For Millions of Low-Income Workers Left Behind by Public Transit Systems, Every Day’s a Snow Day

05 Mar 2015 |
For Millions of Low-Income Workers Left Behind by Public Transit Systems, Every Day’s a Snow Day
Above: Courtesy of Dan Mills, Flickr

The record 100-plus inches of snow that has pounded the Boston metropolitan area this winter has brought the city’s ailing public transportation system to the  forefront of the public debate as more than a million workers struggled to get to work in the aftermath of repeated transportation system shutdowns.

Story after story in the news has featured images of long lines of weary commuters, decrying the unacceptably long and inconsistent snow day commutes, but for the millions of Americans living in neighborhoods cut off from reliable, affordable public transportation, a two-hour commute prey to delays and inconsistent service is a daily occurrence. For these Americans, every commute is a “snow day” commute.

The media attention garnered by these snow-related transit shutdowns — and the sudden support for a multi-billion dollar revamp of Boston’s rail system — is testament to a disturbing trend in transportation decision-making all over the country: short-term failure of usually-reliable transit makes national headlines, but the ongoing neglect and disinvestment that characterize routes serving low-income communities goes unmentioned.

Neighborhoods that are cut off from quality public transportation are disproportionately low-income communities of color, highlighting the widespread, but often overlooked racial and economic discrimination that affects so many public transportation systems in this country. In Boston, it’s the divestment in certain bus routes that results in longer commute times for low-income communities and communities of color. A 2012 analysis found that even among the city’s bus commuters, Black residents spent an average of 80 minutes more a week commuting to work, often due to multiple transfers and long wait times.  

In New Orleans, it’s the bus systems serving low-income and communities of color that ten years after Hurricane Katrina have never been restored. In Detroit, it’s the $137 million transportation project serving only those in the city’s business sector that will leave car-less low-income populations stranded in the city’s outskirts. Similarly, in Nashville, a $175 million investment for a Bus Rapid Transit project will service mainly wealthy, white neighborhoods, while ignoring low-income communities of color like North Nashville.

These are just a few examples. All over America, transportation systems are failing the communities that need them most.

Building equity within our transportation systems is about more than addressing gaps in service, it’s about creating transportation systems that connect people to opportunity — whether that be a job, a better school for your kids, or vital community resources like health care or grocery stores. These are building blocks of a thriving community, and ensuring that public transportation systems work for everyone will make for healthier, safer, and more economically stable communities for entire cities and regions.

As this snow-induced transit crisis in Boston has shown, making any kind of large investment to transportation infrastructure is often an uphill battle, and one that takes a surge of political will to usher in updates and repairs that in some neighborhoods have been sorely needed for decades.

That is why the Transportation Equity Caucus, a diverse coalition of over a hundred organizations, works continually to put racial and economic equity at the heart of local, state, and federal transportation decisions. Toward this end, the Caucus awarded six grantees last week with funds to educate, advocate, and host convenings to enlist support for equitable transportation policies in their communities.  

Because we shouldn’t have to wait for a crisis to start a serious conversation about transportation and the way it shapes the lives, and futures, of families throughout the nation.