Getting Around

I like to avoid talking about race, mostly because whenever it comes up, people get defensive, they shut down, and then nothing productive comes of it. So, I don’t really want to go there, but there is here.

I think it’s really hard to talk about transportation without pointing out the obvious– only a particular demographic is fuel addicted in America. When the idea of reducing private motorized transportation comes up in certain circles, it’s deemed radical (or too radical). It should not be. The reality is that many Americans do not own automobiles. If, however, a person lives in an area where the ethnic and racial groups with low rates of vehicle ownership do not tend to live, there can be a distorted idea of how life is for everyone everywhere.

In the city of Hartford, 36.1% of households do not have a vehicle. In certain neighborhoods, that percentage is higher. For example, in South Green, 45.9% of households are without a vehicle, and in In the Clay Arsenal neighborhood, located in the northern section of Hartford, 55.1% of households are without. What’s interesting to me is that those who live downtown, most convenient to the train and bus hubs, and who may be in walking distance of their jobs, have one of the best rates of vehicle ownership in the city.

Chances are, if you live in Clay Arsenal, you have to leave the neighborhood to work. This means carpooling or figuring out a complicated and at-times inconvenient bus system. Basically, if you live in certain parts of town, you’re “eco-friendly” without even trying to be.

What is the racial/ethnic makeup here anyway? Citywide, Hispanics comprise 40.5% of the population, and Blacks/African Americans 36%. The White population makes up 17.8%, while Asians are 1.6% and all others make up 4.1%. I don’t know that this transportation issue can be called one of racism, but it seems to be part of it, as does class– 30.6% of Hartford residents live below the poverty level.

This is not a Hartford-specific issue. Because of the apparent disparities that anyone driving up Route 44 can witness, I think the race and class issues are surprisingly underplayed when we talk about improving mass transit, but it goes beyond Hartford.

An NAACP press release from 2004 reads as accurately today as it did five years ago:

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 “HIGHWAY ROBBERY,” 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 modern rail and public transit system, thousands of people have been left out and left behind because of discrimination. Like most other major cities, Atlanta’s urban center is worlds apart from its suburbs.”


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.

A glance at The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 shows that this attitude has not changed.

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 nation’s metropolitan regions, which have high proportion 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 nation’s 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.

I understand that buses use highways; I understand that people, no matter where they live, need to get to their jobs. People, no matter where they live, need to get to their jobs, and if you want that job to not be standing on a corner selling something that’s illegal, then enabling other opportunities seems the route to go. I’m not blaming the lack of transportation for the street economy, but I can not imagine that the two have no relation either. When people have limited legal choices, they are simply being set up for failure or for a life that involves less than admirable choices.

When funds are allocated for repairing roads, there’s no protest. No discussion to speak of. When we mention wanting better rail options or more direct bus service, all we get is “no we can’t,” “the people won’t have it,” “you’re asking people to change their lifestyles.” What we have now just does not work for a number of Americans.

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