The Bus Riders Union and several other civil rights organizations took to the streets in Los Angeles last week, saying the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority should restore 1 million hours of bus service that were lost over the last four years. The union charges that the cuts in service, along with fare increases, have disproportionately harmed 500,000 African-American, Latino, and Asian-Pacific Islander bus riders.
That's not all. The coalition wants President Obama to personally intervene in the negotiations between the Transportation Department and the LACMTA. DOT slammed the city for implementing service changes without conducting a legally required analysis about the impacts on minority and poor riders. But the federal government has not gone so far as to require the city to reverse its decisions, which agitates the bus riders.
"We're framing this fight right now as a fight over the future of our city," said Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles. Mann says the city's emphasis on rail commuting is gentrification at its worst--harming the most disadvantaged populations who rely on bus service. "The rail system is going to bankrupt the transit system," he said.
The protest is a potent reminder that transportation systems are about more than state budgets, contracts, and traffic manipulation. A transit system sets the character for an entire city. Even the best-intentioned changes to it can have devastating and unexpected consequences.
What are city residents entitled to when it comes to mass transit? Do the same rights apply to road access? Does it make sense to consider access to transit or roads a civil right? If so, how does that change the policy conversation? How can city officials stay cognizant of the needs of various populations? What rights do city and state governments have with regard to their transportation systems? How can transportation officials balance the needs of everyone while staying within their budgets?