At 5:30 a.m. each workday, when Natasha Walker, 22, gets deposited at a bus stop on her side of Little Rock, Ark., she begins her 60-minute wait for the bus that ferries her to a day care worker's job on the other side of town.
"I used to drive her there because I didn't want her standing on the bus line in the dark and in the cold," said Annette Gilbert, 58, Walker's godmother. "But gas just got too high for me to keep on doing that."
Like many public transit systems, especially ones outside the big cities, Little Rock's continues to struggle as transit ridership increases and unrelenting sprawl creates job centers in areas outside those where black residents such as Walker predominate.
Walker's designated bus, for example, runs four times daily: twice in the morning and twice in the evening. "If I leave work at 4:30, I don't walk through our front door until after 6 in the evening," said Walker, who is great at computers and administrative tasks and dreams of finishing the college degree she's been pursuing.
Historically, transportation policy and investment in America have disproportionately favored middle-class and affluent neighborhoods at the expense of disadvantaged communities — predominantly low-income and of color — resulting in skewed patterns of regional growth and development. The economic injustice resulting from current transportation policy harks back to the civil rights movement and its focus on transportation — from Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Freedom Riders, who challenged state segregation laws by riding interstate buses into the South.
So what course of action shall we pursue on behalf of the Natasha Walkers of our communities? (And on behalf of people like Raquel Nelson, convicted of vehicular homicide last July after her 4-year-old was mowed down and killed by a drunk driver in metro Atlanta. In that headline-generating travesty of justice, an all-white jury faulted Nelson for not using the crosswalk — which was located a half-mile away — to steer her three children across a five-lane roadway separating their bus stop from the family's apartment.)
Right now Congress is playing politics with the American Jobs Act, which proposes $50 billion that includes appropriations to buttress public transportation systems nationwide. That would help avert some of the service cuts and fare increases presently slated for 80 percent of these systems. Even cities like Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; and New York City — which provide the best, if imperfect, models of how to move people around — are veering toward disinvestment in their transit systems.
Also stalled in Congress is the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Bill, the blueprint for federal investments in streets, highways, bridges and public transportation. In the past, individual congressional representatives' earmarking of funding for their pet projects has resulted in billions of transportation dollars being spent without accounting for how those projects create public transit jobs or bolster the nation's public transit infrastructure.
Still, there are signs of progress.
Detroit, for example, is building momentum for revamped and upgraded public transportation, including a new light-rail line along the famed Woodward Avenue Corridor that transportation advocates say is central to the Motor City's bid to revitalize and remake itself. But shortfalls of cash, aggravated by the Great Recession, have made that a formidable undertaking. Policymakers, advocates, activists and scholars will address these types of local projects and equitable-development initiatives under way across the country at PolicyLink's Equity Summit, Nov. 8-11, in Detroit.
In Chicago, elected officials and transit agencies are engaging the community — including local high schools, colleges and workforce-development organizations — in planning the extension of the city's rapid-transit line to promote economically viable and sustainable communities, as well as prepare residents for transit-related jobs and contracts.
Equity advocates must demand wiser investment of transportation dollars. Policymakers must reduce the burden on millions of struggling families who rely on public transit that is available and affordable. Without urgent attention, this lack of transportation will continue to be a proxy for leaving whole communities out of the American mainstream.
Despite all of the political posturing hailing the environmental, economic and other merits of a cutting-edge network of public transit systems, the nation has fallen woefully short of advancing a sustainable, 21st-century transportation system for the future.
Angela Glover Blackwell is the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity. She is co-author of Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America's Future.