In an essay published after his death, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. called public transportation—buses, subways, trams, and more—as a “genuine civil rights issue.” He pointed out the crucial factor that Atlanta’s public transit systems were designed to serve white communities, not the Black communities—and it has a serious impact on the socioeconomic status of civil rights movements.
An incredible new essay from the McGill International Review, “The Power of Public Transportation in Social Justice” by Dana Malapit, lays out the crucial history of how public transit has served civil rights movements. And it makes sense: we often peg the fight for Black rights on Rosa Parks refusing to sit on a segregated bus.
It’s still on the forefront of civil rights discourse today in North America, which the essay dictates:
In US cities, 34 per cent of Black people and 27 per cent of Hispanic people rely on public transit as their main method of transportation, compared to only 15 per cent of white urban residents. At the same time, richer and whiter communities rely on public transit at much lower rates, as they tend to be able to afford cars and live in suburbs that are well-connected to urban centres through freeways.
It’s especially crucial during the era of COVID-19, when public transport has been perceived as more dangerous but members of those marginalized or lower income communities are often still the ones who have to take public transport en route to jobs that require them to interact with the public.
Transportation has been disruptive to these communities for ages. Highways have been built through the middle of traditionally-Black neighborhoods, and chronically underfunded transit has prioritized white neighborhoods.
Here’s a little more from “The Connection Between Public Transit and Employment” by Thomas W. Sanchez (emphasis mine):
Why, then, might employment levels not be positively influenced by the availability of public transit service? First, poor route configuration could mean that although a worker has good access from her or his residence, the transit system may not go close enough to appropriate employment locations (Meyer & Gómez-Ibáñez, 1981). Second, public transit may provide an insufficient level of service (frequency, coverage, etc.) for entry-level, low-skill, temporary, or shift-work positions (Kihl, Knox, & Sanchez, 1997). Transit services which are available when workers leave for work may not be available when they need to return home. Third, public transit may simply not be seen as a cost-effective means of transportation to work. This may be due to lack of knowledge about transit routes and scheduling or the unwillingness of workers to trade the time cost of travel by bus or rail for the lower overall travel costs of autos (O’Sullivan, 1993). It would seem, however, that if a lack of mobility or access to employment contributes to low labor participation rates, public transit would provide a solution for at least a portion of low-income workers. The data analyzed in this study support this hypothesis.
It’s the vicious cycle: the ability to be employed depends on the ability to actually get to your job, but right now, marginalized communities don’t have access to reliable transportation—and employers often look at public transit as an unreliable form of transport when compared to, say, a car.
Public transit has been a battle ground for racial inequality for decades, and we’re not going to see a change in that any time soon.
To get the full experience, you’ll have to read the essay itself.