Wilhelmina Melrose is in her 60s. She is blind and diabetic. A resident of Boston’s predominantly black Roxbury neighborhood, Melrose gets to medical appointments, exercise classes, and other spots around town by using The Ride, a door-to-door transit service for people with disabilities. In July the cost of a one-way fare doubled from $2 to at least $4, while average fares throughout the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system rose by 23 percent.

“We’ve worked, we’ve put into the system, and this is what the system is giving us back?” she asks. “Cut this, cut that, cut everything? Come on. That’s not fair. Economically, it will hurt me terribly.”

Maxine Benson lives on the other side of the country, in East Oakland. She’s also had enough of her local transit authority, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). For years, BART has been trying to build an expensive elevated cable-car line to the Oakland airport—replacing an existing bus line, the AirBART—that would cut through her neighborhood without even stopping. “We’re just going to smell the fumes from the BART connector, and we’re not going to be able to ride it,” she says. “It’s like we’re invisible. They build what they want, they do what they want, and they don’t consider us.”

What these two women, and millions of others, know is that access to reliable public transportation changes people’s lives. For a single mother who must get kids to child care, get to a job on time, pick up the kids at the end of the day, and then get back home, public transit is essential. For those working at service-sector wages, maintaining a car can be a tremendous burden. For the elderly and for people with disabilities, driving may be out of the question.

But public transit services often ignore the needs of the actual public. It’s been a long time since the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Freedom Rides. These days people rarely think of convenient, effective public transportation—mobility for all—as a vital part of an integrated social justice agenda.

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For millions of American families, the commute to work is more than stressful: it can also be cripplingly costly. While the average family spends around 19 percent of its budget getting around, very low-income families (defined as families who make less than half of an area’s median income) can see as much as 55 percent of their earnings eaten up by transportation costs, according to a report by the Center for Transit-Oriented Development.

Like many poverty-related issues, transportation has a racial dimension. African Americans, on average, use public transit far more than whites do. Nearly 20 percent of black households do not have a car, in comparison to 4.6 percent of white households. Those cars ride on highways that cut through low-income neighborhoods, highways that were built by giving urban areas short shrift. Nationwide about 80 cents out of every federal transportation dollar goes toward highways—used disproportionately by more affluent drivers—and only 20 cents goes toward mass transit systems, which are heavily used by people of color and by lower-income workers. When it’s time to distribute that 20 percent, regional authorities often favor light-rail systems for suburban commuters over bus lines for city riders.

Very low-income families spend as much as 55 percent of their earnings on transportation.

Fairness can also be a problem when it comes to state and local money. Miguel del Valle, then city clerk of Chicago, argued in a 2011 mayoral candidate statement, “The Chicago area currently gets 45 percent and downstate gets 55 percent of state transportation funds even though the Chicago region represents 70 percent of the state’s population and 78 percent of the state’s economy.”

As the injustice inherent in the distribution of public transit resources has become harder to ignore, activists have emerged to take on the broken system. In Oakland advocates have used civil rights legislation to redirect funding for transit projects originally designed to benefit affluent suburbs at the expense of working- and middle-class communities.

In 2009 Urban Habitat, a Bay Area environmental justice organization, filed a lawsuit against the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). The suit, which was joined by several allies, charged that MTC’s decision to spend $70 million in stimulus funds for the elevated airport connector violated the Civil Rights Act. Urban Habitat argued that since two stops that would have served local communities had been removed from the expansion plan, the rail “extension would further divide up East Oakland, without providing residents with transportation . . . or long term jobs.” Benson, who has been active with Urban Habitat, pointed out that even if people from her neighborhood could get on the transit line, projected ticket prices were prohibitively high. Airport employees living in her neighborhood could pay upward of $4.50 for a one-way ride to their jobs.

Urban Habitat’s call to action framed the issue in clear social justice terms: “Don’t let MTC favor the white-collar jet-set over low-income families and others who use transit every day by blowing our money on a wasteful project.”

The lawsuit pointed out that transportation authorities are required by civil rights law to conduct an “equity analysis” to ensure that major projects don’t have a discriminatory impact. As Juliet Ellis of Urban Habitat and Mahasin Abdul-Salaam of Genesis, an interfaith community organization that joined the legal complaint, argued in the San Francisco Chronicle, “A project isn’t ‘shovel-ready’ until it is fair.”

In February 2010 the Federal Transit Administration agreed with the transportation justice activists. It ruled that the $70 million in stimulus funding must be shifted to other Bay Area transit agencies in order to ward off fare hikes and service cuts.

Although the win was a path-breaking one, the fight for transit justice has not been limited to the Bay Area, nor has grassroots success. In 2010 a multiyear campaign in Minnesota’s Twin Cities came to a close when the Stops for Us coalition compelled local authorities to include three stops for low-income communities on a light-rail project. “That line was basically going to zoom right through the African American neighborhoods and not stop,” says Laura Barrett, executive director of the Transportation Equity Network (TEN), an organizer and pressure group with more than 350 affiliates in 41 states. “The reversal that the coalition won was pretty amazing.”

Advocates have also scored victories in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, and on the federal level. In 2010, amid charges that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act wasn’t directing enough jobs and resources toward people of color—Harry Alford of the National Black Chamber of Commerce called it a “Jim Crow stimulus”—Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced nearly $10 million in grant funding to assist women- and minority-owned businesses in competing for federal contracts.

• • •

When the interests of communities of color are pitted against those of the white working class, the tension can limit opportunities for social change. This has, at times, been the case with transportation, and labor has sometimes been an uneasy partner in the transportation justice movement. Community advocates who have opposed construction projects such as the Oakland rail expansion, have been painted by building trade unions as opponents of job creation.

‘A project isn’t “shovel-ready” until it’s fair.’

But the dynamic is changing. Larry Hanley, who has been president of the 190,000-member Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) since September 2010, believes that community alliances are essential to securing decent contracts for transit workers. “The old idea, and what we trained the last 50 years for, was to negotiate, litigate, arbitrate, legislate,” he says. “All those things have almost no meaning at this point. If you can’t build a broader community around the service you provide, and if you can’t fight in the political system, then none of those other things are going to matter much.” The need for partnership is particularly acute, he adds, “in a world where they can take away your right to have a contract at all,” referring to recent Republican attacks on public employees’ access to collective bargaining.

Hanley sees common interests among riders and transit workers. “Eighty-five percent of the transit systems in America have either cut service or raised fares, or both, in the last two years,” he says. “Our view in the ATU is that the only way out of this is we have to build a very strong, nimble, effective national voice for transit. And the only place that you can really develop that is with the riders themselves.”

ATU and its community allies are now creating a unified front against service cuts. At the same time, they are pushing policymakers to give transit authorities more flexibility to spend wisely. By investing in operating budgets in order to expand services—rather than just plowing money into construction—they hope to create more lasting jobs.

• • •

“We’re breaking things down for the public,” Urban Habitat’s Bob Allen says, starting to list the many elements that have made the organization’s work successful so far. “We also have a watchdog role—you have to be able to follow the money and follow the decision making. You need grassroots pressure on the decision makers. But planning is complicated, so you need technical experts, too,” he says. “I can’t think of a single campaign that didn’t need all those dimensions.”

But while activists are doing more than ever, they still emphasize the ways in which transportation injustice directly touches the lives of people across the country. “For our constituency, it’s really not that technical,” explains Ana Garcia-Ashley, executive director of the Gamaliel Foundation, which runs TEN. “People of very low wealth cannot afford to have a car. They need to have a public transit system to get them to a job, to a school, to a doctor. And when you’re building highways and providing buses, you are also creating jobs. Effective public transportation is connected to the basic needs of communities.”

Wilhelmina Melrose says this is why the members of her community will do whatever it takes to make sure the Boston transit system meets their needs. “The ones that are doing the cutting, do they think that one day they’ll become elderly and, God forbid, have some kind of disability? And the same service they’re cutting for us, do they ever think that they might need the service themselves, later on down the line?” she asks. “The only thing we can do is keep fighting and keep protesting.”