Transit Justice: Providing Service and Shipping Out Greenhouse Gases

Editor's Note: This is part of series, Facing the Climate Gap, which looks at grassroots efforts in California low-income communities of color to address climate change and promote climate justice.

This article was published in collaboration with

When the regional metropolitan transit authority closed a small section of a local highway in 2011, Angelenos quickly started worrying about “Carmageddon.” The fear was that traffic would spill over into side streets and result in a locked landscape of parked cars – but instead folks just stayed out of their cars for the entire sunny Southern Californian spring weekend. What traffic there was moved smoothly – and the air was that much cleaner.

While traffic officials are wondering how best to get Angelenos out of their cars for just one day, the Bus Riders Union (BRU) is looking to boost public transit throughout the year by improving the conditions of public transportation for those low-income residents who have little choice about transit in the first place. By doing so, BRU is addressing fundamental transit equity issues– and getting drivers out of their cars on a more regular basis.

Founded in 1992, the BRU was among a set of plaintiffs that filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority (LA Metro) for neglecting public transportation in low-income areas that served Black, Latino and Asian residents. The suit was successful and the LA Metro was forced to invest $2.7 million to improve bus infrastructure in Los Angeles. Jumping off that platform of civil rights, BRU is now on a mission to improve environmental health and the state of public transportation in the city.

For example, the BRU is currently in the midst of its Clean Air, Clean Buses, Clean Lungs Campaign, which was started in 2005. It aims to reduce car use in Los Angeles by half, double the MTA’s fleet, ban highway expansion and create bus-only lanes and pedestrian friendly zones throughout the city.

This is good for the planet since passenger automobiles account for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in California according to the California Air Resources Board.

But as BRU Senior Organizer Sunyoung Yang points out, Angelinos with lower-incomes are less likely to have cars, more likely to be dependent on public transit, and therefore less responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Encouraging this kind of good transit behavior would seem to make economic and environmental sense.

However, we do just the opposite. The last major federal transportation bill passed in 2005 under President George W. Bush funded highway expansion with $228 billion versus just $53 billion for public transit. This trend was maintained with the 2012 transportation bill, which allocated 80 percent of funds to highway expansion and 20 percent to mass transit.

Moreover, the same population contributing least to greenhouse gas emissions and hurt the most by declining public transit service also typically live in neighborhoods with the worst air quality due to nearby polluting sources, including highways and major roads. Yang points out that this is where the “health and climate aspects intersect.”

Private cars are not the only sources of transportation-related pollution: low-income communities are surrounded by rail yards, cargo truck routes, distribution centers, and ports which transport consumer goods and leave behind greenhouse gases and other health-damaging pollutants such as particulate matter. In the City of Commerce and off in the Inland Empire, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and the Center for Community and Environmental Justice are confronting these industries and working with local, regional, and state government to set limits on logistics-related pollutants and shine a light on their climate change and environmental health impacts.  Yang points out that the best evidence of these cumulative burdens can be found among  public transit riders.  “If you get on a typical bus and ask working class bus riders, ‘how many people do you know who have asthma or are suffering from respiratory diseases?’ almost everybody raises their hand.”

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.”

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