Following Rosa Parks: Montgomery Bus Riders Organize

By Eugene J. Patron

People in Montgomery, Alabama will tell you that as much as the city likes to see itself as part of the “New” South, local politicians have been slow to give up their old, dirty tricks. For the better part of the 1990s, the Montgomery City Council and Mayor threatened to shut down the local bus system because ridership had been steadily declining. Local officials ignored the obvious connection between the decline in ridership and the city’s elimination of fixed bus routes and bus stop signs in 1997. You can’t count riders if the riders can’t find the buses.

Way back in 1886, Montgomery could boast being one of the first cities in the Western Hemisphere to have an entirely electrified public trolley system. But this tidbit of local transportation history pales in significance with the story of Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit at the back of a Montgomery city bus in 1955. The ensuing 381-day boycott of the municipal bus system saw thousands of people walk to work or hitch rides rather than condone government-sanctioned discrimination. Six years after Parks’ initial act of defiance, the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation on city buses was illegal.

The courts may have removed overt racial segregation from the Montgomery public transportation system, but little was done to prevent a reactionary political establishment from making planning and economic development decisions that would rob the transit system of riders and funds. During the twenty-two-year reign of Republican Emory Folmar as mayor of Montgomery (1977 to 1999), the city’s bus system shrank as fares increased.

At the same time, white flight and urban sprawl moved better paying jobs away from the city’s core and increasingly beyond the reach of the disappearing city transit system. The state of Alabama spent only $19.5 million a year of its federal transportation funds under TEA-21 on public transportation compared to $533 million for highway and bridge projects.

Transportation funding is lopsided in favor of cars in Alabama, a state where 20 percent of the population earns under $10,000 a year. Windy Cooler, executive director of the Montgomery Transportation Coalition (MTC), comments, “They were literally tearing up many sidewalks so you couldn’t walk. It was getting pretty awful around here.” At the age of twenty-seven, Cooler already knows a lot about how to fight City Hall–and win. When asked about how the quest to improve public transportation is going, she says, with a mixed laugh and sigh, “Things don’t change much in Montgomery.”

But Cooler is being modest. Since the MTC was formed in 1996, the group has been successful in demanding that the Montgomery Area Transit System hire new staff, buy new buses, increase the number of routes, and reinstall bus stop signs. As a result, bus ridership is up 90 percent in the last two years.

This past summer the MTC really shook things up when a US Department of Transportation review panel affirmed the Coalition’s charges that Montgomery’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) had violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The review panel took the MPO to task because: it failed to evaluate whether its planning has adverse impacts on minority or low-income populations; failed to monitor ozone levels in accordance with the Clean Air Act; and did not make any of its Surface Transportation Program funds available for public transportation.

As a result, Montgomery joins Miami, Florida and Northwest Indiana in becoming only the third metropolitan area ever to be conditionally certified to receive federal transportation funds. Should the city not correct these problems by January 2003, Montgomery could very well have to forfeit federal transportation dollars.

As part of its findings, the federal review panel also called on the MPO to establish a Citizen’s Advisory Committee (CAC) and develop a Public Involvement Plan. But, according to Cooler, from the start the MPO has not been willing to accommodate any credible degree of public review. The bylaws drawn up for the CAC severely limit its independence and its ability to contribute anything meaningful to the planning process. “This plan would be better called a Public Dis-involvement Plan,” she says. “What little we have won, namely a Citizen’s Advisory Committee, we are having even that little progress challenged.”

While more than 50 percent of Montgomery’s population is African American, the members of the MPO (chaired by Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright) are all white. In contrast, the board of the MTC very much reflects the average Montgomery bus rider: the majority of its members are African American. Moreover, the MTC recognizes that problems with public transportation are part of the larger picture of economic and political disenfranchisement with which its constituency struggles. High on the list of priorities for MTC members is the desire to own a successful small business, live independently into old age and allow for families to go where they need to without enormous expense. So too is the ability to walk and bike peacefully in their own neighborhoods.

In June of this year the MTC partnered with the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) to hold a national transportation summit under the banner Reclaiming The Dream. The summit was a chance to revisit the birth of the 1955 Bus Boycott and the movement it spawned, and to explore the place of transportation issues in the struggle for economic freedom, social justice and self-direction.

This fall, Cooler and members of the MTC are riding the buses and talking to people about joining a new lobbying campaign: to get the city council to pass a law guaranteeing that the public will be given at least thirty days notice before any changes are made to the transit system. As it stands right now, staff at the Montgomery Area Transit System and the city officials they answer to can make changes to the bus system at will and without public notification.

Things may not change quickly in Montgomery, but the struggle for change is as strong today as it was in Rosa Parks’ day.

Eugene Patron is a student at the City University of New York and Editorial Assistant for Planners Network.

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