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July 01, 2007

Dismantling Transportation Apartheid in the United States Before and After Disasters Strike

by Robert D. Bullard, Glenn S. Johnson and Angel O. Torres

Transportation provides access to opportunity and serves as a key component in addressing poverty, unemployment, and equal opportunity goals. It likewise ensures access to education, health care, and other public services. Thus, transportation equity is consistent with the goals of the larger civil rights and human rights movements and the emerging regional equity movement. Nonetheless, American society remains divided between the haves and the have-nots: those with cars and those without them.

Recognizing Transportation Apartheid

Many of the nation’s regional transportation systems are regional in name only, with a good number of metropolitan public transit systems comprised largely of “separate and unequal” urban and suburban bus and rail operations built along race and class lines. Without doubt, this “transportation apartheid” is firmly entrenched across our nation. Therefore the struggle against transportation apartheid has always been—and remains today—about civil rights and human rights.

For more than a century, African Americans have struggled to end apartheid on buses, trains, and highways. This form of racial discrimination, which clearly violates constitutionally guaranteed civil rights, was codified in 1896 by Plessy v. Ferguson, 160 U.S. 537 (1896), a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld Louisiana’s segregated “white” and “colored” seating on railroad cars, ushering in the infamous doctrine of “separate but equal.” Plessy further served as the legal basis for racial segregation in education until the Court finally overturned it in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

The modern civil rights movement has its roots in transportation. In 1953, roughly half a century after Plessy relegated blacks to the back of the bus, African Americans in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, staged the nation’s first successful bus boycott. Two years later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of a Montgomery city bus to a white man. In so doing, she ignited the modern civil rights movement.

Parks would have had a difficult time sitting on the front or back of a Montgomery bus as the new millennium arrived because the city basically dismantled its public bus system, which had mostly served blacks and poor people. The cuts were made at the same time that federal tax dollars boosted the construction of the region’s extensive suburban highways. The changes in Montgomery and its metropolitan region took place amid growing racial geographic segregation and this was reflected in tensions between white and black members of the city council. City officials stated that their actions were fiscally necessary even as Montgomery received large federal transportation subsidies to fund renovation of nontransit improvements.

Parks ironically lived most of her life after Montgomery in Detroit, the most racially segregated big city in America and the nation’s largest metropolitan area without a regional transit system. Detroit builds cars—or it used to. It is the Motor City. The federal government transfers $100 million of Michigan’s annual federal transit taxes, paid by everyone who buys gasoline, to cities in other states that are building or expanding rapid transit lines. Clearly, an effective regional transit system could connect Detroit workers with jobs, serve a rapidly aging population, and reduce traffic congestion, all of which would have the added benefit of positively impacting the environment. But that is not in the cards.

The Transportation Planning Process

The federal government funds most transportation projects in the United States, with most of the moneys distributed via each state’s department of transportation (DOT) and the local metropolitan planning organization (MPO) of each city. MPOs are the official planning bodies for regions with populations over 200,000 and have existed since the 1960s. The state DOTs have responsibility for all areas not within the jurisdiction of the MPOs; these areas are referred to as transportation management areas.

Generally, MPOs are mandated to institute two types of plans before any type of transportation program can be funded: a regional transportation plan (RTP) and a transportation improvement program (TIP). By law, the RTP is a regional transportation blueprint extending for a minimum of twenty years into the future. The RTP must be updated every three years in areas that do not meet federal air quality standards. The RTP includes a balanced mix of projects such as bridges, bicycle paths, sidewalks, transit services, new and upgraded roadways, safety improvements, transportation demand management initiatives, and emission reduction strategies.

The long-range RTP forms the basis upon which an annual short-range TIP is developed. The TIP is a list of projects that attempt to solve a region’s transportation problems with short-term solutions. Each year hard choices must be made about which improvements to move forward and which to defer. TIPs must be consistent with the long-range RTP and must conform to various state and federal regulatory requirements such as the Clean Air Act Amendments and the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act—A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA—LU). The TIP allocates federal funds for use in the construction of the highest priority transportation projects. TIPs must cover at least three years, but in many areas they are developed with up to six years’ worth of projects. Only projects in the TIP may receive federal funding.

The most successful community groups participate in the TIP and RTP planning process and use the system to get what they want in terms of transportation investments, improvements, and services, from sidewalks to transit stations. People of color across the United States are fighting to get representation on transportation boards and commissions, and to get their fair share of transit services, bus shelters and other amenities, and handicap accessible vehicles. They also seek to maintain affordable fares. Some groups are waging grassroots campaigns to keep dirty diesel buses and bus depots from being dumped in their neighborhoods. These groups also struggle to get public transit systems linked to jobs and economic activity centers. They are challenging public transportation decisions and modernization and enhancement projects that have shortchanged poor people and people of color.

Left Behind by Job Sprawl and Spatial Mismatch

America has become a suburban nation. As jobs and opportunity migrate to the distant suburbs, where public transit is inadequate or nonexistent, persons without cars are literally left by the side of the road. In the end, all Americans pay for the social isolation and concentrated poverty that ensue from poor planning. This phenomenon is not new. In our book entitled Sprawl City: Race, Politics and Planning in Atlanta, we noted that suburban sprawl is widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. Sprawl is fueled by an “iron triangle” of finance, land use planning, and transportation service delivery. Suburban sprawl has clear social and environmental effects. The continued segregation of African Americans away from suburban job centers signals a new urban crisis and a new form of “residential apartheid.”

The exodus of low-skilled jobs to the suburbs disproportionately affects central city residents, particularly African Americans, who often face more limited choice of housing location and transportation in growing areas. While many new jobs are being created in the suburbs, the majority of job opportunities for low-income workers are still located in central cities. Transportation looms as a major barrier to employment.

In 2000, no other group in the United States was more physically isolated from jobs than blacks. UCLA scholar Michael Stoll’s research reveals that more than 50 percent of 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. Although African Americans have shown moderate rates of residential mobility to the suburbs over the past few decades, they have remained fairly centralized and concentrated in older urban neighborhoods, but employment has continuously decentralized toward metropolitan area suburbs and exurbs. A lack of cars and little or no access to public transit continues to disconnect blacks from many jobs for which they may be suited, thereby increasing their employment difficulties.

Suburbs are increasing their share of office space, while central cities see their share declining. A 2000 Brookings Institution study, Office Sprawl: The Evolving Geography of Business, reported the suburban share of the metropolitan office space at 69.5 percent in Detroit, 65.8 percent in Atlanta, 57.7 percent in Washington, D.C., 57.4 percent in Miami, and 55.2 percent in Philadelphia. Yet getting to job-rich and opportunity-rich suburbs without a car is next to impossible.

Left Behind When Disasters Strike

Transportation is a major component in emergency preparedness and evacuation planning. However, unequal access to transportation alternatives in disasters heightens the vulnerability of the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and people of color. People with private automobiles have a greater chance of “voting with their feet” and escaping threats from hurricanes than people who are dependent on the government to provide emergency transportation. All too often buses (public transit or school buses), vans (paratransit), and trains do not come to the rescue of vulnerable populations.

On August 28, 2005, Mayor Ray Nagin ordered New Orleans’s first mandatory evacuation since the city was founded in 1718. Buses evacuated thousands of residents to the Superdome and other shelters within the city. It has been the policy of the Red Cross for years not to open shelters in New Orleans during hurricanes greater than Category 2. Red Cross storm shelters were moved to higher ground north of Interstate 10 several years ago.

New Orleans ’s emergency plan basically allowed thousands of the city’s most vulnerable population to be left behind in their homes, shelters, and hospitals. A Times-Picayune article summed up the emergency transportation plan: “City, state and federal emergency officials are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans’ poor a historically blunt message: In the event of a major hurricane, you’re on your own.” Bruce Nolan, In Storm, N.O. Wants No One Left Behind, The Times-Picayune, July 24, 2005. The New Orleans Rapid Transit Authority (RTA) emergency plan designated sixty-four buses and ten lift vans to transport residents to shelters. This “plan” was woefully inadequate since the larger buses only hold about sixty people apiece.

On August 29, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans, leaving death and destruction across the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama Gulf Coast. Katrina is likely the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history. It was also one of the deadliest in decades, with a death toll of 1,325. Bodies were still being discovered under rubble in New Orleans’s mostly black Ninth Ward nearly a year after the storm. Disaster planners had failed the “most vulnerable” in New Orleans—people without cars, nondrivers, the disabled, the homeless, sick persons, the elderly, and children. The data confirm what many believed: Katrina killed the weakest.

Hurricane Katrina also exposed a major weakness in urban mass evacuation plans. It shone a spotlight on the heightened vulnerability of people without cars. Katrina’s evacuation plan did work relatively well for people with cars but miserably failed those depending on public transit. More than one-third of New Orleans’s African American residents did not own a car. Over 15 percent of the city’s residents relied on public transportation as their primary mode of travel. Local, state, and federal emergency planners must have known—for years—of the risks facing these transit dependent residents.

At least 100,000 New Orleans residents—and perhaps double or triple that—did not have cars to evacuate in case of a major storm. A 2002 article titled “Planning for the Evacuation of New Orleans” detailed the risks faced by the hundreds of thousands of persons without cars and nondrivers in New Orleans. Brian Wolshon, Planning for the Evacuation of New Orleans, Inst. Transp. Engineers J. 45 (Feb. 2002), available at Of the 1.4 million inhabitants in the high-threat areas, government officials assumed that only 60 percent of the population—850,000 people, give or take—would be able to leave.

Although the various agencies knew that this large vulnerable population existed, there simply was no effective plan to evacuate these New Orleanians. Yet this problem had received national attention in 1998 during Hurricane Georges, when emergency evacuation plans mostly left behind residents who did not own cars. Further, when Hurricane Ivan had struck New Orleans in 2004, many New Orleanians who did not own cars had been left to fend for themselves, while others were evacuated to the Superdome and other “shelters of last resort.” More telling, New Orleans’s post-Ivan emergency plan had been modified to include the use of public buses to evacuate those without private transportation.

Transporting an estimated 100,000 to 135,000 people out of harm’s way certainly would have been no small undertaking. Yet when the hurricane hit, most of the city’s five hundred transit and school buses were without drivers. During the storm, about 190 RTA buses were lost to flooding. Afterward, most of the New Orleans Rapid Transit Authority (NORTA) employees were dispersed across the country, and many were left homeless. Before Katrina, NORTA employed more than 1,300 people. A year later, the NORTA Board of Directors laid off 150 of its 730 remaining employees. These layoffs included about 125 of NORTA’s 400 operators, and 21 of its 162 maintenance employees.

Some fifteen months after the storm, less than half of all buses and streetcar routes were running, and only 17 percent of the buses were in use. NORTA was operating only twenty-eight bus routes, two streetcar lines, and paratransit for persons with disabilities. It is struggling financially, especially because its core black ridership continues to be scattered around the country and has not returned to the city.

The Cost of Driving

Transportation is the second largest annual expense for American families, adding up to more than three times the cost of health care, and exceeded only by housing expenditure. On average, American households devote 19.3 percent of every dollar spent to transportation expenses. See Brian K. Bucks et al., Recent Changes in U.S. Family Finances: Evidence from the 2001 and 2004 Survey of Consumer Finances, Fed. Res. Bull. (Feb. 2006). For lower income families, the expense of transportation poses an even greater burden, inhibiting wealth creation, hindering home ownership, and dangerously straining already tight family budgets.

Lest anyone dismiss transportation as a tangential issue, consider that Americans spend more on transportation than they do on food or education. Writing in Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity, Congressman John Lewis summed up the challenge that lies ahead: “Our struggle is not over. The physical signs are gone, but the legacy of ‘Jim Crow’ transportation is still with us.”

The average household spends more than $7,600 annually on basic daily transportation. This is not a small point given the income gap between black and white households. Specifically, the median income of black households is about $29,000, only 58 percent of the median for non-Hispanic white households. The gap is somewhat narrower among households headed by a person with a college degree; median income for African American households in this group was close to $54,000, 75 percent of the median for non-Hispanic whites.

Together, housing and transportation costs account for 52 percent of annual consumer expenditures nationwide, with lower income households spending an average of 53 percent and higher income households spending an average of 49 percent. The differences in metropolitan area expenditures reflect local variations in costs for housing and transportation, as well as area incomes.

Transportation costs range from 17.1 percent in the Northeast to 20.8 percent in the South, where 54 percent of African Americans now reside. The nation’s poorest families spend more than 40 percent of their take home pay on transportation. Households that earned less than $20,000 saw their transportation expenses increase by 36.5 percent between 1992 and 2000. Compare this to households with incomes of $70,000 and above, who only spent 16.7 percent more in 2000 than they did in 1992.

High transportation costs can have a significant effect on families’ long-term financial outlooks. Spending on vehicles erodes wealth, while spending in the other major household category—housing—can build it. For example, over ten years, for every $10,000 invested in a home, the homeowner can get a return of over $4,730 in equity. For every $10,000 invested in an automobile, a car owner receives equity of less than $1,000, just $910. Automobile loans are the largest category of household debt outside of home mortgages, and such debt obligations can stand in the way of qualifying for a mortgage.

Waiting for a Ride

The private automobile is still the most dominant travel mode in every segment of the American population. Private automobiles provide enormous employment access advantages to their owners. Nationally, only 7 percent of white households do not own a car, compared with 13 percent of Asian American households, 17 percent of Latino households, and 24 percent of African American households. Lack of car ownership and inadequate public transit service in many central cities and metropolitan regions exacerbate social, economic, and racial isolation, especially for low-income African Americans who already have limited transportation options. Clearly, a lack of cars for low-income and people of color limits their access to employment, especially when they also live in areas where public transit is inadequate to meet the needs of the surrounding population.

African Americans have the lowest car ownership of all racial and ethnic groups in the United States, with 19 percent living in homes in which no one owns a car. This compares to 4.6 percent of whites in homes with no car, 13.7 percent of Latinos, and 9.6 percent of the remaining groups combined. While 8 percent of Americans overall live in a home without access to a car, nine of the ten cities with the highest percentage of residents with no car can be found on the East Coast.

Nationally, only about 5.3 percent of all Americans use public transit to get to work. In urban areas, African Americans and Latinos comprise over 54 percent of transit users—62 percent of bus riders, 35 percent of subway riders, and 29 percent of commuter rail riders. African Americans are almost six times as likely as whites to use transit to get around. Urban transit is especially important to African Americans, with over 88 percent living in metropolitan areas and 53.1 percent living inside central cities. Nearly 60 percent of transit riders are served by the ten largest urban transit systems in the country, and the remaining 40 percent by the other 5,000 transit systems.

In areas with populations of one million and below, more than half of all transit passengers have incomes of less than $15,000 per year. The metropolitan areas with the largest black populations include New York (2.3 million), Chicago (1 million), Detroit (700,000), Philadelphia (600,000), Houston (500,000), Baltimore (400,000), Los Angeles (400,000), Memphis (400,000), Washington, D.C. (300,000), and New Orleans (300,000 pre-Katrina).

Most transit system officials have tended to consider low-income and people of color as “captive riders,” and have taken them for granted; instead, they concentrated their fare and service policies on attracting middle-class and affluent riders from their cars. Moreover, transit subsidies have tended to favor investment in suburban transit and expensive new commuter bus and rail lines that disproportionately serve wealthier “discretionary riders.” Almost 40 percent of rural counties in this country have little or no public transportation at all.

Much attention was given to transportation and emergency evacuation challenges facing the New Orleans’s population that did not own cars during and after Hurricane Katrina. The gap between whites (15.3 percent) and blacks (34.8 percent) without cars became obvious by the preponderance of black faces in the New Orleans Superdome and convention center. It was these same thousands of flood victims who were provided one-way bus rides to distant locations around the country. More than 200,000 Katrina evacuees have not made it back to their New Orleans homes two years after the devastating flood. It is important to note that this same gap between whites without cars and blacks without cars exists in numerous other majority black U.S. cities: Washington, D.C. (27 percent versus 42.1 percent), Atlanta (9.2 percent versus 34.6 percent), Memphis (6.7 percent versus 20.3 percent), Baltimore (22.7 percent versus 44.4 percent), Detroit (19.0 percent versus 22.7 percent), and St. Louis (15.7 percent versus 36.2 percent).

A Civil and Human Rights Issue

Transportation is a basic ingredient for quality of life indicators such as health, education, employment, economic development, access to municipal services, residential mobility, and environmental quality. Thus transportation continues to be a civil rights and human rights issue. Improvements in transportation investments and air quality are of special need to low-
income families and people of color who are concentrated in the nation’s most polluted urban centers. Transportation investments, enhancements, and financial resources, if used properly, can bring new life and revitalize urban areas. They can also aid in lifting families out of poverty.

Race and class dynamics operate to isolate many low-income and people of color central city residents from expanding to suburban job centers. Trans?portation dollars have fueled suburban highway construction and job sprawl. Some transportation projects have cut wide swaths through neighborhoods mostly populated by people with low incomes and people of color, thereby physically isolating residents from their institutions and businesses, disrupting once stable communities, displacing thriving businesses, contributing to urban sprawl, subsidizing infrastructure decline, creating traffic gridlock, and subjecting such residents to elevated risks from accidents, noise, spills, and explosions from vehicles carrying hazardous chemicals or other dangerous materials.

Transportation is a key ingredient in any organization’s plan to build economically viable and sustainable communities. State DOTs, MPOs, and transit providers have a major responsibility to ensure that their programs, policies, and practices do not discriminate against or adversely and disproportionately impact people of color and the poor. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita demonstrated the inadequacy of emergency plans and the difficulty of evacuating an entire city quickly and smoothly. Funding is desperately needed for local transportation providers to furnish ongoing emergency transportation preparedness for all public transportation personnel, as well as specific training on public transportation provisions of the Americans with Disability Act.

State and local governments should offer incentives for local transportation providers to increase efforts to provide alternative transportation services in areas with high concentrations of transit dependent persons and nondrivers. An emergency transportation fund is also needed to support hurricane evacuees to return home and funds to support transportation needs in cities where evacuees are currently living.

Public transportation alone will not address all emergency needs, as demon?strated by Hurricane Katrina. Clearly, private car ownership increases mobility in normal times as well as in times of a disaster. Car ownership, maintenance, and insurance demonstration programs should be put in place for “jitney” opportunities for people of color business entrepreneurs. Since many taxi cab monopolies fail to pick up black passengers, especially black males, boosting African American car ownership rates would increase mobility and narrow the interracial employment gap. It would also clearly enhance their ability to evacuate during natural disasters.


Robert D. Bullard is a Ware professor of sociology and director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. His most recent book is The Black Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century: Race, Power, and Politics of Place (2007). Glenn S. Johnson is a research associate in the Environmental Justice Resource Center and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the same university. He has coedited a number of books, including Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity (2004). Angel O. Torres is a geographic information system training specialist with the Environmental Justice Resource Center. He also has coedited several publications, including Sprawl City: Race, Politics, and Planning in Atlanta (2000) and Highway Robbery.