Equal access to every kind of opportunity—schools, jobs, health care, and affordable housing—depends on transportation. Fifty years after the Montgomery bus boycott, the local bus has become the transportation option of last resort. Today, instead of being at the back of the bus, low-income people of color may be the only remaining riders of declining urban bus systems.
At Public Advocates, Inc., we work to promote equity for low-income communities. That often comes down to funding equity, as when we took on California school finance in Serrano v. Priest, 18 Cal. 3d 728 (1976), and the lack of basic educational necessities in Williams v. California, No. 312236 (Cal. Super. Ct., S.F. Cty.). Because of the importance of transportation to people’s daily survival, we are now also focusing on inequity in transit funding. We represent bus riders in two California civil rights lawsuits—one in Los Angeles and one in the San Francisco Bay Area—that address the discriminatory underfunding of urban bus service.
In 1994, the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union (BRU) brought a class action lawsuit, Labor/Community Strategy Center v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, 263 F.3d 1041 (9th Cir. 2001), pending appeal, Case No. 06-56866 (9th Cir.), to challenge the discriminatory funding practices of Los Angeles’s transportation planning agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The MTA had just budgeted $123 million for an expansion of its Pasadena Blue Line light rail system to serve higher income, white suburban commuters. At the same time, it imposed fare hikes and service cuts on bus riders amounting to $126 million. Invoking Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the suit challenged this stark effort to expand commuter rail at the expense of critical bus service for low-income people of color.
BRU has demonstrated that organized bus riders can be a powerful force for change, working on the political as well as the legal front to ensure equity. After BRU won a restraining order blocking the fare hikes, the parties entered a consent decree in October 1996. The MTA agreed to improve bus service and maintain equitable fares. It also agreed to reduce overcrowding by specified amounts within the first six years and to maintain low rates of crowding for at least four years afterward.
The birth of the consent decree was an enormous victory for Los Angeles’s 400,000 bus riders, but implementation was mixed. While the MTA replaced much of its fleet of aging diesel buses with new clean-fuel buses and expanded its fleet by about 15 percent, it fell far short of expectations in some key respects, including overcrowding. Last year, the district court denied the bus riders’ request to extend the consent decree to address the MTA’s lack of compliance. Within months, the MTA announced major fare hikes. The status of the consent decree is now pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The BRU case has been watched closely around the country, and in particular, in the Bay Area, where a similar struggle is playing out. Rail systems, such as Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and Caltrain, serve predominantly white and affluent commuters, nearly all of whom own cars. By contrast, the region’s largest bus system, AC Transit, provides service for riders in low-income communities in and around Oakland. Like bus riders in Los Angeles, AC Transit riders are primarily people of color (80 percent) with low incomes (70 percent); 90 percent are entirely dependent on public transit. Yet, public funds subsidize a rail rider’s trip at two to four times the subsidy bus riders enjoy.
One of those transit dependent riders is East Oakland mother Sylvia Darensburg. Because she has no car, Darensburg depends on the bus to get to her job, her evening college classes, the doctor, and the grocery store. Over the past twenty-five years, she has watched her bus service cut by 30 percent. During this same period, rail service for BART and Caltrain riders doubled.
In 2005, Darensburg, along with other AC Transit riders of color, filed suit against the agency responsible for the inequitable funding allocation, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). The plaintiffs in Darensburg v. MTC, No. C-05-1597-EDL (N.D. Cal.), seek declaratory and injunctive relief under Title VI, the Equal Protection Clause, and California Government Code Section 11135. Ultimately, they demand frequent, reliable, and affordable bus service to meet their daily needs.
As our nation turns increasingly to transit as a solution to global warming, regional sprawl, and excessive reliance on foreign oil, both these suits send the message that reliable and affordable bus service must be the backbone of an equitable public transit budget.
Richard A. Marcantonio is a managing attorney and Angelica K. Jongco is an attorney and law fellow with Public Advocates, Inc., in San Francisco, California.