Public Transit: The Road to Opportunity

13 Oct 2014 | Angela Glover Blackwell
Public Transit: The Road to Opportunity

(Cross-posted from The Huffington Post)

I remember years ago, while living in Los Angeles, abandoning a trip to a job interview when after two hours of travel and five bus changes I still was not at the job site. I realized that if I got the job, I could not manage a daily two-hour commute. Serious public transportation challenges are hurting the nation's economy. Qualified workers are not able to get to jobs they could do; would-be workers are not connecting to training; job efficiency is compromised because of lateness, missed work days, and transportation related-distractions due to unreliable, unaffordable and unsafe public transit.

Transportation challenges exist in too many locations across the United States. Sadly, for too many residents of these communities, not enough change has come. One of the reasons for this is that transportation dollars in the federal budget are too frequently focused on highways. Public transit has been relegated to a backseat for far too long. But national and local advocates have been insistently pressing the need for another approach, one that is driven by equity, which means just and fair inclusion. Evidence exists that they're being heard.

In late September, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Foxx was in Detroit, before traveling on to Los Angeles, Portland, Kansas City, and other locales, announcing new Federal Transit Administration Ladders of Opportunities grants. Twenty-four recipients in 19 states have received these awards, which will be used to significantly improve bus service and bus facilities in urban and rural communities where residents are heavily dependent on public transportation.

The Ladders of Opportunity program will modernize and expand bus service across the nation, with a focus on connecting "disadvantaged and low-income populations -- including veterans, seniors, and youths -- with centers of education, employment, job training, health care, and other vital services." It includes, for example, resources to build light rail lines and create apprenticeships for new employees in Los Angeles. This new program reflects the understanding that many elements -- including transportation access to jobs, housing, and other services -- are required to create opportunity in the lives of those who need it.

Earlier in the year, evidence that attention was being paid to transit was seen in the GROW America Act, which proposed $302 billion in surface transportation reauthorization funds for construction and maintenance of highways, roads, bridges, and transit, as well as bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

It's no wonder that Secretary Foxx called transportation "a lifeline." Transportation, he said, "is about more than getting from one point to another -- it's about getting from where you are to a better life." His words couldn't be more accurate for the times we're living in. The road to the future leads toward a nation that will be largely populated by people of color. It's in our economic best interest to make sure that resources are available enabling everyone to contribute to the nation's vitality and growth.

I have long been an advocate for equitable public transit. In a country where nearly 20 percent of African American households, 14 percent of Latino households, and 13 percent of Asian households live without a car, getting to jobs, schools, grocery stores, and other basics -- all depend on accessible, affordable, and reliable buses, trains, and light rail. Without it, too many among current and future populations are stuck without options at the very moment the nation needs their talent and ideas the most.

The Transportation Equity Caucus -- a coalition of 100 organizations co-led by PolicyLink and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights -- has been urging policy strategies to correct the transit wrongs that are barriers to opportunities. Ladders of Opportunity is one such move in the right direction, enabling investments that hold promise to improve outcomes for low-income people, communities of color, people with disabilities, and other underserved individuals.

The nation's prosperity is directly tied to the transportation opportunities of all. GROW America and Ladders of Opportunity are among the beacons of hope in what, for too many, has been a desolate landscape of limited opportunities. Such beacons illuminate the road to the future.