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Friday, November 04, 2011

Public transit as civil rights issue. . .

I well remember the campaign (read just here "struggle") in 1986 to pass the public initiative that created the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system (DART).  The system has come a long way since then, and with great results.  What follows is an article by John Hendel discussing public transit as a civil rights issue.  Clearly, the provision of adequate transportation infrastructure affects economic development, wealth creation and living wage jobs. 

Here's an exercise for you.  Drive from Downtown Dallas north up Central Expressway counting each exit between your start and the Richardson city limits.  Repeat the process, but this time drive south until you reach the southern boundary of Dallas.  Note the development around each exit.  Compare and contrast.  Why so much opportunity to the north and so little to the south?  When the highway was built in the early 1950s the economic disparity between north and south was nothing like today.  Obviously, the planning wrapped up on the transportation development drove the economic advantages north.  What we build and how we plan it matters. 

After you read Hendel's report, let me know what you think.

To what extent is public transit a dimension of the civil rights debate?

Many people, after all, rely on public transportation to get to work, both here and all over the United States. They take buses, Metro trains, light rail, the MARC, and other options. Increasingly people dismiss the automobile and use Zipcar, Capital Bikeshare, and might be able to take advantage of other transit options like streetcars, if those ever do appear (the District hopes to debut the first functioning lines in mid-2013, last we've heard). In the D.C. metro area, nearly 200,000 households manage to get by without a car. Is a functioning, reliable public transit system not only wise for the reasons of reducing congestion and helping the environment but also simply a reflection of what people deserve?

At The Root, founder and CEO of PolicyLink Angela Glover Blackwell suggests that yes, a functioning, funded public transit system is a vital part of the civil rights debate and points to several cities around the country, from Detroit to Little Rock, that struggle with and seek to revitalize their transit options. She also identifies the way our Congress fumbles its way forward with the proper funding. What we need, according to Blackwell, is wisdom in our transit choices and funding.

Blackwell notes the following:

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.

Is Blackwell right?

To read more click here.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree we need to be smart about infrastucture planning and where and how we spend dollars. I also agree that how we spend will have consequences for those effected, good, bad, intentional and unintentional.

However, I'm not sure we should be talking about it as a civil rights issue. To me, that is a little demeaning to the civil rights struggles of the past. I would not put debatable decisions about paving and tracks in the same category as the basic human rights to vote and be free from discrimination.

But that's probably part of my general outlook that civil rights are essentially negative injunctions - things you have a right to be free FROM - such as unnecessary government intrusion, or discrimination. As soon as you start talking about the (affirmative) right TO something then someone else has a corresponding duty to provide it, and you are headed down a slippery slope.

I agree public transit and infrastructure are important. But I don't think it's about civil rights.

Ken
Dallas

Anonymous said...

Public transportation is, in most metropolitan areas the way a large number of people get to their jobs. It allows them to leave the area where they live to go to where the better jobs are. When those things are lacking, the poor are the ones who are impacted the most. They have less access to transportation, so less access to employment and educational opportunities, thus preventing them from changing their circumstances. It seems to me to be an unequal situation that is a civil rights issue. I think it is the role of gov't (city/st./fed)to remove to those roadblocks.
Ann
Irving

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...

"...the poor are the ones who are impacted the most. They have less access to transportation, so less access to employment and educational opportunities, thus preventing them from changing their circumstances."

You'll need to define "the poor" very precisely. There are many people who take public transportation in large metropolitan areas who are not poor. In fact, they can be quite wealthy but the logistics of storing and parking an auto is not worth the hassle.

Further, there are many who live in the Appalachians or out west who fit the scenario you describe - less access to transportation, there for limited access to education and work. So you're going to have to go farther in demonstrating the limited access to public transportation is, in fact, a good that is delivered to some but not others and the discriminating factor is race, gender, religion, or physical disability. The "poor" as a descriptor fails to target those impacted by discrimination. I'm not saying there isn't a point here to be made. You didn't make it, though.

"It seems to me to be an unequal situation that is a civil rights issue."

You've drawn an incorrect conclusion. Just because one person has an advantage over another does not support a claim that a civil right has been violated. And really, the rich will always have advantages over the poor. They will have better food, better healthcare, better transportation, better housing, better job opportunities, etc.

"I think it is the role of gov't (city/st./fed)to remove to those roadblocks."

I would agree that it is the role of govt. to reduce or even remove discrimination-based advantages. But you've failed to prove your point. I've said it before (to you) - education is available to everyone. It works. Learning never ends. Even low quality schools provide opportunity to learn.

Since we can not (and should not) eliminate advantages between the rich and everyone else, what would be an appropriate goal? And how might use of public funds to provide transportation to some support achieving this goal? Seems to me we should all be willing to help those who will become capable of supporting themselves, thus rendering such support temporary and based upon recognized progress toward self-sufficiency.

You're a fine liberal, Ann. And that is why you shouldn't be trusted to write policy.

Anonymous said...

I've been waiting on you Anon. 4:33. Thanks for the liberal label; I'm proud to wear it.

"And really, the rich will always have advantages over the poor. They will have better food, better healthcare, better transportation, better housing, better job opportunities, etc."

I agree that the rich will always have an advantage over not only the poor, but also the middle class as well. And I don't have a problem with that.

I do have a problem when they, with the power they wield because of their wealth, influence policies that give them more of an advantage, and create a situation that puts increased hardship on those with few resources and little influence. Infrastructure is one of those areas where city government can have a positive impact on neighborhoods by providing incentives to keep businesses in low-income areas, providing the easy access to transportation, even keeping up with code enforcement to maintain property values.

No one would agree with you more - education is the critical piece of the solution, but education is NOT available to everyone one -

K-12 education is available to all children, but the same education is not available to them. (poor schools vs. affluent schools) Besides, when kids are hungry, education is NOT as available to them as it is to the children who always know where their next meal is coming from. Poverty-related stress affects children's physical and mental health, thus creating an educational disadvantage.

That's doesn't include the available post-high school training/education for those who can't afford tuition/books, and have the additional expense of transportation to campuses that are not located close to where they live.

What is needed, in my opinion, is for those of us who are advantaged to become advocates for those who are at a disadvantage, making sure that the system works equally for everyone. That way people can help themselves and become self-sufficient. It's about building stronger communities, neighbors looking out for neighbors.
Ann

Anonymous said...

Ann,

Perhaps you did not read Larry's initial post. Here is the central point (the one you failed to support):

"Is a functioning, reliable public transit system not only wise for the reasons of reducing congestion and helping the environment but also simply a reflection of what people deserve?

At The Root, founder and CEO of PolicyLink Angela Glover Blackwell suggests that yes, a functioning, funded public transit system is a vital part of the civil rights debate and points to several cities around the country, from Detroit to Little Rock, that struggle with and seek to revitalize their transit options.


Do people "deserve" public transportation?

You asserted that pubic transportation is a civil right, but did not provide support.

I would characterize your commentary on the subject as unfocused and missing the point. Your initial response is that lack of publicly funded transportation is a civil rights offense b/c there is an inequality between those who can afford private transportation and those who are poor and cannot afford private transportation. My reply was that inequality does not indicate a civil right has been violated.

You then suggested the rich assert influence which disadvantages the poor, inferring the lack of public transportation is a part of the plan to keep the poor in a disadvantaged state. Finally, you topped off your argument by charging that public education is needed to provide equality.

Here is why you are wrong: You can not level the playing field. You can feed, clothe, transport, coddle, and reward but you can not level. There would be a never ending list of inequalities to rectify if we took that strategy. Ultimately achieving your goal would require cloning bodies and brains. Then we would die, culturally and then physically, from lack of diversity.

For many life is hard requiring them to make a difficult journey. And this journey often spans several generations. The vast majority of the "the rich" and their predecessors took that journey. There are a few who inherit money or a family business and seem to have an easy life. But the normal route to wealth is long and difficult. Building a business or developing a successful career requires much more than "the poor" think. They see the clothes, the cars, the smiling faces and do not see the work that produced these outcomes. I won't track the typical small business entrepreneur's experience here. But it's more difficult than the welfare route.

There are two factors at work in this situation, poverty and civil rights, and to confuse the two will only cause serious problems. If poverty is inherently a civil rights issue (expressed as a need for public transportation) then the opposite is true as well - being wealthy is a civil rights issue, expressed as a right to private transportation.

A civil right is not impacted by social economic status. The reverse may be true that socioeconomic status can be impacted by abuse of civil rights.

The best way to respect individuals (and thus their civil rights) is to treat them equally by insisting they make the difficult journey from survival to success on their own to the greatest degree possible. In fact, it may be morally wrong to take that journey away from anyone.