Urban Buses Host a Struggle for Equity

Suburban vs. urban transit: Los Angeles bus riders use civil rights laws to get better service

Philip Ajofoyinbo and about 1,500 low-income bus riders here may be the 1997 equivalent of Rosa Parks.

In 1955, Mrs. Parks rode into American civil rights history by refusing to sit in the back of the local Montgomery, Ala., bus. A year-long boycott of the bus line - courtesy of Martin Luther King Jr. and followers - sparked court action and activism that led to landmark laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations.

Today, Mr. Ajofoyinbo and a union of blacks, Latinos, Asians, and native Americans are carrying a similar civil rights torch in a battle that could affect every large city in America. They say that all citizens have a right to clean, affordable public transportation.

"The inner-city poor and transit-dependent should be no less served than the suburban rich," says Ajofoyinbo, a cultural anthropologist and writer who lives near downtown Los Angeles. "The 90 percent of us who use public transportation put up with old buses, high fares, and limited service while billions are spent on trains carrying 10 percent of commuters to outlying areas."

For his morning commute to a nearby library, he sits on an overcrowded bus with graffiti scratched into every window. Black soot shoots out of the bus's exhaust pipe because the 12-year-old vehicle is one of hundreds not yet replaced with newer models that use cleaner-burning fuels.

Court order

Change is coming slowly. In a case being watched closely by activists in dozens of cities, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is moving to correct these long-standing inequities - but not by choice. Four years of pressure by Ajofoyinbo and the rest of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union - formed in 1993 by uniting immigrants, welfare recipients, and handicapped and elderly people - won a landmark ruling.

In October, a California Superior Court judge held that the MTA had a statutory obligation to transit patrons "without regard to race, color, or national origin," and that all transit patrons should "have equal and equitable access to fully integrated mass transportation." A federal consent decree was signed mandating 152 more buses on the streets, lower bus-pass prices, and $1 billion in improvements over five years.

In intervening months, however, the MTA has become strapped for cash. It is in danger of losing federal funds for rail lines that have been long promised to several suburbs, and federal legislators have asked the organization to design a "recovery plan" to get the city's grand subway project back in fiscal health.

At least partly because of this cash shortage, the MTA has not been forthcoming with promised changes. Its proposals say it will be 2002 before the aging bus fleet will be replaced, bus service improved, and overcrowding reduced.

"Nine months [after the consent decree] we have not seen a single new bus, and the MTA appears to be balking on all its promises," says Eric Mann, director of the Labor Community Strategies Center, a multiracial issues organization. In rallies, public demonstrations, and verbal protests at local MTA meetings, union members have tried to pressure MTA officials, but Mr. Mann says they will have to take the MTA back to court to enforce the consent decree.

"This is a major test of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as well as a looking glass to examine whether and how the federal government keeps its promises," says Mann.

All eyes on L.A.

The case is attracting national attention because dozens of American towns and cities are experiencing urban flight that many transit analysts say is exacerbated by transit policies that favor middle-income, suburb-to-downtown commuters. Robin Kelley, an urban professor at New York University says similar conditions to L.A.'s exist in Detroit, Washington, Seattle, Mobile, Ala., and elsewhere.

The Los Angeles episode also comes amid a decline in American use of public transportation. Between 1989 and 1993, annual ridership in the nation's 10 largest urban transit systems declined by 680 million, about 10 percent. Several cities - among them Miami, Atlanta, Detroit, St. Louis, San Diego, Sacramento, Calif., and Portland, Ore. - have built train systems whose ridership numbers have not lived up to predictions.

The Los Angeles MTA, for its part, says it is doing its best to meet the demands of the federal consent decree by adding two dozen route changes and 50 buses for use during peak hours. They say the union's demands for 600 to 1,200 new buses are excessive and unnecessary.

"The [bus riders] union demands are understandable given their organization's agenda," says Dana Woodbury, the MTA's deputy executive officer for planning and scheduling. "But it is not entirely supported by [us] because the MTA is obligated to provide for balanced transportation in several modes [including] highway and rail transit."

Such obligations grew out of political decisions made more than a decade ago, he acknowledges. "In order to make a viable rail system during the lifetime of those who voted to tax themselves [for such a rail], you have to mortgage the future," he says. "It commits you to an irreversible path. We made a commitment to rail in the past and now our hands are tied."

Facing crisis in cities

Beyond the debate about the relative merits of trains vs. buses, many observers say the Los Angeles case spotlights the necessity for a sea change in the American civil rights movement.

"This is a major example of how the models of cultural and political change of the 1960s no longer speak to the socioeconomic conditions and crises of our central cities," says Manning Marable, professor of history and director of African-American studies at Columbia University in New York.

How the Los Angeles story plays out will be important to watch, he says, because of the situation's demand for solutions that might not necessarily evolve from existing political structures and means of dialogue.

"The struggle over public access to public transportation is absolutely vital to the effort to create a humane, urban environment for racialized ethnic minorities," he says. Lauding the formation of the bus riders union as a possible model for similar unions in dozens of cities, Marable says: "Black and minority politics in today's American cities must redefine itself around these core themes of practical, visible, quality-of-life matters. It's not just a black or white or Asian or Hispanic issue - it's one of finding a new kind of practical, progressive politics."

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