CSI’s Simran Noor on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry to talk about James Robertson and the state of our crumbling transportation infrastructure
The story of Detroit’s James Robertson appalled all of us. Imagine walking 21 miles to work for over a decade. Almost anyone would have his spirit broken by this long commute, but James’ spirit was not broken. His persistence inspired a news story by the Detroit Free Press, which resulted in a successful fundraiser and a new car for James, donated by a local dealership.
James’ story is a testament to hard work and tenacity, but his story is also a strong indictment of a broken transportation system – a system created and sustained by policy decisions. Buried in James’ story is that Oakland County, one of the most affluent suburbs of Detroit, voted to opt out of the regional public transit system, making it impossible for many folks like James to get to work efficiently.
James is not alone. In fact, 1 in 10 low-income workers across the nation lack adequate public transit to get them to work. This is particularly distressing for communities of color: Blacks are six times more likely than Whites to rely on public transit to get around and Latinos are three times more likely. This is a pattern we can’t ignore.
Yet, transit-starved regions, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color, are struggling to maintain the bit of service they have and regions with sound transit systems are struggling to expand service for those most disconnected from transit. Groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), backed by the Koch family and others, are not helping. Grist recently documented their funding of local and state lobbyists to block referendums and ballot measures intended to support transit. They are particularly interested in dismantling support for transit funding since a bulk of their wealth is made from fossil fuels and is reliant on individuals driving automobiles.
The future of transportation doesn’t look good. The Department of Transportation has just released, Beyond Traffic, a forecast of the future that ties us to crumbling infrastructure and disarray due to climate change. This is our current landscape. But the future isn’t written yet.
Transportation is a part of our public commons, a public good, and must be treated as such. It’s not just about individuals taking a bus, or metro. It’s about all of us and our nation’s ability to thrive economically. This means investment.
First, we must understand that public transportation is essential infrastructure for our economy. It’s a vital connector that gets people to work, to school, to a doctor when their sick and to healthy food, etc. Public transportation is also an economic stimulator. For every $1 invested in public transportation, there is a $4 economic return. Every $1 billion invested in public transportation creates 36,000 jobs.
But investment in itself will not solve all of our problems. We need better planning. Local, regional, state and federal agencies need to look at transportation comprehensively, taking into consideration the community, cultural, civic, political, education, employment and medical institutions that are in neighborhoods. Transportation planning decisions need to connect to land use decisions and take into account health and environmental impacts, especially for those communities of color and low income communities, who more often than not, bear the brunt of our policy decision. This requires data, mapping and performance metrics to drive our decision making.
This also requires authentic engagement. Transportation investment, with all its benefits, can also be a gentrifying force in low-income communities. This means, from the onset, communities must be engaged in the decisions that impact their lives. Government must assess peoples’ needs and also take the time to educate and engage people so we can collectively envision fair and just plans that benefit everyone. This also requires funding communities to organize and self-educate in a way that works for them, leaders in Seattle and others, have relied on the trusted advocate model, for example.
The road ahead will be a long one and we should not be naïve in understanding the struggle before us. Public transportation has always central to our movement for civil and human rights. From Plessy v. Ferguson to more recent cases like Alexander v. Sandoval, we see just how contentious of an issue public transportation can be. However, we’ve also seen the successes investment in transportation can bring.
The bottom line is that public transportation is a key racial justice issue of our time. I am hopeful that working across community, policy, advocacy, and government, we can truly build the public transportation system that the next generation of Americans deserves.
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