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In July 24, 2010, an estimated 300 cyclists took to the streets for the third annual Bikes 4 Life Peace Ride. The approximately 10-mile circuit took the riders through the streets of Oakland—around Lake Merritt, down International Blvd, past the Fruitvale BART station (where a candlelight vigil was held for Oscar Grant), and back to West Oakland. As the cavalcade passed through neighborhoods people cheered and motorists honked. The Peace Ride illustrated some of the best qualities of what has become known as the urban bike movement. It’s one thing to get on a bicycle and go for a ride, and quite another to share that experience with a large group of people from diverse ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds. There is strength in numbers and a palpable power in hundreds of cyclists essentially reclaiming public space while raising awareness about transportation, public safety, social justice, non-violence, and environmental issues.
Five years ago—while the Bush administration was in power—Sylvia Darensburg of Oakland filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). On behalf of the class of minority bus riders she represented, Darensburg hoped the federal courts would force MTC to change its funding priorities, which favored affluent rail commuters over transit-dependent people who rely on local bus service for access to employment, education, health care, and other essential services. (See ”Bay Area Transit—Separate and Unequal” on page 30.)
Back then, civil rights and Environmental Justice (EJ) advocates could not have foreseen that it would be a federal regulatory agency and not the federal courts that would step up for equity in the allocation of transportation funding. But that is what happened on February 12 this year when the head of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), citing civil rights violations, withdrew $70 million from a $500 million rail project on MTC’s priority transit expansion list.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) pulled $70 million in stimulus funds from BART's Oakland Airport Connector project last month based on our civil rights complaint, finding that BART ignored civil rights laws. Fortunately, the Bay Area didn't lose that funding—it was distributed among the region's ailing transit systems. But the transit administration's action makes it clear that public money must be spent fairly or agencies will be held accountable.
A project isn't "shovel-ready" until it is fair. Agencies receiving federal funds are legally obligated to ensure that low-income and diverse communities share fairly in the benefits of that funding. To do so requires analysis and community involvement. BART failed to live up to these responsibilities. As the project evolved, the anticipated round-trip fare rose to $12 (plus BART fare), and intermediate stops that could have given workers access to hotel and retail jobs en route to the airport were eliminated. But BART didn't study whether those features excluded low-income and minority riders from the project's benefits, and East Oakland communities never had a chance to have their say when the airport tram project was revised.
Public transportation is actually helping the environment and the price effectiveness of public transportation literally dictates how the environment will end up. Let’s face it, if public transportation costs too much, folks wont take it, they’ll buy cars.
We have a lot of youth who live in public housing, who’ve grown up in public housing, and who have used the transportation system. They utilize these services. It’s all about public transportation while you’re in high school and even in college, commuting. You’re not rich at 21 or 20 or 19, so you’re going to need housing and transit.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit system, or BART, has always lived a double life, split between its sleek public presentation and its unadvertised purpose. The ad campaigns and lobby efforts supporting the $792 million bond measure of 1962 to finance the system presented BART as a cure for traffic congestion and air pollution. The engineering reports at the time, however, plainly discussed the need for a rapid transit system not to ease traffic jams, but to protect and enhance downtown San Francisco property values and direct urban development.
BART’s schizophrenia is no accident. The system was created by and for the San Francisco Bay Area’s urban elite class—engineering firms, oil companies, and banks that all profited enormously from BART’s unusual design. And neither the schizophrenia nor the profiteering are matters of history: BART continues to absorb about 80 percent of the Bay Area’s mass transit budget, and its recent San Francisco Airport extension and the proposed San Jose extension follow upon the same split between public perception and private intent. To this day, BART remains a transit system that subsidizes land speculators and the mishaps of engineering firms, reinforces the regional dominance of the automobile, and displaces most of the economic and environmental burdens onto low-income communities of color.
Traditionally, labor unions and environmentalists have fought over issues such as urban development vs. growth management, or natural resource extraction vs. preservation. But the lean and mean ‘90s, which are becoming characterized by a growing tendency to privatize public services and roll back environmental protections, makes this a decade to recast our alliances.
For the past two years, I have been participating in exploratory meetings between the Coordinating Council of Bay Area Transit Workers Unions (Coordinating Council) and some of the Bay Area's environmental organizations.* Overall, the group found that there were many opportunities to work together and good reason to move forward. One of the first projects for the group was a jointly crafted vision statement on public transportation. Based on the vision statement the group has begun to identify strategic areas of reform and some general objectives for addressing those targets. (For additional details and the complete article, see RP&E, Fall 1995 at www.urbanhabitat.org/20years/95.)
Fifty years ago, Rosa Parks did not give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Public transportation, and more specifically buses, became the stage from which the civil rights movement was launched. This act of courage is fresh in our minds due to the recent passing of Mrs. Parks. Viewed as a national hero, her body was placed in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol—the first woman ever accorded such a tribute.
The irony is that today, discrimination is alive and well in mass-transit bus service. In the Bay area, for instance, a federal civil rights lawsuit is pending in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, charging that the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC)—which plans and allocates funding for the area's transit needs—supports a “separate and unequal transit system” that discriminates against poor transit riders of color.
When the late Rosa Parks protested an apartheid bus system 50 years ago, transit riders in Montgomery, Alabama, whether black or white, poor or well-off, all rode the same bus. Today’s segregation, while less obvious, is in some ways more pernicious. Affluent whites have left urban bus systems the way most left New Orleans on the eve of hurricane Katrina: in their cars. Of those who commute on public transit, most now ride deluxe rail systems, leaving people of color to rely on a second-class and deteriorating bus system.
This is the scenario many low-income communities of color face in the San Francisco Bay Area, where substandard bus service operates as a “separate and unequal” transit system. Darensburg v. Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), filed in April, 2005 by East Bay bus riders and civil rights advocates against the region’s transportation planning agency, challenges today’s pervasive and insidious form of discrimination.
Penn Loh is a professor at Tufts University's Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. From 1996 to 2009, he served in various roles, including executive director (since 1999) at Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), a Roxbury-based environmental justice group. He holds an M.S. from the University of California at Berkeley and a B.S. from MIT. Before joining ACE, he was research associate at the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California.
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Jesse Clarke: What was your involvement with environmental justice in the early ‘90s when you were at the University of California Berkeley?
Penn Loh: I went to UC Berkeley because I realized that much of the work of electrical engineers (I had an undergraduate degree in that field) at that time was really in the military industrial complex. It seemed like the profession, rather than making life better for people, was largely involved in projects supporting war research. So, I started down a different track.
At that time, I saw environment as a secondary concern to other social justice issues. But at U.C.Berkeley I met folks who had just attended the 1991 People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington D.C. I got involved with that student group and also took a class with Carl Anthony. Suddenly, light bulbs went off and I realized, “This is what I can do to contribute to something positive and which goes real deep with respect to my own social justice commitment!”