Transportation Equity and Environmental Justice

By Rich Stolz

West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT) has fought for years to mitigate the high concentration of bus depots in this New York City neighborhood. Diesel exhaust has been linked by researchers to asthma and cancer, and WE ACT continues to demand that transportation agencies deal with the health impacts of their facilities.

This is one of many examples that show how low-income and minority communities face the negative impacts of transportation investments. Over the last decade, an environmental justice movement has arisen to fight the toxic dumps and polluting industries that are more likely to find their way into these communities. Transportation facilities, from depots to highways, can be just as threatening to health as chemical plants and incinerators.

In response to the inequities in transportation planning, most would agree that an equitable transportation system should:

  • Ensure opportunities for meaningful public involvement in the transportation planning process, particularly for those communities most directly impacted by projects or funding choices;
  • Be held to a high standard of public accountability and financial transparency;
  • Distribute the benefits and burdens from transportation projects equally across all income levels and communities;
  • Provide high quality services–emphasizing access to economic opportunity and basic mobility–to all communities, but with an emphasis on transit-dependent populations; and
  • Equally prioritize efforts to revitalize poor and minority communities and to expand transportation infrastructure.

The Transportation Equity Network

In 1997, as Congress prepared to rewrite the federal transportation bill, grassroots organizations across the nation began to discuss how they might develop a low-income, grassroots response to transportation reauthorization. In January 1998 they formed a national coalition called the Transportation Equity Network (TEN). The Network developed the following issue priorities:

  • Clarify federal law to require involvement of transit riders in the metropolitan transportation planning process;
  • Require greater transparency in the transportation planning process so that local communities could better track how federal funds are spent in their metropolitan regions;
  • Enact the Job Access and Reverse Commute program to address the welfare-to-work needs of local communities; and
  • Ensure that local residents may have access to jobs on transportation construction projects built in or near their communities.

Since then, TEN, staffed by the Center for Community Change, has been an active presence in Washington, DC and in local communities across the nation, educating Congress and the Administration on the community impact of transportation planning and policy. Over the last three years, members of TEN have opened doors to significant breakthroughs in transportation policy.

Sprawl and Metropolitan Equity

Nationwide, community residents are conscious of the impact of transportation investments on metropolitan growth patterns, particularly transportation’s relationship to sprawl. It is not simply a coincidence that economic development tends to follow transportation investment further and further out into suburban communities.

From the perspective of low-income and minority communities, particularly in metropolitan areas, sprawl has a particularly pernicious and deleterious impact. A growing body of research, and an emerging consensus among researchers and advocates, asserts that in metropolitan areas the relationship between the concentrated poverty of central city communities and the relative affluence of suburban enclaves is not coincidental.

john a. powell of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota describes sprawl and regional fragmentation, and concentrated poverty and social inequity, as two sides of the same coin. (“How Sprawl Makes Us Poor” by john a. powell in The Albuquerque Journal, March 22, 2002) The same factors that push and pull families away from urban centers and to the suburbs trap the families left behind. Those able to leave–who have the human and financial capital to do so–leave for better jobs and schools, and invest their financial capital in property likely to increase in value. Those left behind must deal with struggling schools, less human capital and fewer financial resources.

This metropolitan dynamic has driven a number of organizations to embrace strategies to arrest suburban growth and to create new lifelines to economic opportunity connecting inner-city communities to job-rich suburban centers. In southeastern Wisconsin, for example, a coalition of congregations known as Communities United to Serve Humanity (CUSH) is organizing in Kenosha County to create a new bus line that will link the City of Kenosha to a job-rich suburban community further west.

Welfare Reform and Transportation Deficits

The 1996 welfare reform law pushed millions of low-income families with limited skills into jobs. But studies show that up to 96 percent of welfare recipients do not own a car and two-thirds of the job growth in the nation’s metropolitan areas has taken place in the suburbs. While the strong economy of the 1990s helped to mitigate the impact of existing transportation deficits in many communities, lack of reliable and convenient transportation remains a significant obstacle to families trying to pull themselves off welfare and out of poverty.

Many low- and moderate-income families struggle daily with inadequate public transportation systems, but the consequences of this transportation gap are felt most acutely by welfare recipients struggling to leave welfare for employment. Welfare recipients and employers alike consistently cite transportation as one of the most significant barriers to employment. Here are three examples:

  • A study by the State of Illinois found that 45.7 percent of former welfare recipients were unable to find or retain employment because there were no employment opportunities nearby. Almost 41 percent reported transportation as a significant barrier to employment.
  • A study by the State of Kansas found that lack of reliable transportation was the second biggest obstacle to finding and retaining employment.
  • The Welfare to Work Partnership, a coalition of businesses, found that transportation was one of the most significant barriers to employment for their employees. Thirty-three percent of survey respondents identified transportation as the top barrier to employment.

Recognizing these same barriers in their own community, in 1998, the Interchurch Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment (ICARE) in Jacksonville, Florida, initiated discussions with members of Jacksonville’s local metropolitan planning organization, the local transportation authority and the local workforce investment board. Jacksonville’s traditional hub-and-spoke transportation system helped connect residents from more distant neighborhoods to its central city, but failed to readily link residents in one neighborhood to another or to job opportunities in the suburbs. In response to ICARE’s recommendations, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and the local workforce investment board developed a joint strategy for new and expanded bus service to better connect job seekers to job opportunities.

Los Angeles Bus Riders Union

One of the major breakthroughs of the transportation equity movement came when the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, a project of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, negotiated a binding consent decree as part of a court settlement. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits recipients of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin. In the court case, Labor/Community Strategy Center and Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, et al v. Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the court essentially found that the MTA had wrongfully provided inferior services to Los Angeles’ largely minority and low-income bus riders. Furthermore, the MTA was directing resources to its commuter rail lines, which served a more affluent and primarily white population, at the expense of its bus users. (See the article by Eric Mann in PN 149, Fall 2001.)

Beyond the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union and Harlem’s WE ACT, there are scores of community-based efforts for transportation equity around the nation. They are the basis for the efforts of the Transportation Equity Network to change national policies and priorities for transportation planning and spending.

Rich Stolz is Deputy Director of Public Policy at the Center for Community Change and the coordinator of the Center’s Transportation Equity Project. The Center, a thirty-five year old national non-profit organization based in Washington, DC, is committed to building the capacity of grassroots organizations in low-income and minority communities across the nation.

For more information on the groups mentioned above:

West Harlem Environmental
Transportation Equity
Labor/Community Strategy

Interfaith Federation Challenges an MPO: Linking Metropolitan Equity & Environmental Justice

The Interfaith Federation is a multiracial, church-based metropolitan organizing group in the northwest corner of Indiana. Less than an hour from Chicago, race and class starkly divide the area. Highways crisscross the region, dividing neighborhoods and connecting suburban residents to jobs, shopping and services. For poor and working-class people, or those who cannot drive, the situation is bleak. Furthermore, bus lines tend to stop at jurisdictional boundaries, isolating low-income residents from job opportunities in southern Lake County.

In 1999 the Interfaith Federation accused the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC), which is charged with designing an integrated transportation plan to serve the needs of the region, of failing to meet the needs of its minority and low-income communities. According to the Federation, NIRPC ignored the implications of its land use policies and allowed sprawling development that uses up farmland, leads to environmental degradation and the abandonment of existing communities, and exacerbates the inequities of the region.

Federal transportation law requires that NIRPC conduct its planning in accordance with seven planning factors that include environmental concerns; a balance between transit, highways and other modes; and investment in safety and existing infrastructure. The Federation alleged that NIRPC’s allocation of funding across modes of transportation (highways, rail, buses, etc.) neglected low-income minority communities in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Fortunately, the federal government does play a role in monitoring or “certifying” how well metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) like NIRPC comply with federal rules. The Federation held its own citizens’ hearing during NIRPC’s certification review. As a result of the Federation’s organizing, the US Department of Transportation agreed with the Federation and “conditionally” certified NIRPC, giving NIRPC less than one year to develop a plan to bring it into compliance with federal law.

Though the federal government eventually certified the NIRPC planning process, the Interfaith Federation extracted a number of reforms out of the MPO. NIRPC instituted a study of transit needs, rewrote its environmental justice compliance plan and redesigned its public involvement plan. Furthermore, NIRPC reaffirmed its support for a county-wide regional transit authority–a major priority for the Interfaith Federation. In the late summer of 2001, the Lake County Council voted to create a new Regional Transit Authority.

Sisters in Action for Power: Portland Youth for Transportation Equity

Sisters in Action for Power is a grassroots organization of young women and girls of color in Portland. They have been organizing, educating and building their membership for three years to get the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (Tri-Met) to support free transportation for youth during school hours. Such an investment would alleviate hardships faced by low-income families and also encourage greater ridership on public transportation.

The Portland School District is one of several across the country that do not provide yellow school bus service to students living outside walking distance of their schools. The decision not to provide school bus service was made as a cost-cutting measure at a time when the city’s public transportation system was widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive in the nation. The decision, however, shifted the burden of transportation costs from the schools to families, especially low-income people of color.

Meanwhile, Tri-Met invested millions of dollars in a free public transportation system for businesses and tourists in downtown Portland. And neither Tri-Met nor the public schools took responsibility for the difficult choices low- and moderate-income families were being forced to make: between bus money and lunch money; between transportation to school and winter clothes. Students approach each other and their teachers for money to get home, and some students are forced to miss school altogether for lack of money.

In the fall of 2001, Sisters prevailed on Tri-Met to establish a discount student bus pass for students living in the Portland school district. Similar efforts are underway in Michigan, California and Rhode Island.

Florida: A Community Struggle for a Sound Barrier

The economic decline of the Overtown community in unincorporated Dade County Florida began, according to most residents, in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the construction of Interstate 95 through this once vibrant African American community. The highway cut the community in half. Property values collapsed and the highway failed to provide commercial access to local businesses. For the diverse communities living along the I-95 corridor between 95th and 103rd streets, the situation grew even more unbearable with a project in the late 1980s and 1990s to widen the interstate.

Sybel Lee, a founding member of a grassroots organization named Neighborhoods in Action (NIA), described the conditions under which she lived at that time. “In 1992 a car careened off of I-95 into my yard, and that started my nightmare,” said Lee, whose house is located just feet away from the interstate (literally, the I-95 chain link fence touches parts of her home). She and her neighbors dealt with constant air and noise pollution and feared for their safety.

In the spring of 2000, with the help of the Family Advocacy Center at Barry University, neighbors began to organize. This diverse neighborhood comprised of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Central Americans, Haitians and African Americans came together around the nuisance created by the highway. Meetings were conducted in English, French, Spanish and Haitian Creole. NIA was born.

Ms. Lee and her neighbors noted that a similar widening project along another part of the interstate, where wealthier residents live, had included a mitigation wall (or sound barrier) to protect residents from noise and disruption. In fact, much of the interstate has a sound barrier, but it stops where their moderate-income community begins.

NIA members began to attend meetings of their metropolitan planning organization (MPO), which is responsible for prioritizing transportation projects in the region, and raised their concerns. Soon they won the interest of a county commissioner that served on the MPO board. In the summer of 2000 they held a meeting with a key decision-maker from the state Department of Transportation (DOT).

At that meeting, community residents pressed for the construction of a sound barrier along their portion of the highway. While the DOT official made some concessions, he argued that there was not enough money for the project. In response, an NIA member brought up the issue of environmental justice. These words alone seemed to wipe the smile from the DOT representative’s face. He could not justify why the wall stopped where it did, or why sufficient funding had not been raised for the project. The sound wall had been in the MPO’s project list for years but had never been built.

The very next day, at an MPO meeting, the same representative told NIA that the State DOT had miraculously found the funds to pay for the construction of the mitigation wall. DOT began construction of the wall in the summer of 2002.

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