agencies accountable and demand that they not spend money on new projects until there is long-term funding available for their operation and maintenance.

Excessive Attention to Flashy Projects
When politicians set priorities for transportation money, they often choose flashy, news-making projects over cost-effective ones that give more value for every dollar spent. Agencies, too, overestimate benefits and underestimate costs of these mega-projects, and often lack the money to maintain them in the long term. In the Bay Area, two prime examples of this are the recently completed BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) extension to San Francisco International Airport and its proposed extension to San Jose. (See sidebar.)

Who Wins, Who Loses:
the BART-SFO Fiasco

Transportation powerbrokers were exuberant about a regional agreement in 1988 that promised to bring BART to the San Francisco International Airport. They confidently predicted high ridership on this eight-mile, $1.7 billion extension. Transit officials even predicted that it would make money. SamTrans (the bus agency for San Mateo County) agreed to be financially responsible for operating the line.

However, the finished extension, which opened in 2003, cost 80 percent more than initial estimates, even accounting for higher costs due to inflation, and gets only about half the expected ridership.3 Today, SamTrans is faced with paying out millions from its operating budget each year and bus riders in San Mateo County are seeing higher fares and fewer buses.

This problem hurts low-income and people-of-color communities in two ways. First, these glamorous projects hog money that could provide better mass transit for more people. Second, when agencies run out of money to operate and maintain the new service, they tap into existing budgets, leading to fare hikes and service cuts to transit systems that serve the neediest communities.

Complexity Deters Participation
Too often, transportation agencies make policy and investment decisions without adequate involvement from  low-income residents and people of color. The decision-making processes are complex, and the timelines long, with multiple agencies involved at different points. A lack of understanding about how transportation decisions are made and by whom, is a significant barrier to participating effectively in the process. A central tenet of environmental justice is that government agencies must change their decision-making processes to involve the whole community. Community groups also have to increase their ability to understand, analyze, and affect transportation decisions.

Breaking Through the Roadblocks
While specific needs and obstacles will vary, the first step to winning transportation justice is to get your community organized and educated so you can focus on new money, advocate for cost-effectiveness, and demand  mobility for all.

Focus on New Money
In the Bay Area, as in many major metropolitan areas, transportation consistently rates as a top concern.[2] These polls guarantee that elected officials will continue to propose billions of dollars in new transportation initiatives. Many of these initiatives require voter approval, so transportation agencies pay the most attention to community groups that can turn out the vote or grab media headlines. Also, new funding programs typically have fewer restrictions than existing ones, so communities  have a better chance to influence the outcomes—such as more reliable transit services or safer streets for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Advocate for Cost-Effectiveness
Improvements to the existing transit systems, including many of the changes environmental justice communities call for the most, usually give “more bang for the buck” than the mega-projects often proposed by higher-income communities. Comparisons, such as “cost per new rider” or “cost per trip,” are most easily applied to the different ways to expand mass transit.

Of course, cost-effectiveness should go hand-in-hand with accessibility. For example, late-night and weekend transit is crucial for people who depend on public transit and should be made available, even if it isn’t as cost-effective as commuter service. But in general, focusing on cost-effectiveness is a good way to make sure the needs of the environmental justice communities are fully met.

Demand Mobility for All
Although transportation planning usually focuses on congestion and long-distance commutes, many people, including more than a third of Bay Area residents, do not own or operate a vehicle.

It is a good strategy to use local statistics to enlighten agencies about how the needs of the low-income, disabled, children, and seniors are currently being underserved. Social service agencies have found that inadequate transportation is one of the top three barriers to the transition from welfare to work. Recently, Bay Area advocates, citing local transit-related problems, won a $216 million commitment for a “Lifeline Transportation” program whose funds can only be used to improve transportation services for low-income residents. The money is already being used to provide more frequent bus service and to support creative programs, such as childcare shuttles.

Winning a Bus Route—and Power—in North Richmond
In 1997, community leaders in North Richmond became concerned about the effects of welfare reform combined with poor transit access to jobs. Buses only served the edge of the neighborhood, ran infrequently, and stopped at 7 PM. Several community groups came together to demand changes from AC Transit, the local bus agency.

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The result was a proposed new route to fill gaps in existing service. At first, AC Transit funded the service out of its budget surplus. Then the agency and community worked together to win long-term funding from other sources.

Not only did North Richmond get a new bus route, the community also won political power. In 2000, Joe Wallace, a leader in the campaign for the new bus route, won election to the AC Transit Board of Directors.

Communities that organize for their own transportation needs can win!  For other examples of winning strategies check out Access Now! A Guide to Winning the Transportation Your Community Needs, published by the Transportation and Land Use Coalition. The guide can help communities win 19 key transportation improvements and provides references to online resources, key publications, and other information. See or call 510-740-3150 for more information. 

Jeff Hobson is the Policy Director of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition.

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  1. Metropolitan Transportation Commission, 2000 Base Year Validation of Travel Demand Models, May 2004. 
  2. Bay Area Council’s “Bay Area Poll”, 1996-2004.
  3. Based on final project costs contained in FTA, Annual Report on New Starts 2003, and original cost estimates contained in MTC’s Resolution 1876.
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Power and Accountability in Transit Governance

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Democracy is not a spectator sport.”  But what happens when you get into the game and participate, only to find that the rules have been rigged against you?

Such is the dilemma of transit activists in Santa Clara County, California. The basic principles for creating a government that works are violated at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). Good faith efforts by activists to impact the agency’s decisions have been derailed by a fundamentally flawed structure.

VTA has an annual operating budget of over $300 million and a capital budget of several billion dollars over a 30-year period. In the face of this huge resource, VTA is the least cost-effective transit agency in the country. Fares continue to increase while services are cut.  The agency’s top priority is extending BART to San Jose, and VTA has agreed to let BART put a lien on monies that are currently used to pay for about a third of the county’s bus services, in order to operate the proposed BART line.

If your community does not currently have a public transit agency but is in the process of forming one, take note. Special districts like transit agencies, especially multi-jurisdictional ones, are trickier to set up in an accountable fashion than, say, a city council in a new city.

While individual personalities do matter in government, structure matters more. Well-meaning elected officials cannot overcome a broken system. A governing structure that distributes power equitably in the community is much more likely to produce policy decisions that uphold the community’s best interests than one that concentrates power in just a few hands.

Fiscal Oversight
Previously in Santa Clara County, independent county oversight of a portion of transit agency funds resulted in the detection and prevention of accounting irregularities in the construction of large capital projects. It also provided community activists with leverage when the VTA nearly reneged on a promise to increase transit service. We were able to appeal to the independent board of supervisors who had control of the money approved by voters, and they forced VTA to adhere to its promises. Unfortunately, we will soon lose this oversight because of a recent ballot measure that passes control over sales tax funds directly to the transit agency.

Checks and balances reduce the possibility of corruption. A mechanism that provides for an independent responsible body to monitor expenses is desirable to guard against the abuse of public funds.

Fair Representation
There are 15 cities in the county, but only four cities get to vote on matters before the VTA board at any one time. San Jose controls five of the 12 voting seats on a “permanent” basis, while the other smaller cities are forced to rotate the remaining seats among themselves every two years, putting them at a huge disadvantage in terms of tenure and power on the board.

Each of the 15 cities should be given a vote on the board as the first step toward fair representation, and all board members should have the possibility of serving equivalent-length, four-year terms.

Protection of Minority Interests
A structure that allows a single interest or a single city to control the board through strategic appointments can produce decisions that hurt the community as a whole. Such is the case at VTA, where the city of San Jose controls five of the 12 seats, and under the influence of a strong mayor, votes as a block. As a result, the outcome of the votes for the whole county is often dictated by the mayor of San Jose, who only needs two other board members to agree with San Jose’s position.

In the case of Santa Clara County, the city of San Jose comprises about 53 percent of the population and arguably, should have majority control. However, VTA is responsible for making decisions that impact all 15 cities in the county. 

A way to protect the interests of smaller cities is to give them each a vote as described above, and then require that every vote on major issues must pass by both a majority of votes weighted by population and by a majority of unweighted votes. In this more equitable scenario, nothing would pass without the assent of representatives from the large population of San Jose, but San Jose would have to obtain the consent of at least seven other cities in the county—instead of just two, as is currently the case—in order to establish major transportation policies involving funds for the whole region.

Community Stakeholders
The practice in neighboring San Mateo County is to thoroughly deliberate proposals in constituent-advised committees (comprised of members appointed by the public and labor, business, and community groups) and to require committee recommendations before the proposals are brought before the governing board for a vote.  This process of deliberation can take months, but has facilitated the development of consensus within the county, which last year resulted in a 75 percent voter approval for the renewal of Measure A—a 25-year, half-cent county sales tax earmarked for transportation spending. Elected officials hold these committees in such high regard that last year they voted to adopt a committee recommendation that went counter to staff recommendations.

At VTA, the advisory committees are weak and not representative of the whole community. The work of the committees is further undermined by the power imbalance on the board, which compels staff to be responsive to a single controlling interest over the interests of the community as a whole.
Effective Governance, a Step at a Time
Even with all structural elements in place and functioning well, external environmental and cultural factors can create problems for an agency. However, fixing internal structural elements that are within the control of a single agency is easier to do and can go a long way toward facilitating effective governance.

Reform is not easy. In this case, the structure of the agency is codified in the state public utilities code and requires state legislation to change. Once, a state senator did introduce a spot bill to reform the structure of the VTA, but did not pursue it when it became apparent that there was no community consensus on how the reformed structure should look.

Our society has not yet perfected this thing called democracy. Where our institutions have not been designed to share power in an equitable fashion, it is not enough to work within the system. To retain our sanity, it can be helpful to analyze how our institutions are broken, and to work for reform of these structural obstacles, so that we may ultimately be successful in creating a society that is equitable and just. 

Margaret Okuzumi is the executive director of BayRail Alliance. Additional information about creating effective transit boards can be obtained from her white paper posted at

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Impacts and Actions

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Photo (c) 2005 Scott Braley
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Port of Oakland: Private Industry or Public Agency

A2-1 Page 35 Alternate smallIn the United States, there are 361 public ports. The Port of Oakland, the fourth largest, processes about $30 billion of exports and imports annually. Oakland’s enormous cranes, unloading gigantic ships, mean a lot of money is changing hands. But critics say local communities are being short-changed on benefits and plagued with negative impacts. “It’s not a private business, it’s a public agency and its revenue is not profit. It belongs to the people.” So says Rob Smith of Urban Strategies in Oakland.


Short-changed on the benefits but plagued by the Port’s negative impacts—it’s the harsh reality of life in West Oakland, an area hardest hit by the health impacts of port operations. Residents fear that port expansion plans will only bring more pollution from the additional diesel-burning trucks, ships, and trains into their neighborhoods—and into their lungs.

The Port of Oakland also runs Oakland International Airport and 19 miles of bayside real estate that includes office parks, shopping areas, restaurants, and luxury apartment complexes. It is by far the largest agency in Oakland city government, but it makes economic and policy decisions without direct public accountability, thanks to a 1927 law that made the Port independent of the city.

Recent property sales by the Port have some community advocates wondering about the future of Oakland’s waterfront neighborhoods, and questioning whether the Port should retain its autonomy. West Oakland residents—who face increased cancer risks, higher rates of asthma, and greater susceptibility to heart attacks—want something done about the pollution caused by the Port.

Global Trade Drives Port Growth
A boom in international trade has forced an overhaul of the Oakland waterfront, claims Port spokesperson Marilyn Sandifur, adding that the import/export volume is expected to double in the next 15 years.

“We have a seven billion dollar annual impact on the region and affect 44,000 jobs, so it’s important that we… keep up-to-date with the kind of improvements and enhancements [needed],” says Sandifur.

Port officials claim that their anti-pollution measures are reducing health impacts, but they generally neglect to mention that most of their air quality programs are the result of a 1998 legal settlement involving the Port’s Vision 2000 expansion plan. (See sidebar.)

Oakland lawsuit wins $9 million in air pollution mitigation measures12-1 Page 37 Alternate

Most of the air quality programs at the Port of Oakland stem from a 1998 legal settlement involving the Ports Vision 2000 expansion plan. Nearby West Oakland residents were concerned about air pollution from the proposed expansion. Noting that roughly 20 percent of children in West Oakland suffer from asthma, one local activist alleged that the Port’s activities were “literally killing us.” The Golden Gate Environmental Law and Justice Clinic took the Port to court on behalf of West Oakland residents. The Port settled with a $9 million Air Quality Mitigation Plan, the most stringent diesel exhaust mitigation plan ever proposed by a port up to that point. The plan includes nine measures, some of which reduce pollution from other sources in the community to make up for increased emissions from Port activities. The implementation of the measures is guided by a technical review panel composed of representatives from the community, regulatory agencies, and environmental groups.

Excerpted from the Natural Resources Defense Council Report Harboring Pollution: The Dirty Truth about U.S Ports.

Trains carrying goods through west Oakland. Photo (c) 2005 Scott Braley

Despite community concerns, the Port keeps on growing. Even the harbor is growing. “We’re deepening [it] to accommodate [the] larger ships in order to keep Oakland a significant international gateway, and keep the economy of the Bay Area… going,” Sandifur says.

The Port is certainly profitable, raking in over $250 million a year. A small, but not insignificant portion of which—approximately 11 million dollars this fiscal year, according to Harold Jones, Port Communications Director—comes from real estate development on public land.

Real Estate Deals
Last year, the Port caused a furor when it made a last-minute change to an environmental impact statement and approved construction of a Wal-Mart in East Oakland within 30 days—with no public input. It caused additional public concern when it offered the property developer, Simeon, a $10 million dollar loan of public funds, characterized by Mr. Jones as a deferred payment.

Tim Frank, a senior policy advisor for Sierra Club’s Healthy Communities Campaign, calls Wal-Mart a “car-centric, poverty-wage, sweatshop-buying store that causes freeway congestion and undermines neighborhoods. Wal-Mart drives main street stores that serve the community out of business, and is bad for the environment and neighborhoods.”

Ironically, the Port had originally promoted the development as a “transit-oriented business campus” that would connect to BART. Instead, it will add more cars to the already congested interstate 880 freeway corridor. When the office project fell through, John Protopappas, president of the Port’s Board of Commissioners and CEO of Madison Park Real Estate Investment Trust, maintained his confidence in Simeon’s direction for the property.  He told the East Bay Business Times,  “The key is to develop the property, and the developer is doing the right thing because this is the way the market is going.”

The Port is already a major source of air pollution. Research by the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and the Pacific Institute, shows that trucks traveling through West Oakland to the Port daily produce as much toxic soot as 127,677 cars. West Oakland residents face greater cancer risks, higher rates of asthma, increased susceptibility to heart attacks, and many other adverse health effects resulting from living on a thoroughfare for trucks between three major highways and the Port of Oakland. 

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“Wal-Mart,” says Dawn Phillips of Just Cause Oakland, “is a perfect example of poor use of Port and city resources.  It sucks up public dollars for infrastructure to build a development that creates the worst forms of low-wage jobs lacking health benefits and worker protections.” And while Wal-Mart prices may be lower to the consumer, “The reality is that those cheap goods come at a very high price: exploitation of workers that work for the store directly, and the workers who produce the goods for the store here and internationally.  Wal-Mart is, in fact, one of the world’s worst corporate employers.”

But Wal-Mart is a natural ally of the big business board members at the Port. It is a member of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, which united with the shipping lines against labor during a 2002 lockout. It is also at the receiving end of the international supply chain that Sandifur celebrates as the engine for economic growth. It is no coincidence that those diesel trucks that pollute West Oakland are usually carrying sweatshop manufactured goods to Wal-Mart and other Waterfront Coalition members like the Gap, Home Depot, Target, Best Buy, and Payless Shoes—all low-wage landmarks of U.S. retailing.

Public Interest Not Included
What might surprise many is that despite the money the Port makes commercially, because of a 1927 State Tidelands Trust law, the Port does not pay taxes. Instead the City receives payment for services rendered. Port spokesperson Sandifur says that they will pay approximately 15 million dollars this year for services like police, fire, and Lake Merritt maintenance. She points out that Port tenants also generate sales tax revenues in the tens of millions and parking and utility taxes of 6 million dollars.

The Port is run by an unelected board of seven members, nominated by the Mayor and confirmed by the Oakland City Council for four-year terms. At a recent but typical meeting of the Port’s real estate committee, chaired by John Protopappas, a well-known developer and political ally of Mayor Jerry Brown, only four minutes out of one hour and 20 minutes were open to the public. The rest of the meeting was taken up by closed door sessions about development projects and leases with private real estate interests, such a Harbor Partners, Ellis Partners, Simeon, and Hensel Phelps.

Exactly what sort of give-and-take the real estate deals include is confidential, but as long-time Oakland watcher Douglas Allen-Taylor points out in his column at the Berkeley Daily Planet, the Port real estate committee seems to use a different kind of math. When Jack London Square was losing money for the Port, they sold off the profitable parcels to Ellis Partners and kept the money-losers.

The needs of Oakland residents are considered—if at all—only after the deal is signed and only if the community protests loudly enough. All too often, the remediation efforts are minimal and delivered through a community benefits agreement. These agreements rarely change the basic structure of a development deal. The few gains tend to be weakly-enforced, unless the community maintains constant vigilance.

In most other Bay Area cities, developers pay impact fees and build “inclusionary” affordable housing as a matter of law—even on private land. But in Oakland, 60 acres of public land is changing hands for a mere $18 million on a project estimated to be worth over $500 million—with no guaranteed public participation in determining public benefits. The developer involved, Signature Properties, claims that there is no subsidy involved and that it is exempt from existing local hiring agreements and other modest requirements of city-subsidized development.


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Says Oakland City Council member Nancy Nadel, the problems with this project “…exemplify why inclusionary zoning and park impact fees are needed. Community needs have to be considered up front so that we don’t have to battle for community benefits on a project-to-project basis.” 


Oakland Port: Then and Now
Historian Charles Wollenberg says the Port’s current independence is a result of its historical role as  “a terminus for the national railroad system. That greatly increased the importance of Oakland as a city and made the waterfront a much more important location. The railroad arranged with investors and city politicians to gain control of the Port so that the waterfront was controlled by a corporation, which was in turn controlled by the railroad.”

The city obliged by setting up a “separate city government or sub-government within the broader city governmental structure to operate the port.”

According to Wollenberg, Oakland had to fight hard in the early part of the twentieth century to gain back some control of its port from the powerful railroad. To appease the various interests and still isolate it from politics, the Port was made a semi-autonomous entity. But to most people, the rationale behind the Port’s special status makes no more sense today than it did then.

“The argument in favor of [semi-autonomy was to] take it out of politics… but the other side of the wheeling and dealing in politics is public control. We are supposed to be a democratic nation… supposed to have public participation.”

Another major problem with the Port’s auto-nomous status is that it often ends up competing with the established, locally-owed businesses. Some believe that every time the Port succeeds, the rest of the city loses, says Wollenberg.  Instead of the city supporting the landmark Holmes bookstore, that used to be on 14th street, there’s a waterfront Barnes and Noble on Jack London Square. 

Public Property vs. Private Profit
Dawn Phillips, organizer for Just Cause Oakland, points out that the Port isn’t looking out for the interests of Oakland residents. “The Port represents one of the less accessible and less accountable institutions, even by the generally low standards of Oakland government.” All too often, Port developments lead to “a net loss of jobs, a net loss of small, local, people of color–owned businesses in Oakland.”

Urban Strategies’ Smith point out that, “There [are] several hundred million dollars in reserve accounts over at the Port. And if we’re… looking at a revenue shortfall in the city of around $30 million… we need to think about getting the Port to give the money to the city to solve that problem.”

The Port is well aware of these criticisms, says spokeswoman Sandifur, quickly pointing out that the Port takes pride in its Community Relations Department, which channels money into pay back projects for the city, such as college scholarships for low-income students, and spaces like the Middle Harbor Shoreline Park for public recreation.

Wollenberg and other Oakland Port scholars, however, contend that the Port could have been just as successful and profitable even without its special autonomous status. And despite the community projects it showcases, activists want to know why the Port cannot be more responsive to the health and economic concerns voiced by the residents of Oakland.

Council member Nadel says that even commissioners with progressive credentials seem to undergo a transformation once they take their seats. Their community interests are overwhelmed by a requirement that they defend the Port’s bottom line.

Ports around the country have varied relationships to their cities. Some, like Oakland, are semi-autonomous; others pay city taxes. Given Oakland’s current budget problems, there is no reason why old laws cannot be changed, say Oakland community activists. The Port, after all, is located on public land, and the pollution it creates is a public hazard. The community would like to see the Port be more of a city asset and less of a private business.

“[The Port] isn’t a business, it’s a public agency,” says Smith of Urban Strategies. “When someone in city [government] says, ‘Boy we’d really like to access some of that money to fix the fiscal crisis but there’s nothing we can do,’ they are wrong. There is something they can do. They can change the charter. And they can enter into agreements with the Port.”

Just Cause’s Phillips says, “The City Council and the Mayor lack the political will to take the Port on.   It will take community, labor, and neighborhood residents organizing vocal and strong challenges: demonstrations, media work, and legal suits. This isn’t an institution that is going to go quietly.”

Ben Jesse Clarke is a freelance writer and the editor of Race, Poverty and the Environment.
Hana Baba reports for KALW Public Radio’s News and Up Front programs in San Francisco.
She covers social justice issues, ethnic communities, and arts.

Photos: Oakland City Council Member Nancy Nadel addresses a demonstration in West Oakland.  (c) 2005 Scott Braley.

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Short-changed on the benefits but plagued by the Port’s negative impacts—it’s the harsh reality of life in West Oakland...

Port Privatization in Central America

Photo Essay: Puerto Cortez, Honduras And Acajutla, El Salvador

12-1 Page 39 image 1 By David Bacon

Despite the poverty and difficult conditions that plague them, dock workers and port truckers in the Centra12-1 Page 40 image 1l American ports of Puerto Cortez and Acajutla have tried to form unions. Some have had success, while others have lost their jobs and been blacklisted. All worry that the Central American Free Trade Agreement will lead to privatization and attacks on their unions and income. This photo-documentary shows their conditions as they work or wait for work, and for their families at home.

Few of the privatization assaults in Central America have been as sustained and sharp as those against the longshore workers of El Salvador.

12-1 Page 41 Image 2In El Salvador’s main port of Acajutla, soldiers occupied the wharves. Using direct military force, new private operators took over the terminals. The Salvadoran dock union was smashed. Efforts to reorganize it since have not been broken and the workers involved have been fired and blacklisted.

The government told workers they could reapply for their old jobs, but with the new private operators. “They told people they’d be liquidated, but they’d get jobs with the private operators,”  says Carlos David Marroquin, Secretary-Treasurer of the old longshore union, and a former warehouse worker. “But they didn’t say how much they’d be paid.” The new wage was $12 per day—cutting the daily income of longshoremen by more than 90 percent.

In El Salvador port drivers have a long history of fighting the Danish corporation t12-1 Page 40 Image 3hat has resisted the organizing efforts of truckers around the world more than any other—the Maersk Corporation. Three years ago, a hundred drivers for Bridge International Transport were fired when they tried to win a union contract, and their organization was destroyed. Bridge is owned by Maersk, and hires the drivers who deliver the containers to the company’s container ships as they sit at the dock.

Hundreds of drivers do the same labor in U.S. ports as the fired Salvadorans did in Central America, ferrying huge shipping containers to and from Maersk vessels. These workers, however, aren’t employed directly by Maersk or its subsidiaries. Instead, drivers own their own trucks, at least in theory. In actual fact, they’re heavily indebted to banks and finance companies, which loan them money to purchase their rigs. Drivers have to pay all the costs of operating them—diesel fuel, insurance, parking charges—everything. By t12-1 Page 41 Image 3he time bills are paid, the average take-home earning for a harbor trucker is $8-9 an hour, making them the lowest-paid big-rig drivers in the United States. They make up a huge group of 50-55,000 people nationally. Some 12,000 work in the port of Los Angeles/Long Beach alone, with about 3,100 in Oakland, 1,800 in Portland, and 2,800 in Tacoma/Seattle, according to Bob Lanshay, Teamsters port organizer.

“We’ve recognized with these multinational corporations that we cannot deal with them effectively even nationally,” explains Chuck Mack, president of Teamsters Joint Council 7 in northern California and director of the union’s port division. “We have to develop a program that is international. We’r12-1 Page 40 image 2e not on the verge of organizing drivers in El Salvador, Central America, or other parts of the world. But we’re attempting to work with workers in those countries, to share information, provide help, and get their ideas and perspectives. How do we deal with these multibillion-dollar, multinational corporations? How do we end the exploitation of these drivers? It’s a worldwide problem.” 

David Bacon is a writer and photographer specializing in labor and globalization issues. He is the author of The Children of NAFTA (University of California Press, 2004). Photos and text © 2005 David Bacon. For reprint requests please contact

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DWI: Driving While Immigrant

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In 2005, over 70 bills were introduced in 26 different states dealing with how undocumented immigrants obtain driver’s licenses. The majority of the proposed state legislation curbed immigrants’ access to licenses.  The laws are more an attempt to restrict immigrants’ ability to travel than to ensure road safety.  Failure to carry a valid license carries sanctions like those imposed in South Africa under apartheid pass laws—jail and deportation back to the ‘homeland.’

Under some state bills, like New York’s proposed legislation, Departments of Motor Vehicles would have to become well-versed in United States foreign policy—and know if an applicant’s immigration papers are in order and if their home country is on a U.S. list of “terrorist” countries—to issue a driver’s license.

However, the REAL ID Act (a new law signed in May 2005) has made States’ individual  determinations of eligibility nearly irrelevant. REAL ID converts state driver’s licenses into a de facto national ID card, circumscribing the constitutional right to freedom of movement and travel for those without it.

Driving a car—essential to get to work or a hospital, go shopping, or pick-up children at school—will soon be a crime for those who cannot prove their citizenship or immigration status. Already, immigrants without a driver’s license risk vehicle impoundment, fines, and jail sentences.

The REAL ID law will turn states into immigration law enforcers, gatekeepers at the new identity border. Without a REAL ID driver’s license or identity card, taking a flight on an airplane, entering a federal building, getting car insurance, even hopping onto a train or Greyhound bus will become virtually impossible.

States will have to redesign their licenses, investigating and determining the citizenship or immigration status of all applicants. All residents, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status, will soon have to present a passport, birth certificates, social security cards, or similar documents proving their residence, to renew or obtain a driver’s license complying with the REAL ID’s national security measures.

States have three years to comply with the new REAL ID federal standards for driver’s licenses and other state ID cards. Some are already moving to comply. Arkansas approved a new driver’s license law implementing many REAL ID provisions starting in 2006.

States like California, where one out of every four residents is an immigrant, will be denying a sizeable portion of their residents an indispensable service, making them more vulnerable to deportation and abuse.

In California, a driver’s license law that would have given immigrants licenses—marked immigrant—was passed by the state assembly but vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.  State Senator Gilbert said the legislation was amended “to give the Governor all the time necessary to wait for federal regulations to be published, released and promulgated, before the Department of Motor Vehicles issues driver’s licenses to all applicants.” But Schwarzenegger still vetoed it, citing security concerns.

Full implementation of REAL ID means that the estimated 9 to 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. will be subject to new types of immigration checkpoints—making them more and more readily detectible for detention and possible deportation if they cannot produce a “secure” driver’s license proving “legal” presence in the U.S. 

Arnoldo Garcí­a works for the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Oakland, California.

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Transportation for Health

By Lili Farhang and Rajiv Bhatia

12-1 page 44 Our transportation system has direct and unequivocal effects on morbidity and mortality. Motor vehicle emissions are the largest and fastest growing source of air pollution and greenhouse gases. Exposure to air pollution causes respiratory illness and cardiovascular disease, and motor vehicles are also the most important source of environmental noise, interfering with sleep, work performance, and childhood brain development. Pedestrian injuries result from street designs that favor cars rather than people. Urban sprawl has made us less physically active, and populations in low-density communities experience higher rates of obesity than populations in higher-density areas.

More and more, the public health community is acknowledging that living and working conditions determine whether we have the opportunity to live healthy lives. Those living close to highways or busy roadways cannot control the air pollution entering their windows. Children are less physically active wherever parks are unsafe or there are no sidewalks. In areas without full-service grocers and produce markets, families have to make do with low-quality, high-priced food.  

Decades of research has shown that social class, race/ethnicity, geography, housing, and employment are the most significant predictors of health status. There is also mounting evidence that our “built environment”—land use patterns, neighborhood design, transportation systems—creates or obstructs opportunities for healthy living. So public health practitioners must now go beyond merely proscribing behaviors and treating symptoms, and start challenging the root causes of poor health.

In June 2005, single-room occupancy hotel residents of the Tenderloin district in San Francisco participated in a focus group on public transit access and their physical and mental health. Citing factors such as stress, overcrowding, violence, and cost of living, the participants describe situations in which they were unable to access basic needs—food, healthcare, family, and friends. Many in the group are positive about San Francisco’s public transit infrastructure, but emphasize that its benefits are distributed in a way that effectively reinforces neighborhood segregation. Regarding the most recent round of fare hikes, one participant says,  the transit system’s “strategy is to raise fares to keep poor people in a certain area. Everything in the neighborhood is contained—housing, food, and liquor stores. It’s like an ant farm. It’s not a good feeling… not to be able to leave.” 

Participants credit a history of community action as the primary reason for the city’s decent public transit system. “Unless low-income people are down at City Hall raising a ruckus, their neighborhoods get bypassed for improvement, their interests marginalized during budget decisions. When it comes to transit policy, it’s almost like they’re invisible to the city,” said Casey Mills, an organizer with the Coalition for Transit Justice, a group formed this year to fight the recent San Francisco Municipal Railway fare increases. 

These experiences highlight the urgency with which broad coalitions, including the public health community, must come together to solve our transportation crises. Today, chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and asthma are taking an ever-increasing toll on the health of this country, and the situation warrants the involvement of the public health community. Traditional public health dogma blames poor health on bad personal choices, such as overeating, sedentary lifestyles, and risky behaviors, but it takes healthy environments to create or break opportunities for healthy choices.

Transportation clearly affects health by determining access to daily necessities, as highlighted by the experiences of San Francisco’s Tenderloin residents. With low car-ownership rates, access is a greater challenge for low-income communities that depend on public transportation and walking. In a study of 15 low-income Bay Area neighborhoods, 66 percent of residents had no transit access to hospitals and 48 percent could not walk to a supermarket.  

Lack of transit access can have severe consequences. For instance, hospitalizations for many chronic diseases can be prevented with effective, regular, and timely care. Transit barriers—mainly cost and inadequate service—make healthcare even more unavailable to those who need it most. A Metropolitan Transportation Commission study found that Bay Area residents may not utilize medical services when they are difficult to get to. The result? Individuals may go without medications, develop more serious illnesses, and experience lengthier recovery times. 

For transit-dependent populations, quality of transportation also impacts health. Lengthy transit routes with multiple transfers and long wait times translate to less time for family or leisure activities and make daily commutes stressful. Stress has a direct relationship to physical and mental health outcomes, such as depression, tiredness, parent-child bonding, and immune response. For the elderly and disabled especially, limited access to public transit creates barriers to participation in community and civic life, leading to depression and alienation. 

The Tenderloin residents also viewed public transit as a means to get out of a community where they felt “penned in” by city policies that concentrated housing, poverty, and drug use in a controlled environment. But many factors prohibited them from “escaping.” Among them, the cost of ridership,  the humiliation of getting kicked off the bus for being unable to pay, overcrowded buses, fear of violence, and the unreliability of schedules. Participants pointed out that they often would rather walk long distances than deal with the bus. One solution proposed by the focus group was the possible extension of the disability discount to city residents with an economic disability. 

These findings provide more than enough impetus for the public health community to push towards more effective and more equitable transportation policies. Innovative efforts, like those found at the Program on Health, Equity, and Sustainability at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, bring health perspectives and evidence into the work of transportation agencies and advocates, and have begun to build a shared understanding of the inextricable link among health, equity, and transportation and land use decisions.  Public health practitioners ought to ensure that decision-makers consider the health benefits of transportation planning and policy-making, including the economic costs of adverse human health outcomes. They also should advocate for transportation funding priorities and policy-making that accurately reflect and address the needs of people who depend on transit the most. 

Lili Farhang and Rajiv Bhatia work with the Program on Health, Equity, and Sustainability at the San Francisco Department of Public Health.  The Program supports San Franciscans working together to advance urban health and social and environmental justice through research, education, advocacy, and collaborative problem-solving with community, government, and private stakeholders.

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Fact Sheet: Deadly Air Pollutants

Created in the atmosphere when oxides of nitrogen combine with reactive organic gases in the presence of sunlight. These reactive organic gases are primarily generated by auto emissions, but industrial emissions as well. Once in the lungs, ozone generates a free radical, an oxygen atom, that irritates lung tissue—causing or exacerbating asthma, emphysema, respiratory disease and, over time, reduced lung capacity. Animal studies also indicate that ozone either causes or exacerbates cancers.

Carbon Monoxide
Everyone knows carbon monoxide as a colorless, odorless gas that comes out of the tailpipes of cars which, by blocking the delivery of oxygen to the blood, can kill you. But carbon monoxide in smaller doses causes dizziness, impairs central nervous system functioning, deprives the heart muscles of oxygen—leading to heart attacks, and is also a reproductive toxin.

Nitrogen Oxides
Toxic gases that give smog its yellow-brown coloring. They are produced as a result of burning fuel under high temperatures or pressure, from stationary sources, such as auto refineries and chemical plants, and mobile sources, mainly motor vehicles. Nitrogen oxide decreases lung function and can reduce resistance to infection, influenza, pneumonia, and other illnesses. Once in the atmosphere, it reacts to form ozone and particulate matter. It has also been shown, in animal studies, to increase the metastasis of pre-existing cancers, and accelerate the growth of cancer colonies in the lungs.

Particulate Matter
Consists of solid and liquid particulate less than ten microns in diameter that are suspended in the air and invisible to the eye. Nitrates, sulfates, and dust particles are major components of particulate matter and are created by fuel combustion, oil refineries, power plants, wear on break linings, and dust from paved roads—in short, all of the many components of the auto/oil/highway lobby. Some of these tiny particles are themselves highly carcinogenic. Other particles, which derive from incomplete combustion from vehicles and industrial sources, are not in themselves toxic, but as they circulate in the air, certain poisons, such as polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins, and furans, adhere to them. The particles facilitate the entry of the chemicals into the body where they are deposited or lodged in lung tissue—causing or facilitating the development of cancer.

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Case Studies and Solutions

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T Riders' Union: A Tale of Two Campaigns in Boston

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At the end of 2000, transit riders in Boston had launched the T Riders’ Union (TRU) and were celebrating their first victory—free system-wide bus transfers. Three years later, community advocates walked away from a three-year initiative to reform the Boston Metropolitan Transportation Organization (MPO), with little to show for their effort. These two campaigns have taught Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE) and our community partners a lot about the opportunities and pitfalls in transit justice organizing and advocacy.

Launch of T Riders’ Union
Our story began with community concerns about asthma and air quality. In 1997, through ACE’s youth program, students at three schools targeted dirty diesel buses and trucks as an environmental injustice linked to the high rates of asthma in the community. Seventy-five youth marched in an Anti-Idling Day and handed out “tickets” to educate drivers about the state law limiting idling of engines. That same day, these youth joined with six other community and environmental groups to launch the Clean Buses for Boston coalition.

Over the next two years, Clean Buses tried to draw the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) into negotiations to change over its fleet of 1,000 diesel buses to cleaner alternatives. Eventually, we organized a series of forums, where more than 300 residents and riders testified about their concerns with MBTA service. Through this outreach, we realized that we had tapped into an issue much broader than just diesel exhaust. Riders cared about the health impacts, but they were just as concerned about the late and overcrowded buses, lack of bus shelters, and overall disrespect by the MBTA for their communities. Diesel was just one of the many transit inequities experienced daily by riders.

Inspired by efforts like the Bus Riders’ Union in Los Angeles and the Straphangers Campaign in New York City, Clean Buses then hatched a plan for launching our own T Riders’ Union. We realized that winning clean buses or improvements in any of the other service problems would require significant shifts in state resources, and that there was no group building the power of riders themselves. The testimonials from our community forums became TRU’s five-point platform for transit justice, including respect and equity, accountability, first class service, clean air and better health, and accessibility and comfort.

Transit Racism and Disinvestment
By 2000, Clean Buses and other grassroots transit advocates came together to fight the first system-wide fare increase in a decade. Not only was this the perfect opportunity to launch TRU, but it also forced us to define the overall problem as one of transit racism and disinvestment. About 32 percent of the 1.2 million daily MBTA riders are bus riders. The MBTA also runs subways serving 56 percent of its ridership and commuter rail serving 12 percent. The region’s low-income communities and communities of color are served primarily by buses. Not only were some of these neighborhoods like Roxbury and Chinatown torn apart by highway construction, but over the decades some of the trolley lines that once served these communities were shut down and replaced by buses. These buses are often late and overcrowded and get stuck in Boston’s notorious traffic. Buses packed with predominantly low-income riders of color are almost 20 percent more crowded than the commuter rail trains, serving wealthier suburbs. In 2000, there were only 300 bus shelters for more than 9,000 stops, forcing riders to wait in rain, snow, or shine.


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At the root of the problem is that transportation decision-making overwhelmingly favors the automobile. The Central Artery Project is the most costly public works project in the country with a price tag of over $14 billion. (See article on the Big Dig and Bechtel, or page 27 print edition.) It is no surprise then that Massachusetts has spent three times as much of its federal funding for transportation on highways as transit. Of the resources dedicated to transit, the MBTA has invested four times as much in commuter rail as on buses between 1995 and 2000.


“Higher Fares are No Fair” Campaign
When the MBTA announced a proposal to raise fares in May 2000, we launched the “Higher Fares are No Fair” campaign as TRU’s first act. We demanded that there be no fare increase until service was improved and inequities addressed. Through the summer, the campaign mobilized hundreds of people to testify at public hearings. We submitted a joint letter signed by more than 40 groups representing more than 90,000 residents, and a petition signed by more than 1,500 riders opposing the fare increase. Despite the massive opposition, the MBTA Board of Directors still voted to raise fares in August.

In response, TRU organized a fare protest on September 18, the day that higher fares went into effect. More than 20 community leaders boarded buses from Roxbury to downtown and refused to pay the fare increase. We went directly to the State House and demanded and got a meeting with the Governor. After several weeks of negotiations, the MBTA agreed to a new policy of free bus transfers and reduced-cost weekly subway-bus combination passes as a way to lessen the burden of the fare increase on lower-income riders. This campaign made the front page of the major city newspapers and was widely reported on regional television and radio. Our message about the existing inequities in the transit system resonated over the airwaves to educate decision makers and the broader public.

Reforming the Metropolitan Transportation Organization: 2000-2003
The birth of TRU and its first campaign victory spurred community leaders and advocates to tackle the deeper root causes of the systemic injustices. After TRU was launched, the Clean Buses Coalition and other transit justice groups formed On the Move: the Greater Boston Transportation Justice Coalition. We developed a five-point agenda for transportation justice and livable communities. Our first target was the Boston Metropolitan Transportation Organization which controlled the allocation of federal funds for transportation projects. Given the success of the first fare increase campaign, coupled with some federal pressure to incorporate environmental justice into transportation planning, we were able to open up a seat at the MPO table. We focused our efforts on the MPO’s long-term Regional Transportation Plan and the workings of the MPO itself.

For three years, members of On the Move participated in the tangled process. Our goals were to get our set of transit projects included and prioritized in the long-range plan, to democratize the MPO itself, and to wrestle power away from the state transportation agencies. We joined the Environmental Justice Committee formed by the MPO. We developed joint positions and submitted comments on two rounds of the MPO’s long-range plan. We tried to force reforms in the MPO when it underwent federal recertification. All told, we committed hundreds of hours collectively at meetings, reviewing documents, and drafting comments. With the exception of the MPO’s inclusion of a project to add 100 clean buses to relieve overcrowding in the system in 2001 and incremental reforms in the MPO’s process, there were few positive outcomes. By the end of 2003, we decided that there was not much more progress we could make from within the MPO arena, and we walked out of the MPO’s Environmental Justice Committee.

Lessons Learned
Both of these experiences offer a number of lessons on why and how we were or were not successful. Below is the advice that we would give to others or-ganizing for transit justice in low-income communities of color, and that we are trying to follow ourselves.

1. Focus on the real sources of power (like the Governor), not just the formal structures (like the MPO).
One strength of the fare campaign was that the decision-maker was clear and simple to communicate. It was the Governor and his appointees to the MBTA Board of Directors. Thus, taking our campaign demands straight to the Governor, coupled with other grassroots and media pressure, we were able to win a substantial victory.

In contrast, the MPO, at least on the surface, was a more complicated and convoluted entity. Most people have never heard of the MPO. In the end, we figured out that the Boston MPO was also a puppet of the Governor, controlled largely by the state transportation agencies. It really did not make any decisions on its own. What ended up in the MPO’s plans and prioritized for funding from year to year was still controlled by the Governor. As it turned out, the MPO process was largely a way to divert community energy away from the real sources of power.

2. Prioritize grassroots base-building and leadership development to shake up the power structure before you get to the decision-making table.
Our largest source of power in the fare increase campaign was not our expertise in fare policy and transit funding (though we had some), but the number of people and groups at the grassroots. The Governor feared being publicly branded as uncaring of low-income communities of color. All it took was front-page media coverage and direct action to force him to meet with us. Afterwards, it took just one phone call from him to MBTA, forcing them to open negotiations with us.

The MPO campaign did not contribute to grassroots base-building. In fact, it felt like it drew our attention away from organizing. The work was conducted almost exclusively by staff advocates and organizers, those who had the time and energy to navigate the institutional complexities. Though we had access to the decision-making table because of previous organizing efforts, we were not able to tilt that table in our favor, nor even to be more level, once we got there.

3. Pursue policy advocacy on a foundation of solid base-building.
Oftentimes, we get caught up in believing that if only we put all our effort into grassroots organizing or policy advocacy, we would be able to win more. We found that you need organizing in order to set up advocacy opportunities on more favorable terms. But the lure of access to the decision-making table is so great at times that we end up spending all of our time in advocacy rather than continually growing the base and developing new leadership. In the fare increase campaign, the grassroots base wedged open negotiations that were then taken on by a combination of staff advocates, organizers, and rider leaders. In the MPO, we were invited into its own process, set up on its terms and not ours.

4. Frame issues in terms understood by your constituency.
To maintain the winds that float the sails of grassroots organizing, you need to frame the issues in terms that are understood by your own constituency. In the Higher Fares are No Fair campaign, we brought to light the frustrations that hundreds of thousands of riders felt every day: why should they pay more if they are already dissatisfied with service? In the MPO campaign, public messaging was challenging, given the complex institutional structure and the fact that the decisions made by the MPO were not immediate and direct.

In transit justice issues, the core messages that always have some play include service (Is my bus late or overcrowded?), price (How much are fares?), and expansion (Will a new train run down my street?).

5. Make them play your game, on your turf, for as long as you can.
The lasting lesson for us is that we need to continue to build on our strength, which is our people power. We will never have the money or resources of our opponents. But if we have the grassroots base, then policy advocacy, media strategies, and coalition building can be used to complement the people power. If we frame issues in terms that will energize and resonate with our own communities, then we have the opportunity to wage campaigns that force decision makers to play our game, on our turf.

Penn Loh is the executive director of Alternatives for Community and Environment.

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Breathe At Your Own Risk: Transit Justice in West Harlem

12-1 Page 53 More than 15 years ago, community residents, ministers, and elected officials stood hand-in-hand with the newly-created West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. (WE ACT) as we convened a press conference to offer a challenge to the most indifferent government entity in New York—the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).


Those of us who have done battle with the MTA understand that they have “super” powers that leave them exempt from the basic standards other entities must follow. The MTA, a city- and state-directed entity, runs several commuter rail lines, as well as New York City’s subway and bus system. It operates the largest diesel bus fleet (4,000 vehicles) in the country, of which one-third is housed in Northern Manhattan.

We met in 1988 to protest the construction of a second bus depot in West Harlem—both adjacent to junior high schools—and we demanded that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be prepared. Though the land had not been occupied since it had been a trolley barn years before, a judge ruled that the MTA was exempt from preparing an EIS.

At the time that we held that press conference announcing the filing of a lawsuit against the MTA, we were still struggling with City Hall and the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) over the poor maintenance and faulty operations of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant. In December 1993, we settled with the city for a $1.1 million community environmental benefits fund and designation of WE ACT as a monitor of the city’s $55 million consent agreement to fix the plant.

What we had realized early on in the North River struggle was that our predominately African American and Latino community of West Harlem was being used as a dumping ground for noxious facilities and unwanted land uses, all administered and operated by government entities. Environmental racism was the same in the other three Northern Manhattan communities where 87 percent of the residents are people of color.

Neighborhoods in Northern Manhattan are surrounded by three major highways, and include two sewage treatment facilities and a marine garbage collection transfer station—which could be expanded due to New York City’s proposed solid waste plan. In addition, Northern Manhattan has several major truck transportation routes, a diesel-fueled Amtrak rail line, six of Manhattan’s eight diesel bus depots, and a large NY/NJ Port Authority bus station. The link between transportation, air quality, and public health is unmistakable.

With more than a half million people, Northern Manhattan covers only 7.4 square miles. It is located within four community districts—East, West, and Central Harlem and Washington Heights—each with its own Community Planning Board. Significant disparities in health status, access to services, health care, and the general quality of life exist among the various communities.

Considering that New York City’s asthma death rate is higher than that of any other city in the country, it would be accurate to refer to New York as the asthma capital of the United States. Since the Northern Manhattan community’s asthma mortality and morbidity rate is up to five times greater than the citywide average, and hospitalization rates for asthma are 21 times higher than in the least affected neighborhoods, New York City’s problem is Northern Manhattan’s crisis.

In numerous uptown neighborhoods, diesel bus depots are located next to schools, hospitals, recreational facilities, large housing complexes, and busy shopping districts. Because most of the depots are usually at or above capacity, dozens of buses are parked on the streets surrounding the depots, and during the winter months, many of them are left idling overnight. The impact of diesel bus soot is compounded by the fact that it is discharged at street level, where pedestrians are walking and breathing.

WE ACT realized we needed to develop a campaign on diesel buses and air quality. Through an EPA Pollution Prevention grant in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council, WE ACT secured resources to initiate a plan. WE ACT developed a multifaceted bilingual ad campaign that included 75 Spanish and English bus shelter advertisements in communities in Harlem and Washington Heights that read, “If You Live Uptown, Breathe At Your Own Risk.”

Key elements of the campaign included a thirty-second public service announcement that aired on Spanish-language cable television and a bilingual informational brochure for residents. The brochure described the extent of the problem and possible solutions. In addition, buttons and stickers with the campaign’s slogan were developed and distributed to hundreds of residents. Other elements of the campaign included posters of the ad, maps with the location of each depot, and a large chart indicating asthma rates in Northern Manhattan, as well as the number of bus depots located in the area. Finally, thousands of postcards were signed by residents and sent to the Governor and the MTA demanding a fair share of clean fuel investments for the Northern Manhattan community.

WE ACT testified at several City Council hearings and MTA Board meetings in an attempt to influence the city’s policy regarding the purchase of clean-fuel alternatives for the city’s bus fleet. Thousands of residents signed postcards that were sent to the President of the MTA and the Governor. The cards demonstrated that there was a large constituency that was concerned about this issue and demanding action. WE ACT was also a part of a coalition of environmental groups that worked directly with the MTA on the selection of a Manhattan depot for conversion to natural gas. The goal of the coalition is to change the MTA’s diesel policy and to monitor the MTA’s capital plans and implementation of its clean-fuel commitments.

Media Campaign
One of our most successful campaigns has been "The Clean Fuel—Clean Air—Good Health Diesel Bus Campaign." We achieved our objectives, which were to:

  • Heighten public awareness about the dangers of diesel fuel and its link to asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, heart attacks, lung cancer, and premature death, and to inform the public and the media that Northern Manhattan is home to six out of Manhattan’s eight diesel bus depots.
  • Enlist members of the impacted community in a campaign urging the MTA  to convert its fleet from diesel fuel to alternative fuels.
  • Promote the purchase of clean-fuel alternatives (such as compressed natural gas) for the city’s bus fleet by MTA.
  • Focuse attention on Governor Pataki who announced that the Manhattanville bus depot would be converted to natural gas as part of his Clean Fuel Bus program.
  • Increase the visibility of WE ACT throughout Northern Manhattan as an informational and educational resource on environmental health and quality of life issues.

The most important lesson of the campaign is that it takes thoughtful and comprehensive organizing, as well as resources, to carry out an effective campaign aimed at changing the practices of an institution. The campaign further underscores the importance of forming key partnerships. Furthermore, the campaign clearly demonstrates the willingness and eagerness of community residents to become involved in structured efforts to improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods. Finally, it demonstrates that community-based organizations are sophisticated enough to conduct an effective media campaign.

Securing adequate resources capable of funding a comprehensive and effective campaign is key. Educating community residents through means that they will understand and relate to is essential to getting their involvement. By increasing the public’s awareness of the issue you are essentially building its capacity to advocate for change. Any successful diesel campaign must seek creative, multifaceted approaches to capture the attention and the passion of the affected community. A successful campaign offers ordinary people practical avenues for participating in efforts to bring about change.

Because of WE ACT’s efforts to heighten the awareness of Northern Manhattan residents about the dangers of diesel fumes, local residents are now identifying this problem as a key quality of life issue. This has undoubtedly been one of our organization’s most successful campaigns because the people most affected by the disproportionate siting of these hazardous facilities have become their own best advocates.

With local residents making this issue a priority, elected officials are attempting to be more responsive, other organizations are offering support, and members of the local media are doing stories that provide increased exposure. As a result of WE ACT’s advocacy and organizing, the residents of Northern Manhattan are evolving into a constituency that is informed, organized, vocal, and unwilling to accept unfair policies that fail to protect and value their health and quality of life. 

Peggy Shepard is the co-founder and executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc.
This article is adapted from an essay published by The Environmental Justice Resource Center (EJRC) at Clark Atlanta University ( with the permission of the author.

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LA Bus Riders' Union Rolls Over Transit Racism

By Geoff Ray

In 1992 Bus Riders’ Union (BRU) organizers, organizers-in-training, and members rode thousands of buses for thousands of hours and began to build what has become a dues-paying membership of 2,500 persons and a very active leadership core of 200 riders. Many members have been active for five or more years. Another 40,000 people who ride the buses support our work, and many of them have participated in BRU fare strikes and other actions.

The Riders’ Union was organized by the Labor/Community Strategy Center, which was founded in 1989 with the mission to help rebuild vibrant, democratic working-class movements that directly challenge corporate power and corporate-dominated government agencies. While our work focuses on and is led by working-class communities of color—those most hurt by corporate and corporate-state policies—we encourage participation by people of all classes and races.

Since our founding, the BRU has literally saved public transportation in Los Angeles. In 1996, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) bus fleet was less than 2,100 buses, almost all diesel. More than half of the buses were totally dilapidated, many with more than 500,000 miles and ages of 14 to 20 years. Many did not run at all and those that did run, broke down. As a result, people were chronically late to work, school, and medical services. Through the BRU’s legal advocacy and grassroots organizing, the MTA agreed to dramatic improvements in the bus system, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in bus improvements for low-income transit dependent riders. These victories have included:

  • Reducing the monthly bus pass—which the MTA had tried to eliminate—to $42 a month (from $49), and creating the first $11 weekly bus pass. Consequently, bus pass use has increased and low-income riders save tens of millions of dollars each year. Lower-cost transit has led to significant increases in transit use since 1996.
  • Replacing 2,100 dilapidated diesel buses with Compressed Natural Gas buses.
  • Expanding the bus fleet by more than 300, from 2,100 buses to more than 2,400 buses.
  • Generating the first Rapid Bus lines that dramatically reduce transit times on major surface streets.

Origin of Victories
In 1994, the MTA, in a fit of class arrogance, launched a billion-dollar rail line to affluent Pasadena and simultaneously declared they were in a budget crisis. Solution? Eliminate the monthly unlimited-use bus pass and raise fares. The BRU and Strategy Center, with the help of Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates and the Southern Christian Leadership Council, convinced the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to file a class action lawsuit against the MTA. We strongly felt that the actions of the MTA violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which requires any public agency receiving federal money to spend all of its money in a racially equitable manner.

In our first major victory, Federal Judge Terry Hatter issued a Temporary Restraining Order against the MTA within days of the filing, stopping the cancellation of the bus pass. We used the legal victory to galvanize thousands of bus riders out of the disillusionment and sense of defeat that so many working-class people of color understandably feel after three decades of unrelenting right-wing and racist backlashes. Hundreds of riders a month became members.

Careful not to let the legal tactic dictate our grassroots organizing and mass tactics, the BRU launched a series of marches, rallies, and local speaking tours to progressive organizations of all kinds. We organized actions at MTA board meetings, press conferences, mass-leafleting, letter-writing campaigns, and media strategies. The objective was to raise the visibility of our demands.

We began to dramatically change the dominant terms of the debate, opening up the region of ten million people to concepts of transit racism.  We argued that civil rights and the environment come together powerfully in mass transit struggles and that working class transit needs should drive overall transit policy in Los Angeles. Through ongoing education we conveyed the central premise that, rail transit destroys mass transit because it is inherently too expensive for sprawling L.A.

It was very difficult to get the corporate media to cover us at first. But a combination of growing membership, creative and militant mass actions, and legal victories turned the BRU into one of the most media-covered forces in the region.

In October 1996, fearful of being found guilty of transit racism in federal court, the MTA settled with us.  They agreed to a landmark ten-year civil rights consent decree potentially worth billions of dollars for the bus system. Substantial fare reductions were an immediate victory. But before the ink was even dry, the $3 billion-a-year agency hired a team of corporate lawyers who have worked full-time for three years to deny, delay, and destroy the consent decree. In March 1999, we won a court ruling for 532 new buses and 1,500 new union jobs for drivers and mechanics—a ruling that Judge Hatter upheld comparing the MTA to segregationists.

Our long-term objective is to use these victories to help rebuild a national and international movement led by the working-class, communities of color, and women, whose enemy is the corporate system that, by definition, prioritizes profit maximization, deregulation, exploitation, and repression over civil rights, environmental justice, and human need.

Large rail construction companies, land developers, and politicians from both big business political parties who wanted to be big money brokers built a separate and unequal mass transit system in Los Angeles. On the one hand, they constructed the most expensive rail project in the world—a tiny number of miles that cost over $12 billion and carries only eight percent of L.A.’s mass transit riders. Mass transit carries about three percent of the daily trips of L.A.’s ten million residents.

On the other hand, the bus system was raided for rail and left to deteriorate to such a degree that it became the most overcrowded, unreliable, and oldest bus fleet of any major U.S. city. Ridership had dropped 40 percent since 1984. It should be no surprise to learn that bus riders make up 92 percent of mass transit users. L.A. transit riders are 85 percent people of color, 60 percent women, and almost 100 percent working class—65 percent have family incomes under $15,000.

Those $12 billion dollars squandered on rail could have revolutionized L.A.’s mass transit system to build a world class clean-fuel express bus system that not only served the needs of the existing 500,000 bus riders, but also could serve three or four million auto commuters and thereby dramatically clean up L.A.’s lethal air.

These same corporate forces and politicians helped undermine the Air Quality Management District (AQMD), the public agency in charge of cleaning up L.A.’s lethal air.

A critical related lesson, reflected throughout our organizing practice of the last dozen years, is that an organization that takes on corporate domination must remain resolutely independent of the Democratic Party and national labor bureaucracies—both profoundly controlled by corporate money and power. On particular issues or campaigns we may work closely with elected officials and labor unions, especially the more left and militant ones. But more often than not, multiracial Democratic politicians and labor bureaucrats have worked closely with white Republican politicians and corporate lobbyists to raid billions from bus riders and give virtual free reign to industrial polluters in L.A.

The lesson we draw is that only a systemic analysis can account for these patterns of behavior, and only a long-term movement strategy to change the corporate-dominated world system will bring about lasting economic, social, and environmental justice for all. 

Geoff Ray is a staff member with the Los Angeles–based Labor/Community Strategy Center.


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Free Transportation to Get Our Education

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The bright yellow school buses that collect students through the leafy streets of most American suburbs don’t stop in Oakland. Instead, Oakland families have to shell out $180 a year per child to get their child to class on public buses. And that’s if they have the money up front to buy a $15 monthly bus pass for each child. Families paying cash will need over $400 per child, and that’s only for riding the bus on school days.

Students who cannot afford their own transportation lose out on educational opportunities.  And school districts’ budgets suffer when absenteeism reduces their state funding.

In many parts of the United States, a public education includes the cost of transportation to the school.  But for years, Bay Area school boards, transit officials, and elected representatives have ignored the absentee students created by the lack of affordable bus passes, and ignored the traffic congestion and air pollution caused by those families that do use cars for trips to and from school. At the same time, these officials have spent billions of dollars on freeways, commuter trains, and BART to the airport. 

For over five years, students in Oakland have been leading an ongoing “Free Transportation to Get Our Education” Campaign to preserve discount youth passes. “We have a right to a free public education, but that right doesn’t mean much if your family can’t afford to get you there,” says Robert Ibarra, a student at McClymonds High School in West Oakland.

The Struggle Continues
In the past year, a new generation of organizers is taking up the campaign, partnering with adult allies from Urban Habitat and the Transportation Justice Working Group (a coalition of over ten community groups), to advance their campaign goals. 

As part of this year’s campaign, youth organizers  from Kids First—an organization in Oakland supporting youth leaders—developed a youth survey to determine transportation justice priorities for youth. 

Among other things, the survey found that:

  • One out of three students pays for bus passes and fares out of his/her own pocket.
  • Sixty-one percent of students said they sometimes use their lunch money to ride the bus.
  • Nearly fifty percent of low-income students reported that it was harder to get to school, jobs, or after-school programs without a free pass.
  • Seventy-seven percent of students surveyed depend on the bus for mobility.
12-1 page 58 image 1

The survey was also critical in helping young people develop a sense of their own expertise as transit riders. Several youth spoke of being intimidated at the beginning of the year at AC Transit Board of Directors’ meetings—they didn’t understand the jargon and also felt marginalized or tokenized by some Directors. Because of the survey they developed and administered to over 1,400 youth, the youth organizers felt empowered and by the end of the year, confidently stood before the Board to share their findings and advocate persuasively for their recommendations.

This current group of leaders follows in the footsteps of  earlier successes in temporarily winning a free youth pass for low-income students in AC transit’s service area. Kids First youth organizer, Alisa Gilmore, a leader from the 2001 campaign says, “Affordable transportation is a basic necessity for everyone, including students.”

History of the Campaign
At the beginning of the 2001 campaign, a youth bus pass cost $27 a month.  In the face of rapidly escalating community pressure, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission relented. On December 19, 2001,  it announced a commitment of two million dollars towards the pilot program over the next two years; within weeks, funds from AC Transit and the counties raised the commitment to four million.

12-1 page 58 image 2

As a result, more than 33,000 low-income students in the two-county region were eligible for free bus passes. The $27 monthly pass was reduced to $15 for all other middle- and high-school students.

The program was tremendously successful—the passes were used by over 27,000 low-income students. Participation in after-school programs increased dramatically, pointing to the critical need for affordable transportation to ensure basic access for low-income youth to enrichment opportunities and after-school employment.

But its overwhelming success contained the seeds of defeat.  AC Transit claimed that the program was too expensive.  In September 2003, the board discontinued the free passes and retrenched to the $15 pass. Then in 2005, AC Transit tried to eliminate the $15 pass, despite a parcel tax that won voter approval in 2004 specifically including financial support for the Youth Pass.  AC Transit again attempted to renege on its commitment to voters to keep transit affordable for school kids.

Once again the students and adult allies had to fight for the right to get to school to be educated.

Coalition partners leveraged resources to support the campaign, co-facilitated a retreat with our youth that allowed time for more intensive leadership training and strategy development, and fostered a greater understanding of the connection between transportation justice and other issues of concern to young people. At the retreat, the youth analyzed the survey results, and through a training by the Youth Media Council, developed talking points and messages and got comfortable communicating those messages in front of the camera and with members and allies. The San Francisco Public Health Depart-ment helped the students analyze the survey results.

The youth organizers led the way in developing a press conference and rally in front of AC Transit’s public hearing on fare increases to present their survey results and get their campaign demands heard. They mobilized adult allies to speak to the board including: Reverend Andre Shumake of Richmond, Oakland Unified School District school board, member Greg Hodge,  a representative from Senator Don Perata’s office, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, and Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia. The action was widely covered by local newspaper, television, and radio outlets.

Because of their advocacy and personal testimony about the devastating impact of the AC Transit’s proposal to eliminate monthly youth passes, they were able to sway the board to keep its promise to voters to protect the $15 youth pass. The youth also got a commitment from AC Transit Director Chris Peeples that he will hold the AC Transit Board accountable to commit to preserving the $15 youth pass until the parcel tax sunsets in 2015.

Next Steps
The Free Transportation to Get Our Education campaign will not stop until transportation costs are not a barrier to education and basic mobility for young people. Youth and adults will continue to work together to make sure that low-income youth are accounted for in the funding allocations by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission so that AC Transit has the subsidy it needs for lower fares. 

July Iny is the associate director of Kids First Oakland. Lila Hussain is the transportation and housing associate at Urban Habitat.


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Pittsburgh Youth Promote Environmental Justice

12-1 page 60

Do youth care about their communities? Can youth affect policy? Are youth changing the world? Students involved with the Youth Policy Institute say yes, yes, and yes!

Youth Policy Institute is a program of the Pittsburgh Transportation Equity Project, an organization whose mission is to engage, educate, and empower African American residents, groups, community and faith-based leaders to become advocates for transportation policy, equity issues, and regional planning.

Every year, over the course of four months, students participate in weekly workshops led by local and national experts in the fields of politics, social activism, and environmental justice. These weekly sessions cover topics ranging from “How a Bill Becomes Law” and “How to Lobby Your Legislators” to “The Disparate Impact of Global Climate Change.” During the summer months, we also participate in community engagement projects. Each project involves conducting thorough research, developing a creative mechanism for passing this information on to the community, and publicly presenting our work.

The Youth Policy Institute Class of 2005 worked on two different projects: dirty diesel exhaust and a community festival to promote and celebrate environmental justice. Both tracks had a special emphasis on global climate change and environmental justice.

The U.S. government defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” But we found that the movement sees environmental justice as much more than that. Community struggles for healthy living conditions in places like Altgeld Gardens in Chicago (Toxic Doughnut), Cancer Alley in Louisiana, and Mount Dioxin in Pensacola, Florida, are examples of environmental justice in action.

Dirty Diesel Project
For our first step we researched the environmental and health impacts of diesel exhaust. We found that diesel exposure is linked to cancer, asthma, and cardiovascular disease, and that diesel exhaust contains high levels of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that causes global warming. We examined global warming effects on low-income populations and people of color, due to droughts, flooding, severe hurricanes, and even disease epidemics.

In studying the history of the diesel engine, we learned that Rudolph Diesel, originally designed it to run on peanut oil. Modern diesel engines can be modified to run on vegetable oil—even oil already used to cook French fries! Further, we found that vegetable oil can easily be refined into biodiesel, a renewable and cleaner-burning fuel that can be used in any diesel vehicle without making modifications to the engine.

With the assistance of local biodiesel experts Greg Boulos and Nathaniel Doyno, we took recycled vegetable oil from a local restaurant, added the correct amount of lye and methanol, and then blended it all together. Voila! With a little elbow grease, we went from greasy French fry oil to several batches of biodiesel that could be used in any diesel engine!

Why bother? Because biodiesel contains less toxic particles than petroleum-based diesel, so it’s not as bad for human health. Moreover, while biodiesel still emits carbon dioxide, it is carbon that already exists in the global carbon cycle, rather than carbon that has been trapped below ground in fossil fuels for millions of years. Therefore, biodiesel isn’t increasing the total amount of carbon circulating in the global carbon cycle.
Just Jam 4 Justice
In order to pass our newfound information along to the community, we made a CD mix of popular dance music. We printed facts about diesel exhaust in the CD liner and distributed it out for free at “Just Jam 4 Justice” festival, the other half of this year’s Youth Policy Institute project.

More than 100 residents from the immediate and surrounding communities attended the September 17, 2005 event. To make it happen, we secured the use of a green city lot on which to hold the festival, solicited food and prize donations, recruited local hip-hop and spoken word artists, and lined up speakers from organizations that deal with environmental health issues. The keynote address was delivered by Ms. Ayanna King, founder and former executive director of Pittsburgh Transportation Equity Project, who is now director of the Office of Environmental Advocate at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

In addition to featuring music performers, and guest speakers from environmental health and justice organizations, we delivered presentations on the impact of global warming on low-income populations and communities of color throughout the world. We paid particular attention to the increasing frequency of severe storms and the disproportionate impact on those who cannot afford to escape their fury, from the South Pacific to New Orleans.

Anissa Tanweer is the coordinator of the Youth Policy Institute of the Pittsburgh Transportation Equity Project.

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Campaign Targets Diesel Trucks and Buses

Photo Essay

The Bay Area Ditching Dirty Diesel Collaborative “Don’t Sit Idle” campaign launched with awareness events in six communities. Starting at 3 a.m., residents of San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, and San Leandro distributed anti-idling fliers to truck and bus drivers as well as local residents. While a law limiting diesel truck idling to five minutes has been in place for a year, it is sporadically enforced and a loophole allows truckers to idle their vehicles overnight.

Diesel exhaust was declared a toxic air contaminant in 1998 by the California Air Resources Board.  It is harmful to respiratory health, particularly in children and the elderly. Numerous studies connect air pollution to asthma, premature death, lung cancer, and other respiratory conditions. The Bay Area is second only to Los Angeles in health incidences due to diesel pollution. Some communities, like Bayview Hunters Point and West Oakland, have asthma hospitalization rates as much as ten times higher than neighboring communities.

The Collaborative, however, sees truckers not as the problem but as part of the solution. “Truckers are part of this community—we live and work here—we owe it to our communities, and ourselves, to stop idling.” says Bill Aboudi, Operations Manager for AB Trucking.

In June 2004, a group of environmental health and justice organizations started developing a regional strategy to reduce diesel pollution. The Ditching Dirty Diesel Collaborative is now more than 20 organizations and 100 individuals strong, and represents neighborhoods from across the region.

Scott Braley is a freelance photographer based in Oakland, California. He can be reached at

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A National Transportation Equity Movement for Real Human Needs

In August 2005, the combined efforts of hundreds of community-based, grassroots advocacy and organizing groups succeeded in advancing a broad-based agenda for transportation reform in national legislation. Most media outlets viewed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act–A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) through the lens of specific highway or transit projects, or chose to criticize the bill’s spending excess. When the dust cleared, advocates for transportation equity had more to work with than anyone could have imagined only two years ago.

The Wins
The final bill, which authorized $286 billion in federal spending on transportation projects over a six-year period, included a number of provisions driven primarily by low-income grassroots constituencies. Many of the changes reflected, word for word, the language suggested by grassroots organizations:

  • Open up more than $200 billion in federally-funded highway projects to local hiring, specifically to create job training and employment opportunities for residents of low-income and minority communities. For further information on SAFETEA-LU provisions for local hiring, see "Federal Money--Local Jobs" , by Laura Barrett.
  • Guarantee more than $700 million—over six years—for the Job Access and Reverse Commute program, a transportation welfare-to-work fund to help low-wage workers access job opportunities otherwise out of their reach.
  • Place stronger public participation requirements on States and regional transportation planning organizations to involve stakeholders, including users of public transportation, in the planning process.
  • Emphasize funding accountability with requirements, such as a published “annual list of projects”, to provide communities a handle on tracking the distribution of federal transportation dollars.
  • Set aside additional resources to study and assess the impact of transportation funding and planning decisions on low-income and transit-dependent populations.

These victories were largely due to the work of the Transportation Equity Network (TEN) (, a national coalition of grassroots organizations and their allies committed to making the transportation decision-making process responsive to the needs of low-income and transit-dependent communities. Members of TEN include community- and institution-based organizing networks, statewide coalitions, disability rights and environmental activists, and public transportation and smart-growth advocates. Partners in the campaign involved bus rider unions from Los Angeles and Vermont, grassroots groups from Montgomery, Alabama, and Lincoln, Nebraska, and almost every state in between.

Key Factors in the Fight
One of the most important drivers for transportation legislation—at all levels of government—is money. Elected officials barter for prominent roles on key committees in Congress to ensure that they can bring projects to their communities. The dominant actors in transportation policy continue to be road builders, contractors, building trade and labor unions, developers, and representatives of industry sectors, including trucking, railways, automobile, and public transit.  Over the last two decades, however, organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, pedestrian safety and bicycle advocates, disability rights activists, and advocates for seniors have been com-peting, successfully, for the attention of policy makers. 

The most notable example of the efforts of this broad coalition of interests was the enactment of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act in 1991. The Surface Transportation Policy Project (www.transact.orgplayed a critical role in convincing policy makers to widen the constituency involved in the legislative process. The result was a bill that placed greater emphasis on coordinated regional planning and took into account a range of environmental, public transportation, and community interests.  The focus since then has been on building a coalition of interests broad enough to increase the monetary size of the bill. In the most recent reauthorization process, fiscal conservatives and ideologues within the Republican Party fought to keep the funding level for SAFETEA-LU as low as possible, but pragmatic politics carried the day, and the final bill came in at over $30 billion above what the administration had said it could accept.

Pragmatic politics also prevailed when pro-business and road-building interests attempted to use the SAFETEA-LU bill at its inception to gut the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA lays out a process to ensure that various environmental and community needs are consulted in the development of transportation projects that may impact environmental, historic, and community resources. Although Congress made some changes to the environmental review process, it failed to enact the sweeping changes first contemplated, thanks to pragmatic coalition politics.

Until a couple of years ago, low-income and environmental justice activists had not had experience working with key policy makers in Congress, particularly Republican committee chairs. Beginning in 2002, TEN developed a comprehensive agenda for renewal of the federal transportation bill, which entailed increasing resources for public transportation to address the needs of the transit-dependent, increasing public involvement in the transportation planning process, strengthening enforcement of environmental justice guidelines, and promoting economic development in low-income communities.

To push its agenda, TEN brought individuals directly affected by transportation policies to meet with their policy makers in person. A key turning point came when a high-level Republican staffer on the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over public transportation spending, agreed to weigh proposals that came before her against the interests of the grassroots leaders with whom she had begun to develop a relationship. A second major turning point came when grassroots and faith leaders in St. Louis, Missouri, extracted a commitment from a key Republican Senator on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over highways, to support local hiring on transportation projects.

What Remains to Be Done
Although victorious in some aspects of SAFETEA-LU, other elements of TEN’s reauthorization agenda, such as strengthening enforcement of federal civil rights and environmental justice requirements in federal legislation, never gained traction in Congress, or for that matter, among the broader coalition of national allied constituencies. This was partly because of the nature of the congressional leadership in this Congress and partly because progressive forces were focused on preventing major losses in environmental legislation and regulation. Most importantly,  many in the civil rights and environmental justice communities were concerned with reversing the impact of the 2001 Supreme Court decision limiting the scope of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While there will be much to do in the coming years to realize the victories that TEN accomplished in the reauthorization of the federal transportation bill, it is not too early to begin imagining what might be possible when the next reauthorization cycle comes in 2009.

Transportation is an issue that intersects a wide range of progressive causes—environmental protection, disability rights, civil rights, government accountability and transparency, sustainable economic development, smart growth, and rural access to services. The extent to which transportation planning and projects impact low-income and transit-dependent communities must be a key factor in all discussions, and work needs to be done to bring the various constituencies together under a common vision of environmental justice. With limited resources, grassroots groups were able to accomplish much with the enactment of SAFETEA-LU. Foundations and other financial supporters should give greater priority to transportation equity and put more resources into supporting organization and leadership development among affected communities. Finally, in national conversations about policies on poverty and the environment, transportation equity should be considered on a par with affordable housing and air quality. 

Rich Stolz has worked at the Center for Community Change since 1997.  He served as the staff coordinator of the Transportation Equity Network, a national coalition of grassroots organizations and allies that worked to influence mammoth federal transportation legislation in 1998 and 2005. Additional details on these reforms and other positive provisions of the bill can be found at

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Federal Money--Local Jobs

The local hiring language in SAFETEA-LU was championed jointly by the Transportation Equity Network, the Gamaliel Foundation, Representatives Millender-McDonald and Costello, and Senators Bond and Obama. The new law directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to let communities create their own agreements around local and minority hiring.  This allows communities to create local jobs by directly accessing the $286 billion SAFETEA-LU funds. Benefits of Local Hiring Agreements:

  • Local communities have more control over how their tax money is spent. 
  • Residents around highway and transit projects get access to the living wage jobs that these massive projects create. 
  • Welfare, jail, and other poverty-related costs to the community are reduced because more residents have living wage jobs. 
  • Job benefits are more equitably distributed throughout the region, rather than being concentrated in a few high-growth suburban corridors.
  • The unemployed, underemployed, and people of color are given the opportunity to move into construction careers. 

Community groups can pass their own local hiring ordinances on highway and transit money at the city council, county council, or state legislative levels. They should identify their best partners and create a strategy that moves toward a regional agreement.

Metropolitan Congregations United and United Congregations of Metro-East in St. Louis plan to have a local hiring ordinance for all public money passed in four counties and several cities surrounding St. Louis. The groups had strong relationships with a few mayors and county executives, and decided to access those allies first, before taking on the state Department of Transportation. They also hope to get support from their Metropolitan Planning Organization, East West Gateway, which governs 13 counties. The groups are moving fast because pending highway projects, such as the new Mississippi River Bridge and the widening of Highway 40/64, are worth almost a billion dollars, which can translate to 47,000 potential jobs for local low-income, minority, and women residents.

“If we beef up our pre-apprenticeship programs now, and get our folks into training, we can build our workforce from our own communities. That’s important to local citizens who have been left out of our country’s economic boom, and to the 3,000 plus Katrina survivors who are with us now in the St. Louis area,” says Dr. Ron Trimmer, United Congregations board member. “We will work to ensure that highway and transit spending produce living wage jobs for our local citizens.”

Creating Local Hiring Agreements
While specific communities will have to negotiate their own terms with public officials, the following basics should be included:

  • A clear indication of the type and size of funds involved, as per the agreement
  • A firm definition of compliance
  • Monitoring and enforcement protocols
  • First source jobs programs
  • Pre-apprentice, apprentice, and training programs
  • Recruitment and outreach plans

What Other Groups Have Done

Gamaliel Foundation Affiliates: BRIDGE in Baltimore, Maryland, the New Jersey Regional Coalition, ARISE in Albany, New York, and MICAH in Wisconsin, have all won community benefits agreements on particular development projects. Developers have agreed to hire a certain number of local residents and/or provide affordable housing as part of a housing development project. JOB in San Diego and Oakland Coalition of Congregations in California are currently working on similar campaigns.

Alameda Corridor Jobs Coalition (ACJC), Los Angeles, California:  The Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority adopted the plan submitted by ACJC requiring that 30 percent of all work hours on the $2.4 billion rail project be performed by residents of the affected low-income communities along the corridor. The agreement included a commitment of 1,000 training slots—650 for pre-apprenticeship construction trades training, and 350 for non-trades construction training—for low-income residents over the three-year life of the project.

Local Construction Employment Referral Program, Oakland, California: Created in 1993, when Oakland adopted its local hiring ordinance, the program requires all Oakland Redevelopment Agency projects and all City of Oakland construction projects of $50,000 or more to hire Oakland residents for at least 50 percent of all work hours and for 50 percent of all new jobs. The program maintains a database of 2,637 workers and has placed 1,618 since July 1993.  It is a local hiring policy that has effectively incorporated organized labor.

For more information contact Dr. Ron Trimmer, or Laura Barrett, Metro Equity Dept.,

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Transit Unions: Key Allies in the Struggle for Transportation Justice

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Since January 2003, Bay Area transit unions have attempted to coalesce into a force that can impact regional transit policy. TransitWorks was formed to support proposed legislation that would raise the bridge tolls in the region to generate revenue for a variety of transportation projects, which in turn would benefit the various financially strapped transit agencies.

Immediately, the unions began to mobilize their members to support the toll increase and generate public support for the measure. TransitWorks engaged in a variety of activities to promote the measure—holding press conferences, leafleting transit riders, even taking the unprecedented step of lobbying in the state capitol. These activities complemented the activities of other transportation advocates, and the measure became law.

Since then, TransitWorks and its participating unions have continued working together and with transportation justice advocates when necessary.  Recently, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger attempted to reduce funding for one of the local bus systems, the relationships developed between TransitWorks and community activists facilitated quick joint action, and the funding was restored.

Why Coalitions Are Critical
A transportation justice movement without labor as a key ingredient is a movement fated not to achieve its full potential.  Relative to other social justice organizations, unions have tremendous financial and human resources.  At its best, the labor movement uses these resources to successfully advance the needs of working people.  Beyond the issue of power, unions share another important commonality with most groups fighting for transportation equity: unions and these community-based organizations are fundamentally urban institutions whose greatest strength and potential base lie in cities. While the labor movement itself is a coalition of unions, one segment of unions which are natural allies of transportation justice advocates are transit unions.

Transit unions are natural allies of the transportation justice movement for several reasons.  In the policy arena, transportation equity demands both more funding and a re-allocation in funding.  Such changes would begin to redress racially disparate outcomes in the delivery of transportation services.  While it is clear why communities of color and low-income communities support transportation equity, it may not be readily apparent that unions representing mass transit workers have an interest in transportation equity as well.  But the fact is that local transportation agencies have responded to fiscal crises by slashing services, denying workers needed wage increases, laying off employees, and contracting out various aspects of the transit system.  Additional funding for urban mass transit and a re-allocation of funds toward buses and away from highways would help forestall these responses.  In addition, the members of transit unions are predominately workers of color, and their jobs are one of the few remaining jobs where working class kids with just a high school diploma (or some college) can find employment, which allows them to raise a family decently. To the extent that race and ethnicity are still salient ties that bind communities and facilitate struggle, transit unions representing workers of color will tend to identify with communities of color in attempts to address those communities’ basic needs.

The initial coalition building that has been accomplished through TransitWorks demonstrates the following lessons. First, the labor movement can be a powerful ally in the struggle for transportation equity. Second, coalitions can be very successful, but they require a great deal of slow, deliberate work. Third, these successes are difficult to sustain in the context of limited resources and the short-term thinking that dictates the actions of transportation justice advocates and transit unions. Last, but not least, especially in regions with multiple transit agencies and unions, a coalition of transit unions can be a precursor to the formation of a larger alliance between labor and communities united in the fight for transportation equity and social and economic justice. 

Steve Pitts is a labor policy specialist at the University of California at Berkeley Labor Center, where he focuses on alternative strategies for worker organizing, and economic development and social policy with an emphasis on labor–community alliances.
Good Jobs First ( has published several reports documenting these shared interests.  See: “Talking to Union Leaders About Smart Growth” (2001); “Labor Leaders as Smart Growth Advocates: How Unions See Suburban Sprawl and Work for Smart Growth Solutions”(2003); and “The Jobs Are Back in Town: Urban Smart Growth and Construction Employment” (2003).

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Transportation Solutions

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Current transportation systems and land use patterns tend to be relatively “automobile dependent,” meaning that they provide a relatively high level of service to motorists, but inferior access by other modes. Since physically, economically, and socially disadvantaged people tend to have limited ability to drive, automobile dependency tends to make them even worse off. Planning reforms that create more balanced, multi-modal transportation systems and more accessible land use patterns tend to support social equity objectives, such as helping the poor access education and employment opportunities, and helping disabled people access medical services and social activities. Many of these reforms are incremental and their equity impact may appear small, but the cumulative effects of a well planned package of reforms that improve travel options and reduce automobile dependency can substantially increase social equity.

Market Distortions
One important way of improving transportation for disadvantaged people is to correct existing market distortions that favor automobile travel over other modes, and that contribute to urban sprawl. Many common planning practices that contribute to automobile dependency reflect market distortions that violate basic economic principles. Planning reforms that correct these distortions can help achieve multiple economic, social, and environmental objectives.

The underpricing of automobile transportation in planning models is fundamental to the skewed preference for automobile dependent systems. Although vehicles are expensive to own, they are relatively cheap to drive—just a few cents per mile in direct expenses—because most costs, such as depreciation, insurance, registration, and residential parking, are fixed. Other costs, such as free parking and local road maintenance, plus the costs associated with congestion, accident risks, and environmental impacts, are external, funded by general tax revenues. In fact, less than half the costs of driving are efficiently priced. This increases per capita automobile travel and reduces demand for alternative modes, which leads to a self-reinforcing cycle of automobile-dependency.

Other distortions that favor motorized travel include:

  • Travel surveys undercount non-motorized travel (walking and cycling trips) and overlook short or non-commute trips, and travel by children. A multi-modal trip involving walking, a bus ride, and bicycling may be counted solely as a transit trip.
  • Economic evaluations of transportation investments often ignore the true impacts of increased vehicular traffic—incremental parking, traffic accidents, and consumer costs—and the real benefits of alternative modes of transport.
  • Most travel models do not account for the negative impacts of additional vehicular traffic that results from roadway capacity expansion, and overestimate the economic benefits of urban highway projects.
  • Transportation planning indicators, such as average traffic speeds, congestion delays, and roadway level of service, measure mobility rather than accessibility.

Current funding practices tend to increase automobile dependency by favoring parking and roadway facilities over alternative modes of transport, even if the latter are more cost-effective. Most parking costs are bundled into building costs, often due to zoning code requirements, or funded through special accounts. Many jurisdictions have dedicated highway funds that either cannot be used for other transportation projects, or which provide lower matching rates for alternatives. In addition, land use planning practices tend to encourage lower-density, single-use, urban fringe development, which is unsuited for access by alternative modes.

Although individual market distortions may seem modest and justified, their effects are cumulative, significantly increasing transportation inequities and problems. For example, many businesses provide free parking, a subsidy that typically increases automobile travel by 15 to 25 percent. Offering a comparable benefit for users of other modes of transport is more equitable and an effective way to reduce congestion and pollution problems.

Win-Win Transportation Solutions
Integrated transportation planning gives as much weight to managing demand as to increasing capacity.  It considers all significant costs and benefits, including non-market impacts. And it involves the public in developing and evaluating alternatives.

For example, instead of segregated highway and public transit programs, funding available for roadway and parking facility expansion projects could be used for transit improvements, rideshare programs, or mobility management programs if they are proven to be more cost effective overall.

Improvement in the public transit system—such as additional routes, expanded coverage, increased service frequency, and longer hours of operation; comfort improvements; pricing innovations; improved rider information; and transit oriented development (neighborhoods designed around transit stations)—would bring benefits for all.

Win-Win Solutions, such as mileage-based pricing for insurance and car registration, road congestion pricing, managing parking access, and other modest reforms, are “no regret” measures whose combined benefits can be substantial while increasing consumer benefits and economic development. 

Parking access changes, such as reduced or flexible minimum parking requirements, cash subsidies for employees, and unbundling parking from building space, can encourage more transit use.

Pay-as-you-drive pricing, which bases insurance premiums on a vehicle’s mileage during the policy term, makes insurance more equitable and affordable, and benefits lower-income motorists who tend to drive their vehicles less than average.

High occupancy vehicles-only lanes give buses, vanpools, and carpools priority over general traffic. High-occupancy vehicles-only lanes are a more efficient and equitable allocation of road space and use of road capacity (they impose less congestion on other road users), and can serve as an incentive to shift transportation modes.

Commute trip reduction programs give commuters resources and incentives to reduce their automobile trips. They typically include improved transportation options, such as ridesharing, transit, telework and flextime, and incentives such a parking cash out or parking pricing.

Walking and bicycling improvements directly substitute for automobile trips and support public transit and ridesharing. Residents of communities with good walking and bicycling conditions drive less and use transit more.

“Smart Growth” land use improves accessibility for non-drivers and encourage the development of more compact, pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented communities, where residents need to drive less.

Carsharing provides affordable, short-term (hourly and daily rate) motor vehicle rentals in residential areas, giving consumers a convenient and affordable alternative to vehicle ownership.

Traffic management designs reduce traffic speeds and volumes, and discourage short-cuts through residential neighborhoods. This increases road safety and community livability, and creates a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly environment.

Road/congestion pricing, where motorists pay a fee to drive on a particular roadway causes drivers to  shift travel times, routes, destinations, and modes of transport, and increases overall transportation efficiency.

Many transportation problems are impossible to resolve without some of the reforms suggested. Unfortunately, although transportation planners recognize their potential benefits, they often treat them as last resort measures, to be used to address specific congestion and air pollution problems where conventional solutions prove to be ineffective. If fully implemented to the degree that they are economically justified, Win-Win Solutions could reduce motor vehicle impacts by 20 to 40 percent, and help meet Kyoto emission reduction targets. 

Todd Litman is founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute and author of Online TDM Encyclopedia, a resource for identifying and evaluating mobility management strategie,  and  Transportation Cost and Benefit Analysis.

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  1. Sally Cairns, et al. (2004), Smarter Choices - Changing the Way We Travel, UK Department for Transport (
  2. CCAP (2005), Transportation Emissions Guidebook: Land Use, Transit & Travel Demand Management, Center for Clean Air Policy (
  3. Forkenbrock, David J., and Glen E. Weisbrod (2001), Guidebook for Assessing the Social and Economic Effects of Transportation Projects, NCHRP Report 456, Transportation Research Board, National Academy Press (
  4. ICLEI (2005), Case Studies and Transport Project Summaries International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (
  5. Litman, Todd (2005), Win-Win Transportation Solutions, VTPI (
  6. USEPA, Gateway to International Best Practices and Innovations (, EPA National Center for Environmental Innovation.
  7. VTPI (2005), Online TDM Encyclopedia, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (
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Transit Oriented Development Revitalizes Chicago Neighborhood

"In development work, there is no such thing as a cookie cutter,” says Trinette Britt-Reid, a consultant at Bethel New Life, a faith-based community development corporation in Garfield Park on Chicago’s West Side. Garfield Park is an older urban community within the Chicago Empowerment Zone, an area torn by riots in the 1960s and weakened by decades of declining population, abandoned properties, poverty, crime, and drugs.

For more than 20 years, Bethel has executed a variety of community development projects in this neighborhood—affordable housing, commercial industrial development, employment services—and also brought in health and human services, including daycare. Since the mid-1990s, acting with several partners in the public and private sectors, Bethel has taken a transit-oriented development approach, building on an unexpected neighborhood asset: an elevated train stop (or “the El,” as Chicagoans call their venerable rail transit system). Bethel wants to make the El station an anchor for area revitalization efforts.

In the early 1990s, the Chicago Transit Authority threatened to close the rail line that linked West Chicago to the Loop. Without the El, Garfield Park residents would have had great difficulty in getting to jobs downtown and throughout the city. So, a group of churches and neighborhood organizations, including Bethel, joined forces to form the Lake Street Coalition, which fought to keep the station at Pulaski and Lake Streets open. In 1995, the Transit Authority committed $380 million to rebuild both the Lake Street line and the Jackson Street line on the south side. With more than 2,000 people passing through Lake Street each day, Bethel and its coalition partners realized that it is a natural magnet for development, and are drawing on public and private resources to cluster affordable housing, jobs, shops, and support services around the El station.

“It’s a slow process. It’s a long process. But it’s exciting,” says Britt-Reid, who manages all aspects of the transit-oriented development. “You have to have patience, endurance, faith, and vision. If you can hang on to it, it works. It happens.”

Restoring the “Ruined Houses”
Bethel New Life began in 1979, when Mary Nelson and her brother David, a minister at Bethel Lutheran Church in West Garfield Park, decided to literally interpret a line from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah to address the disinvestment and distress in the neighborhood. The line reads, “You will be known as the people who rebuilt the walls, who restored the ruined houses.”

By raising $9,600 from the congregation, borrowing on their credit cards, and purchasing a nearby three-unit apartment building that had been foreclosed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Nelsons and their church began the first of many redevelopment projects near the church. Since then, Bethel has built or rehabilitated more than 1,000 housing units and brought more than $99 million in investment to the neighborhood. Yet, the focus of community development for Bethel is not bricks and mortar but the people of Garfield Park. Over the years, the faith-based community development corporation has graduated 4,250 people from job training programs, placed 1,500 people in jobs, and founded a network of 25 daycare homes. Today, Bethel has an operating income of over $8 million and employs more than 350 people.

One of Bethel’s more ambitious undertakings was the century-old St. Anne’s hospital facility, which closed in 1989. Wanting to preserve this neighborhood landmark, Bethel rehabilitated the 9.2 acre campus into the Beth-Anne Community Center in 1999. The center includes 125 one-bedroom apartments for low-income elderly, a child development center, a small business center, a professional center, and other enterprises.

Creating 100 New Jobs
Since 1995, Bethel has been working to assemble and broker land around the El station. Bethel’s goal is “to develop at least ten businesses with opportunities for at least ten percent local ownership, to increase ridership on the Green Line, to create more than 100 new jobs in the area, and to contribute to building an attractive commercial area.”

In the spring of this year, job trainees at Bethel were responsible for disassembling an old brick building on the northwest corner of Lake and Pulaski, where construction of a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient commercial building is scheduled to begin this fall. It will house a daycare center, a medical clinic, a pharmacy, office space, and an employment and training center. Commuting parents will be able to drop their children off at the daycare center and get on the El by covered walkway.

Designed by Farr and Associates, the building features photovoltaic cells, recycled materials, and a living rooftop garden that will be visible to riders on the El. In this architecture-conscious city, the building is sure to become a landmark. These current efforts will enhance Bethel’s other revitalization work on Pulaski Street, which began in 1999 with the rehabilitation of a commercial building, one block away from the El stop. That building now houses a drug store, a taxi company, and Bethel’s employment center.

Rehabilitation Gains a Critical Mass
With the help of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a national technical assistance organization that had helped organize the Lake Street Coalition, Bethel initiated a neighborhood planning process. The neighborhood vision called for attractive housing within walking distance of the Lake Street station. “You need a critical mass of houses to turn a neighborhood around,” says Britt-Reid, “not just a rehabilitated house here and there.”

Doug Farr, the architect on the project, attended the community meetings and came up with a plan for 200 energy-efficient, affordable, single-family homes. The housing will be in four clusters, each with a school or active church as a neighborhood anchor. The clusters will include play areas for children, small parks, and traffic-slowing circles. Bethel Lutheran, which anchors one of the clusters, is promoting the new single-family homes to its parishioners.

Working with local alderman Ed Smith, Bethel engaged the help of the city by presenting the new housing as part of Chicago’s commitment to rapid transit, and by the end of 2000, 22 homes had been built. The homes were made affordable by Housing and Urban Development Nehemiah Opportunity Grants, the New Homes for Chicago program, subsidies from the Federal Home Loan Bank’s Affordable Housing Program, mortgage subsidies from the Neighborhood Lending Program, a revolving fund for upfront costs supported by an Amoco grant, and in some cases, the sweat equity of future owners. 

For more information, contact: Marcia Turner, (773) 473–7870.
Reprinted courtesy of U.S. Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research.

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Curitiba Bus System is Model for Rapid Transit

By Joseph Goodman, Melissa Laube, and Judith Schwenk

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Bus systems provide a versatile form of public transportation with the flexibility to serve a variety of access needs and unlimited range of locations throughout a metropolitan area. Buses also travel on urban roadways, so infrastructure investments can be substantially lower than the capital costs required for rail systems. As a result, bus service can be implemented cost-effectively on many routes. Yet, despite the inherent advantages of a bus service, conventional urban buses inching their way through congested streets don’t win much political support. The essence of a Bus Rapid Transit is to improve bus operating speed and reliability on arterial streets by reducing or eliminating the various types of delay.

The bus system of Curitiba, Brazil, exemplifies a model Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, and plays a large part in making this a livable city. The buses run frequently—some as often as every 90 seconds—and reliably, and the stations are convenient, well-designed, comfortable, and attractive. Consequently, Curitiba has one of the most heavily used, yet low-cost, transit systems in the world. It offers many of the features of a subway system—vehicle movements unimpeded by traffic signals and congestion, fare collection prior to boarding, quick passenger loading and unloading—but it is above ground and visible. Around  70 percent of Curitiba’s commuters use the BRT to travel to work, resulting in congestion-free streets and pollution-free air for the 2.2 million inhabitants of greater Curitiba.

The Evolution of Curitiba’s BRT
Thirty years ago, Curitiba’s forward-thinking and cost-conscious planners integrated public transportation into all the other elements of the urban planning system. They initiated a system that focused on meeting the transportation needs of all people—rather than those using private automobiles—and consistently followed through with a staged implementation of their plan. They avoided large-scale and expensive projects in favor of hundreds of modest initiatives.

A previous comprehensive plan for Curitiba, developed in 1943, had envisioned exponential growth in automobile traffic with wide boulevards radiating from the core of the city to accommodate it. Rights of way for the boulevards were acquired, but many other parts of the plan never materialized. Then in 1965, prompted by fears among city officials that Curitiba’s rapid growth would lead to unchecked development and congested streets, they adopted a new Master Plan. Curitiba would no longer grow in all directions from the core, but would grow along designated corridors in a linear form, spurred by zoning and land use policies promoting high density industrial and residential development along the corridors. Downtown Curitiba would no longer be the primary destination of travel, but a hub and terminus. Mass transit would replace the car as the primary means of transport within the city, and the development along the corridors would produce a high volume of transit ridership. The wide boulevards established in the earlier plan would provide the cross section required for exclusive bus lanes in which an express bus service would operate.
A Hierarchical System of Bus Services
Curitiba’s bus system is composed of a hierarchical system of services. Minibuses routed through residential neighborhoods feed passengers to conventional buses on circumferential routes around the central city and on inter-district routes. The backbone of the system is composed of the Bus Rapid Transit, operating on the five main arteries leading into the center of the city like spokes on a wheel hub.

Buses running in the dedicated lanes stop at cylindrical, clear-walled tube stations with turnstiles, steps, and wheelchair lifts. Passengers pay their fares as they enter the stations, and wait for buses on raised platforms. Instead of steps, buses have extra wide doors and ramps that extend out to the station platform when the doors open. The tube stations serve the dual purpose of providing shelter from the elements, and facilitating the simultaneous loading and unloading of passengers, including wheelchairs, efficiently. This system of same-level bus boarding, plus the pre-boarding fare payment, results in a typical dwell time of no more than 15 to 19 seconds at a stop.

Passengers pay a single fare equivalent to about 40 cents (U.S.) for travel throughout the system, with unlimited transfers between buses at terminals where different services intersect. Transfers occur within the prepaid sections of the terminals, so transfer tickets are not needed. Also, located within these terminals are conveniences, such as public telephones, post offices, newspaper stands, and small retail facilities.

Ten private bus companies, which run the actual buses, are paid by distance traveled rather than  passenger volume to allow a balanced distribution of bus routes and eliminate clogging of main roads. All ten bus companies earn an operating profit. The city pays the companies about one percent of the bus value per month. After ten years, the city takes control of the buses and uses them for transportation to parks, or as mobile schools.
The Intersection of Transit and Land Use Planning
Curitiba’s Master Plan integrated transportation with land use planning, calling for a cultural, social, and economic transformation of the city. It limited central area growth, while encouraging commercial growth along the transport arteries radiating out from the city center. The city center was partly closed to vehicular traffic, and pedestrian streets were created. Linear development along the arteries reduced the traditional importance of the downtown area as the primary focus of day-to-day transport activity, thereby minimizing congestion and the typical morning and afternoon flows of traffic. Instead, rush hour in Curitiba has heavy commuter movements in both directions along the public transportation arteries.

Other policies have also contributed to the success of the transit system. Land within two blocks of the transit arteries is zoned for high density, since it generates more transit ridership per square foot. Beyond the two blocks, zoned residential densities taper in proportion to distance from transitways. Planners discourage auto-oriented centers and channel new retail growth to transit corridors. Very limited public parking is available in the downtown area, and most employers offer transportation subsidies, especially to low-skilled and low-paid employees.

The BRT—A Success Story
The popularity of Curitiba’s BRT has effected a modal shift from automobile travel to bus travel. Based on 1991 traveler survey results, it was estimated that the introduction of the BRT had caused a reduction of about 27 million auto trips per year, saving about 27 million liters of fuel annually. In particular, 28 percent of BRT riders previously traveled by car. Compared to eight other Brazilian cities of its size, Curitiba uses about 30 percent less fuel per capita, resulting in one of the lowest rates of ambient air pollution in the country. Today about 1,100 buses make 12,500 trips every day, serving more than 1.3 million passengers—50 times the number from 20 years ago. Eighty percent of travelers use the express or direct bus services. Best of all, Curitibanos spend only about 10 percent of their income on travel—much below the national average. 

This article is excerpted from a Federal Transportation Administration publication on Issues in Bus Rapid Transit. Bert Arrillaga, chief of the Service Innovation Division in the Office of Mobility Innovation, provided guidance and overall direction for its content. Staff members from both the Federal Transportation Administration and the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe Center) participated in its writing. Adapted for publication in RP&E by B. Jesse Clarke.

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Creating Great Communities in the San Francisco Bay Area

Residents in the San Francisco Bay Area are suffering from stratospheric housing prices and problems brought on by years of sprawling development, such as all-day traffic gridlock and inaccessible jobs and services. But over the next five years, the San Francisco Bay Area will have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to stop poorly planned growth and reinvest in the existing communities. That is why the four leading Bay Area nonprofits that work on transportation, housing, social equity, and open space issues have launched the Great Communities Initiative—an unprecedented collaborative that brings together the necessary technical expertise, organizing depth, and community contacts communities need to relieve the housing crisis and improve their neighborhoods.

Displacement and Gentrification
Displacement is well underway in some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most vital ethnic neighborhoods, such as Bayview Hunters Point, the Fruitvale, West Oakland, and Richmond. Residents need an annual household income of over $200,000 to afford the Bay Area’s median home price of $646,000. Three of the five least affordable U.S. cities for renters are San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose.[1] 

As costs spiral out of control, displacement is affecting a wide range of residents. Poor people of color are being hit the hardest, and it will only get worse if we do not change course. The Bay Area expects a surge of 1.7 million new people over the next 25 years and the region is not providing enough affordable new homes.[2] 

Business-as-usual means “displacement” for poor people of color in the Bay Area. When families are pushed out, priced out, or kicked out, it tears at the fabric of the community, fuels more displacement, and weakens the schools, churches, and social networks that support residents through economic hardships.

At the same time, Bay Area residents fed up with sprawl are increasingly declaring natural areas and working farms off-limits to development. With this open space protection comes a responsibility to ensure that new homes are built in existing urban areas, especially in public transit corridors where it is possible to have homes and transportation that people can afford.

Neighborhoods within a half-mile radius of transit stations, known as “station areas,” represent the Bay Area’s best hope for safe, affordable homes in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods rich with services. The proximity to transit and services allows families to invest in home equity, education, and other wealth-building activities, instead of spending on automobiles, which depreciate in value very quickly. This is why families in these areas qualify for larger Fannie Mae mortgages.

We have all heard about the handful of successful transit villages, such as the nationally acclaimed Fruitvale Transit Village in Oakland. But to maintain housing availability for people of all incomes and ethnicities, protect the environment, promote active living, and ensure regional transit access to jobs, education, and services, we need to drastically shift regional growth patterns so that such development is the norm rather than the exception.

Unfortunately, the obstacles to building such communities are significant. Outdated zoning codes prohibit traditional town centers with their mix of homes, shops, and businesses, and state fiscal policies compel cities to pursue sales tax revenues over affordable housing. Worse still, most decisions about where and how to grow do not involve community members in a meaningful way. So residents often oppose infill development, if they see it as beig imposed on them without adequate community benefits. Community organizations in low-income areas end up having to fight individual projects while larger forces cause a tide of displacement and erosion of community services.

Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity
Here in the Bay Area, we have an opportunity to find a better way. Since 2000, Bay Area voters have approved $12 billion in new mass transit investments and the region will add 100 new stations to the existing 305 rapid transit stations. This expansion includes new subway, light rail, and rapid bus corridors in many of the region’s lowest-income neighborhoods.

In addition, a new policy from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) requires community planning processes in new station areas. There is also more public and private funding for station area plans, in existing neighborhoods as well as where transit is expanding.

Changing demographics indicate that more Bay Area residents will be looking to live close to transit, and analysts expect a demand for an additional 550,000 homes near transit by 2025.[3]

Infill development around station areas is also more financially viable than before. With developers willing to invest millions in planning, there are more opportunities to demand that they reinvest their profits in the community, through amenities such as libraries, parks, schools, child-care centers, and other essential services.

But we will only secure those improvements if we organize together.

The Great Communities Initiative
Spearheaded by the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, Urban Habitat, Greenbelt Alliance, and the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, the primary goal of the Great Communities Initiative (GCI) is to ensure that half of all new homes built by 2030 are in pedestrian-friendly communities close to mass transit, at prices affordable to people of all income levels.

GCI’s anchor partners will work with community groups to ensure that development plans preserve local assets and identify and fund needed services and amenities, such as parks, childcare centers, and libraries, while also supporting appropriate local economic development. We will also work with local advocates and decision-makers to involve key stakeholders in planning processes; provide education about best practices; analyze the strengths and weaknesses of draft plans; help develop effective media strategies; and overall, strive to make sure that exemplary plans gain widespread support.

Activating Communities: Together, We Can Do It
Whether our passion is social equity, open space protection, affordable housing, or sustainable transportation, we must work together to ensure that new development furthers all of these goals. Only through such a combination of ideas and passions can we hope to make urban areas valued parts of a sustainable region.

If we reinvest in our existing communities, many of which have been ignored for too long, we can redirect growth away from natural areas and working farms. We can build homes that provide enough choices for all residents, at every income level, to find great communities to live in. By focusing our efforts on transit station areas and building on the strengths of the diverse communities we already have, we can improve the quality of life for existing residents and make room for more. 

More information about the Great Communities Initiative is available on the Web at:

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Moving the Movement for Transportation Justice      ?õ¬?       Vol. 12 No. 1      ?õ¬?       Spring 2007       ?õ¬?       Credits






  1. DataQuick News, September 2005 median home price. National Housing Conference 2005 Paycheck to Paycheck Study for rental affordability and methodology for income needed to afford median home. 
  2. Association of Bay Area Governments, Projections 2005.
  3. Reconnecting America’s Center For Transit-Oriented Development, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Capturing the Demand for Housing Near Transit,” September 2004.
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Resources for Transportation Justice

Regional Transportation Justice Organizations

Alternatives for Community and Environment
2181 Washington St., Suite 301
Roxbury, MA 02119
(617) 442-3343
info (at ) ace-ej .org

Bus Riders Union
Labor/Community Strategy Center
3780 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200
Los Angeles, CA 90010
(213) 387-2800

Center for Neighborhood Technology
2125 West North Ave.
Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 278-4800

Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University
223 James P. Brawley Dr.
Atlanta, GA 30314
(404) 880-6911

Indigenous Environmental Network
P.O. Box 485
Bemidji, MN 56619
(218) 751-4967

Kids First
1924 Franklin St., Suite 310
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 452-2043

Pittsburgh Transportation Equity Project
1901-15 Centre Ave., Suite 202
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
(412) 325-1616

The Southwest Workers’ Union
P.O. Box 830706
San Antonio, TX 78283
(210) 299-2666

Transportation and Land Use Coalition
405 14th St., Suite 605
0akland, CA 94612
(510) 740-3150

Urban Habitat and Transportation Justice Working Group
436 14th St., Suite 1205
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 839-9510

Victoria Transport Policy Institute
1250 Rudlin St.
Victoria, BC, V8V 3R7
(250) 360-1560

WE ACT for Environmental Justice
271 West 125th St., Suite 308
New York, NY 10027-4424
(212) 961-1000

National Coalitions and Information

The Gamaliel Foundation
203 N. Wabash Ave., Suite 808
Chicago, IL 60601
(312) 357-2639

Smart Growth America
1707 L St. NW, Suite 1050
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 207-3355

Surface Transportation Policy Project
1100 17th St. NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 466-2636

Transportation Equity Network
Center for Community Change
1536 U St. NW
Washington, DC 20009
(202) 339-9300
(877) 777-1536

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