The United States of Transportation Inequity

06/23/2010 02:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a few days, New York City is going to lose two subway lines and dozens of bus routes. With the city's transit agency facing a $400 million budget deficit, there are more cuts to come.

Nobody likes transit cuts. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans want more public transportation, not less. In a poll by our partners Transportation for America, 82 percent of voters said "the United States would benefit from an expanded and improved transportation system, such as rail and buses." Seventy-nine percent of rural voters said the same.

But if cuts are an inconvenience for Americans who have transportation options, they can be a disaster for Americans who don't: low-income people, people of color, older Americans, and Americans with disabilities who rely on public transportation to get to work, school, church, and access medical care.

To get a sense of just how unequal the impacts of the current transit cuts are, listen to Dr. Robert Bullard, the father of the environmental justice movement:

Nationally, only seven percent of white households do not own a car, compared to 24 percent of African American households, 17 percent of Latino households, and 13 percent of Asian American households. African Americans are almost six times as likely as whites to use transit to get around. In urban areas, African Americans and Latinos comprise over 54 percent of transit users (62 percent of bus riders, 35 percent of subway riders, and 29 percent of commuter rail riders).

And just so New York doesn't get all the attention, here are a few snapshots of how transportation inequity works around the country--and what TEN and its allies are doing about it:

Washington, DC
Twenty-five percent of train riders are people of color, versus 50% of bus riders. Only one in 50 rail riders does not own a car, versus one in five for bus riders. The income for rail riders is also about 40% higher than bus riders. In spite of all this, bus riders are facing fare hikes twice that of rail riders. TEN member PRISCM's fight against this inequity made the front page of the Washington Post.

Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN
The original plan for a new light rail train on the Twin Cities' Central Corridor line would have skipped over minority communities -- in fact, TEN member ISAIAH argued that they would have been worse off after construction. This inequity sparked three lawsuits and two federal civil-rights complaints, including by ISAIAH. Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff took action, and now three extra stops will be added to the line in low-income and minority communities.

The Chicago Transit Authority (more than 60% Black and Latino ridership) is wrestling with one of the worst budget crises in the nation, constantly facing cuts, layoffs, and fare hikes, while the suburban Metra train (more than 70% white ridership) has flourished. Civil rights leaders filed a federal Title VI lawsuit in January alleging this was the result of systematic inequities in state and regional funding practices.

San Francisco Bay Area
Eighty percent of the bus riders on the local AC Transit line are people of color, while local train riders are disproportionately white (46% of BART riders and 60% of Caltrain riders). Yet bus passengers receive a subsidy of public funds of $2.78 per trip, while BART riders receive more than double that --$6.14--and Caltrain passengers receive an incredible $13.79. On the bright side, a civil rights complaint by TEN member GENESIS and others recently halted stimulus funding for a boondoggle airport train project, and will result in $70M being redirected to transit operations and other projects to preserve jobs and transit service.

Los Angeles
The Claremont Progressive breaks it down: "Bus riders are 58% Latino, 22% black, 8% Asian American/Pacific Islander, and 12% white, while the largely suburban Metrolink rail riders are about 50% white. More than 75% of bus riders in Los Angeles have annual incomes of $12,000-$20,000 a year, while Metrolink riders surveyed in 2000 had averaged $61,100. Adjusted for inflation, this figure jumps to $77,000." In an already brutal climate, bus riders are facing 400,000 hours of service cuts, as well as fare hikes. TEN member LA Bus Riders Union has fought both fiercely, most recently with a hunger strike.

We know that 84% of U.S. transit agencies are facing service cuts, fare hikes, or both. We're fighting them around the country. What's happening in your community?