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Transit Justice: Providing Service and Shipping Out Greenhouse Gases

How one group aims to increase public transportation especially for those most in need.

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The BRU campaign won a significant victory in 2011 when the Los Angeles City Council approved a 7.7 mile, rush-hour, bus-only lane on Wilshire Boulevard from MacArthur Park in the Eastern part of the city to the westernmost stretch in Santa Monica. Most Angelenos thought dedicated bus lanes were the dreams of fools – particularly on Wilshire, which is one of L.A.’s busiest transportation corridors. But this is exactly where such service is needed.  Organizers hope this victory will set a precedent that encourages the provision of efficient bus service in highly congested areas that will motivate drivers who are tired of being stuck in traffic to use public transportation and reward bus riders who are not contributing to the pollution or the congestion.

The Wilshire Boulevard effort brought together mainstream environmental organizations and environmental justice groups, which helped facilitate a powerful coalition of bus riders, local businesses, neighborhood councils, and hotel, janitorial and restaurant unions whose members use Wilshire Boulevard to commute to the Westside. Yang points out that many residents’ commute times will be reduced by half, making this a victory not only for the environment, but for those most dependent on public transit.

“That is a significant impact for bus riders, where every minute makes the difference between missing your transfer or arriving on time for a job interview,” says Yang.

Despite these victories for public transit, bus service cuts have continued even as LA Metro has pushed to fund expensive rail contracts, such as the long anticipated West Side subway, which city officials say will connect the city’s East Side to Santa Monica.  “Metro cannibalizes the working class bus system to finance multi-billion dollar rail contracts and real estate developers because it sees bus riders as disposable,” says Yang.

To fight such inequality, the BRU is advocating for a publicly elected Metro Board. Yang says that such a strategy “could give bus riders the power to push back against these harmful policies.” The BRU is also pushing for its own Clean Air and Economic Justice Plan as a way to make Metro Board funding allocations and decisions more accountable to those who depend upon public transit the most. It outlines a multi-tiered countywide bus service network that runs on bus-only lanes, lowers fares and creates long-term jobs.

Transit justice advocates like the BRU have quite a task ahead of them, but their grassroots victories can mean a win for everyone.  As Yang notes: “A viable and just public transit system is measured by how well we uplift even the most vulnerable communities—if our transit system can provide convenient, affordable service for someone without a car, it will for everyone else with more resources.”

 

Rachel Morello-Frosch is an associate professor at the School of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley.  Her research examines the disparate health impacts of environmental hazards and climate change on communities of color and the poor. 

 

Dr. Manuel Pastor is Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California where he also directs the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and co-directs USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. His most recent books include Just Growth: Inclusion and Prosperity in America’s Metropolitan Regions (Routledge 2012; co-authored with Chris Benner) Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future (W.W. Norton 2010; co-authored with Angela Glover Blackwell and Stewart Kwoh), and This Could Be the Start of Something Big: How Social Movements for Regional Equity are Transforming Metropolitan America (Cornell 2009; co-authored with Chris Benner and Martha Matsuoka)