Monday, February 4, was the second annual Transit Equity Day, organized by a national coalition of groups ranging from labor unions to the Sierra Club to the NAACP. The date is significant: It’s the birthday of Rosa Parks, who in 1955 famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white woman in Montgomery, Alabama. This courageous act is remembered as a spark that helped ignite major civil rights actions and campaigns across the nation. But the fact that her action took place on a bus and the significance of the following Montgomery Bus Boycott—not just for civil rights, but also for public transportation—is often largely ignored. That’s why the organizers of Transit Equity Day are calling for public transit to be recognized as a civil right in and of itself.
It’s an uncomfortable but undeniable fact that in our nation low-income people and people of color are more likely than high-income people and white people to rely on public transit. A survey of cities across the country demonstrates that the same communities that rely most heavily on transit are the ones most likely to be affected by service cuts and fare increases. Furthermore, research shows that the people who are least likely to own and operate a personal vehicle are the most at risk from the health-harming air pollutants emitted by vehicles and from the effects of global climate change exacerbated by driving.
Recognizing public transit as a civil right is a first step toward addressing these unacceptable disparities and building a transportation system that works for everybody. In practical terms, a right to public transit means more access to jobs, shopping, and social activities, which stimulates local economies. It means a higher-quality transit system, which will draw more people out of their cars and reduce the dangerous tailpipe emissions we all breathe in every day. And because transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in our state and our country, it means a less severe climate crisis for the entire planet.
Talk of public transit can sometimes seem rather distant in a remote, rural area like ours, where options have always been somewhat limited. But the need to view transit as a civil right is just as important here as it is in a big city.
Local agencies on the North Coast are working hard to provide services with extremely limited resources, and there are some promising signs. The Humboldt Transit Authority is making plans for a solar-powered charging station and new electric buses. The Eureka Transit System is exploring the possibility of a new route map that would provide more direct and more frequent service. The City of Arcata is considering high-density housing projects that would provide free bus passes to all residents. Still, so much more needs to be done.
The Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities joins the organizers of Transit Equity Day in calling for critical improvements in our public transit systems both locally and nationally, including: more funding for public transit, more inclusive transit-oriented development, improved transit service in underserved areas, and reducing fares for certain populations. Once we acknowledge the critical role of public transit in supporting local communities, and the devastating effects of disparities in access to transportation, it becomes clear that we must view public transit as a civil right. And once we recognize public transit as a civil right, there are no more excuses.