The poet Nikki Giovanni wrote that “Getting on a bus is an act of responsibility An act of bravery // An act of commitment to change.” She was reflecting on the legacies of Rosa Parks and Homer Plessy, as well as ordinary people who got on buses to attend the 1963 March on Washington. But on Transit Equity Day -- celebrated on Rosa Parks’s birthday on February 4 -- her words have resonance for all of us.
I don’t think Giovanni meant that simply getting on any bus, anywhere, should be seen as “an act of bravery” or a “commitment to change.” But working toward a truly equitable -- and sustainable -- public transit system, as Parks and Plessy did, represents exactly that.
Right now, our communities are designed for cars. And that has consequences. People -- especially those living in communities of color, which tend to be the ones with highways through them -- get sick from auto pollution. We’ve sacrificed safe, walkable cities on the altar of ample parking, and commute times are at a record high. As if all that weren’t bad enough, the US transportation sector is our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Swapping out internal-combustion cars for electric vehicles will address some of these problems. But a complete solution will require expanding, improving, and electrifying our public transit system. We need to make it comfortable, clean, prompt, and a pleasure to use -- so everyone wants to get on board.
We also have to make sure that public transportation serves everyone, regardless of race, age, ability, or income. We no longer have laws segregating public transportation -- the laws Rosa Parks risked so much to overturn. But our transit systems still reflect and perpetuate racial inequality. People of color are disproportionately likely to live in transit deserts, without easy access to reliable transit connecting them to good jobs, healthy food, health care, and educational opportunities. That helps keep people in poverty.
A truly equitable and sustainable public transit system is one that works for workers, too. The sector is already a source of union jobs that pay above-average wages -- but more needs to be done to make sure transit workers have good working conditions and salaries that allow them to make ends meet in expensive metro areas. And we need to recognize that this sector can be an important source of good, green jobs -- especially if we expand our public transit system to serve all the people who need it.
This Transit Equity Day, the Sierra Club joined our allies from the labor, climate, and racial justice movements to honor and continue the struggle for equitable access to transit for everyone. Rallying with them was a powerful reminder that solving the climate crisis will require rooting out injustice, especially racism and economic inequality. Doing so will lead to a better society for all of us -- one with less pollution, better public services, and more shared prosperity. As the signs on the buses in my neighborhood put it: “Our bus is our community.” Let’s invest in it.
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