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The following article originally appeared on the site of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

In the United States, all communities do not receive the same benefits from transportation advancements and investments. "Suburban sprawl is in part driven by race and class dynamics. Transportation spending has always been about opportunity, fairness, and equity," according to Clark Atlanta University professor Robert D. Bullard.

The modern civil rights movement has its roots in transportation. For more than a century, African Americans and other people of color have struggled to dismantle transportation apartheid policies that use tax dollars to promote economic isolation and social exclusion. The decision to build highways, expressways, and beltways has far-reaching effects on land use, energy policy, and the environment. Similarly, the decisions by county commissioners to limit and even exclude public transit to job-rich suburban economic activity centers have serious mobility implications for central city residents.

Writing in the Foreword to Dr. Bullardís and Angel O. Torresís book, Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism & New Highways to Equity, Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) states, "Our struggle is not over. Today those physical signs are gone, but the legacy of "Jim Crow" transportation is still with us. Even in a city like Atlanta, Georgia, a vibrant city with a modern rail and public transit system, thousands of people have been left out and left behind because of discrimination. Like most other major cities, Atlantaís urban center is worlds apart from its suburbs."

The cash-strapped Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) is the nationís ninth largest transit system and the only major transit system that does not receive any regional or state funding. By comparison, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (Boston) gets 20 percent of the stateís sales tax, or about $680 million dollars a year. Clearly, MARTA is regional only in name Ė covering only Fulton and DeKalb Counties and the City of Atlanta. From its inception in the 1960s, race blocked MARTA from becoming a five-county regional system. For many suburban whites, MARTA stood for "Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta." Several suburban Atlanta counties have set up their own "separate and unequal" bus systems, some with the assistance of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority or GRTA, that are marginally linked to MARTA.

Follow the transportation dollars and one can tell who is important and who is not. Between fiscal year 1992 and 1999, states had more than $33.8 billion in federal funds available to spend on either highways or public transit, but spent only 12.5% of that sum on transit. Georgia and twenty-nine other states restrict the use of the gasoline tax revenue for funding highway programs only. Because Atlanta-area jobs have moved to suburbs, where public transit is minimal, they are virtually inaccessible to non-drivers. Thirty-nine percent of all black households in Atlanta do not have access to cars, and in 2000, only 34% of the region's jobs were within a one-hour public transit ride of low- income urban neighborhoods.

The current federal funding scheme continues to be biased against metropolitan areas. Generally, states spend less than 20 percent of federal transportation funding on transit. Public transit has received roughly $50 billion since the creation of the Urban Mass Transit Administration over thirty years ago while roadway projects have received over $205 billion since 1956. From 1998-2003, TEA-21 transportation spending amounted to $217 billion. This was the "largest public works bill enacted in the nationís history." Although local governments within metropolitan areas own and maintain the vast majority of the transportation infrastructure, they receive only about 10 percent of every dollar they generate.

On average, Americans spend 19 cents out of every dollar earned on transportation expenses. Transportation costs ranged from 17.1 percent in the Northeast to 20.8 percent in the South Ė where some 54 percent of African Americans reside. Americans spend more on transportation than they do on food, education, and health care. The nationís poorest families spend more than 40 percent of their take home pay on transportation.

Only about five percent of all Americans use public transit to get to work. Only 7 percent of white households own no car, compared with 24 percent of African American households, 17 percent of Latino households, and 13 percent of Asian-American households. Urban transit is especially important to African Americans where over eighty-eight percent live in metropolitan areas and over fifty-three percent live inside central cities. African Americans are almost six times as likely as whites to use transit to get around. About sixty percent of African Americans live in ten metropolitan areas. In urban areas, African Americans and Latinos comprise over fifty-four percent of transit users (sixty-two percent of bus riders, thirty-five percent of subway riders, and twenty-nine percent of commuter rail riders).

Inadequate public transit services in many of the nationís metropolitan regions, which have high proportions of "captive" transit dependents, has exacerbated social, economic, and racial isolation and aided in institutionalizing transportation apartheid. Today, no other group is more physically isolated from jobs than African Americans. Suburbs are increasing their share of office space, while central cities see their share declining. In 2000, the "spatial mismatch" between jobs and residence meant that more than 50 percent of the nationís blacks would have to relocate to achieve an even distribution of blacks relative to jobs; the comparable figures for whites are 20 to 24 percentage points lower. The suburban share of the metropolitan office space is 69.5 percent in Detroit, 65.8 percent in Atlanta, 57.7 percent in Washington, DC, 57.4 percent in Miami, and 55.2 percent in Philadelphia. Getting to these suburban jobs without a car is next to impossible. It is no accident that Detroit leads in suburban "office sprawl." Detroit is also the most segregated big city in the United States and the only major metropolitan area without a regional transit system. Only about 2.4 percent of metropolitan Detroiters use transit to get to work.

From New York to California, and a host of cities in between, people of color and poor people are challenging unfair, unjust, and illegal transportation policies and practices that relegate them to the back of the bus. Transportation provides access to opportunity and serves as a key component in addressing poverty, unemployment, and equal opportunity goals while ensuring access to education, health care, and other public services.

For more information on suburban sprawl and transportation equity, please contact the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, 223 James P. Brawley Drive, Atlanta, GA 30314, (404) 880-6911 (ph), (404) 880-6909 (fax), or E-mail at ejrc@cau.edu, or visit the EJRC's website at www.ejrc.cau.edu.

 

 

September23 2004
Issue 106

is published every Thursday.

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