Transportation is a Civil Right
On Tuesday, a judge called for a retrial of Raquel Nelson, the mother who faced up to 36 months in prison for jaywalking; she has been sentenced to 12 months probation on two counts to run concurrent with 12 months probation for another count which she was found guilty of. In April 2010, Nelson was attempting to cross a busy intersection with her three young children and was hurrying because it was getting dark. Nelson was trying to catch a bus: Like many Americans, she relies on public transportation. As a recent report points out, many low-income households do not have access to an automobile:
- one-third of African-American households
- 25 percent of Latino households
- 12.1 percent of white households
In addition, members of racial minorities are four times more likely than whites to use public transit to get to work. The average cost of owning a car is just about $9,500 and beyond the reach of many low-income households as it’s almost half the income of a family who meets the federal poverty level of $22,350.
Meanwhile, the federal government allocates some 80 percent of its transportation funding to highways.
These figures are from a report, Where We Need to Go: A Civil Rights Roadmap for Transportation Equity, issued by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. As Wired magazine points out, while “Many of us take our mobility for granted…. [but] getting around can be a real challenge for millions of Americans.”
In particular, it’s a serious challenge for those on low-incomes who can’t afford a car, as well as senior citizens and individuals with disabilities. A few years ago, a friend’s autistic son turned 21, which means he had aged out of school services as provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). My friend had found a center which his son could attend during the day (his son’s disabilities are such that he’s not able to work and needs 24/7 care). But there was no way for his son to get to the center, short of his parents — both of whom worked — driving him. For school children, transportation is both arranged and paid for by the school district, but it’s a different story when your child is an adult and now relies on state agencies like the Department for Health and Human Services and, after a long process, our friend was able to get transportation arranged.
The cost of busing a child with disabilities is about $20,000 in New Jersey. Yes, that sounds like a lot! The reasons include overhead costs (smaller buses with fewer students than your typical school bus) and a bus aide or bus matron to assist the students, not to mention insurance. A recent incident in which a Jersey City school bus driver and aide were fired and arrested after leaving a 4-year-old with disabilities on a bus for several hours highlights why these costs are necessary.
As Wired also observes, because the majority of government transportation funding goes to highways and therefore automobiles, there’s much less being allocated for greener options, like bike riding and walking:
By focusing so much spending on highways, we’ve created decentralized communities. This is not, by itself, a problem. No one’s arguing everyone should live in cities. But we’ve underfunded mass transit and built minimal infrastructure for the 107 million people who walk or ride bikes to work each day.
(That’s a whole ‘nother issue: Americans make about 10.5 percent of all trips on foot, and only 1.5 percent of federal transportation funds are allocated to retrofitting roads with sidewalks and crosswalks even though pedestrians account for nearly 13 percent of all traffic fatalities, according to a study by Transportation for America.)
Even more, as Wired points out, “inadequate mass transit creates barriers to employment.” According to the report, three out of five jobs “suitable for welfare-to-work participants are not accessible by public transportation.” A Brookings Institute study has found that 45 percent of jobs in the US’s 98 largest metro areas are 10 miles or more beyond the urban core.
You can also be sure that those jobs aren’t paying the highest wages to match up to the cost of bus or train passes. Indeed, Americans in the lowest 20 percent income bracket spend about 42 percent of their annual income on transportation.
Congress is currently considering the surface transportation reauthorization bill, which will determine federal transportation spending and priorities for the next six years. We need to let Congress know that millions of Americans have limited access to transportation, and, as Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Conference on Civil and Human Rights says, are daily challenged to get to “jobs, schools, housing, health care services — and even to grocery stores and nutritious food.” Transportation is a civil right and we need to ensure that all Americans are able to get where they need to go.
Photo of people waiting for New Jersey Transit by Hunter-Desportes