Case Studies and Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Breathe At Your Own Risk: Transit Justice in West Harlem

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LA Bus Riders' Union Rolls Over Transit Racism

By Geoff Ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Free Transportation to Get Our Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among other things, the survey found that:

  • One out of three students pays for bus passes and fares out of his/her own pocket.
  • Sixty-one percent of students said they sometimes use their lunch money to ride the bus.
  • Nearly fifty percent of low-income students reported that it was harder to get to school, jobs, or after-school programs without a free pass.
  • Seventy-seven percent of students surveyed depend on the bus for mobility.
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The survey was also critical in helping young people develop a sense of their own expertise as transit riders. Several youth spoke of being intimidated at the beginning of the year at AC Transit Board of Directors’ meetings—they didn’t understand the jargon and also felt marginalized or tokenized by some Directors. Because of the survey they developed and administered to over 1,400 youth, the youth organizers felt empowered and by the end of the year, confidently stood before the Board to share their findings and advocate persuasively for their recommendations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Pittsburgh Youth Promote Environmental Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Campaign Targets Diesel Trucks and Buses

Photo Essay

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

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

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

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

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

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A National Transportation Equity Movement for Real Human Needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Federal Money--Local Jobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Other Groups Have Done

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

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

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

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

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Transit Unions: Key Allies in the Struggle for Transportation Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Transportation Solutions

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

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

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

Other distortions that favor motorized travel include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Curitiba Bus System is Model for Rapid Transit

By Joseph Goodman, Melissa Laube, and Judith Schwenk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Creating Great Communities in the San Francisco Bay Area

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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