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Discrimination in Transportation: Who Decides?

By Mutsumi R. Mizuno 

This time, the question is not whether Rosa Parks can sit at the front of the bus – it's whether she gets to ride the bus at all. While discrimination in transportation is no longer a matter of overt racism, many poor working people find public transportation services inadequate. And because the costs of owning and driving a car are high, private automobile transportation is not an easy option.

Out-migration to the suburbs and a lack of transit service in rural areas have created a societal dependence on automobiles that concerns both social justice advocates and environmentalists. Regrettably, their approaches to solving transportation access problems are divergent and often conflicting. While environmentalists develop ways to discourage suburban and urban automobile use, advocates for poor working people focus on obtaining any transportation means possible.

This split was brought into focus in a 1991 study conducted by the Human Environment Center. The author, Charles Fox, pointed out that national environmental groups were moving towards “aggressive, market-oriented [transportation] policies that would entail enormous disproportionate effects on low-income and minority households [without making any] recommendations to minimize or eliminate these effects.” Equally at fault from the other side was the National Urban League proposal for a Marshall Plan for America, focusing on job creation and the economy, but “show[ing] little sensitivity to transportation-related environmental and public health threats… [it]stressed the need for new investments in highways (‘good highways mean good business and a strong economy’) and emphasized that the urban poor’s difficulty in accessing suburban jobs stem from the unavailability of the automobile.”

To correct the trends that have exacerbated reliance on the automobile and widened social inequities, the environmental concerns for clean air and global warming and the social concerns for affordability and equal access to mobility must not remain on separate tracks. Improved communication among the concerned groups and better understanding of the issues are fundamental to the wise design of transportation solutions – ones that will take into account long-term social, economic, and environmental consequences. Indeed, sustainable transportation - a component of sustainable development – requires a nexus between the environment, economy and equity.

Car Dependence

The transportation decisions of the past several decades have created an infrastructure that favors automobile use and a resulting social inequity. Between 1956 and 1989, the Highway Trust Fund provided $205 billion for state road projects, while mass transit received only $50 billion in federal funds over the last 25 years.  Unfortunately, highway investments do not benefit all people equally. In 1983,40% of households earning less than $10,000 had no access to a car, whereas 99% of households with incomes over $40,000 owned one vehicle and nearly 90% owned two or more. Furthermore, the racial component to this inequity is clear. In 1980, 32.9% of black households and 22.7% of Latino households were without vehicles, compared to only 10.1% of white households.

It is not surprising, then, that Mtangulizi Sanyika and James Head of the National Economic Development and Law Center found in a 1990 study that many low-income people were "transportation disadvantaged, ... unable to access basic institutions, jobs, or services due to transportation barriers." Others included in the "transportation disadvantaged person (TDP)" category were seniors, youth, women with children, homeless, unemployed, developmentally disadvantaged, low income and people of color, and non-auto owners.

Existing buses and rail systems, as alternatives to cars, do not provide sufficient service to these groups. Even though a report by the American Public Transit Association in 1992 showed that public transit disproportionately serves low income workers and minorities, some social justice advocates argue that transit systems need to be made "more efficient, affordable, safe and competitive" to assure social equality. However, in many parts of the country, transit fares are increasing and services decreasing.

Rural areas need attention as well. According to Jean Smith of the Central Arkansas Development Council, while 36% of America's population lives in rural areas, only 7% of federal transportation funds are spent there. Moreover, 43% of the disabled, 39% of the elderly, and 39% of the impoverished live in rural areas. "In rural states where transit users have found bus service to be more reliable than most of the cars they own, the regrettable fact is that only 50% of counties may have public transportation available." This leads rural activists to argue that transportation policies not only affect lifestyles, they cause poverty.

Left Hand, Right Hand

Highlighting the difference in approaches to meeting environmental goals and the goals of communities are market mechanisms and mobility strategies. The former is often put forth as a mechanism to reduce vehicle emissions while the latter seeks to maximize transportation for workers to get jobs. Neither desirable social goal provides a full solution to the transportation and equity problem.

On the pricing/emission reduction side, a 1992 report by Jon Kessler and Will Schroeer of the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that pricing mechanisms are a necessary complement to more traditional traffic control measures (i.e. traffic control improvements, highway reconstruction and traditional mass transit). Seeking significant improvements in air quality, these authors recommend pricing, since “governing interventions which redirect capital resources often produce inefficiencies.”

Also, they calculated that any technological-related emissions reduction will be overtaken by more vehicle-miles-travelled (VMT) by the year 2005 because road space will be utilized as long as driving is inexpensive.

Among the alternative pricing measures recommended were: pay-as-you-drive registration or inspection fees: congestion pricing; cash-out plans for employer-paid parking and private transit. Revenues from these measures would be used to invest in alternative transportation schemes and to offset economic disadvantages.

However, there is no consensus among public interest groups on the use of such “offsets” to compensate the poor.

While some advocates find it acceptable to redistribute funds into the community, others point out that price signals inadvertently target people of moderate or low-incomes, leaving wealthy segments relatively immune. Moreover, “offsets” often disappear during economic downturns. And some community members dislike the idea of “another poverty hand-out.” In any case, more research is necessary to determine which market mechanisms have what effects.

This article was first published for the State Report on the Environment when Mutsumi was working at the Center for Policy Alternatives. This past summer Mutsumi moved to Burma after being a policy analyst at the Environmental Action Foundation.

Transportation & Social Justice       |       Vol. 6 No. 1        |         Fall 1995


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