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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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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