After years of standing in the aisles, Los Angelenos - especially minorities in the inner cities - may finally get seat on the city's overcrowded buses.
It's a victory that could have implications across Big City America on the issue of class bias in using public funds. By acknowledging its failure to provide enough buses in the inner city, Los Angeles's Metro Transit Authority last week finally moved to comply with a landmark civil rights ruling.
In 1996, a union of Los Angeles MTA riders - 81 percent of whom are minorities - successfully sued the transit authority for its failure to provide cheap, safe, and adequate bus service.
Some 90 percent of the agency's funding was going to trains carrying only 10 percent of commuters to wealthier outlying areas. The suit sparked a landmark federal decision holding the MTA to its statutory obligation to patrons "without regard to race, color, or national origin."
Despite the ruling, buses remained as crammed as ever and the MTA continued to pour billions into rail lines. But last week, after a month-long campaign in which activists refused to pay for any bus ride in which commuters had to stand - a problem on virtually every major route - the MTA acknowledged its serious noncompliance with the decree.
The admission is expected to set legal grounds that will force the MTA to purchase enough buses to replace its aging fleet, expand routes, and provide adequate service - improvements costing as much as $1 billion.
"This is the major breakthrough we have been waiting for," says Eric Mann, leader of the 40,000-member Bus Riders' Union.
National civil rights experts say the ruling will become a model for poor and minority commuters in cities coast to coast. Dozens of cities - including Detroit, Washington, and Seattle - are experiencing urban flight. Many transit analysts say this is exacerbated by policies that favor middle-income, suburban commuters.
The matter, now before a court-appointed special master, is expected to create more problems for the beleaguered MTA, which has been the subject of several newspaper exposs for cost overruns and mismanagement.
The agency is under investigation by state authorities, and is under scrutiny by Congress as well. At the same time, it is trying to solicit funds from a House-Senate conference committee to complete a controversial leg of subway to suburban North Hollywood. Some say the new admission could divert millions from the unfinished project, which is already months behind schedule.
MTA officials say it is obligated to provide balanced transportation in several modes that include highways and rail transit.
The MTA, which is under new management, says it has enough money to purchase the new buses but cautions that it will take time for manufacturers to produce the 1,000-plus vehicles needed.
"We don't have a money problem," says Allan Lipsky, deputy CEO of the MTA. He says the agency will recommend purchasing more than 1,313 buses, fewer than the 1,600 that the bus riders are demanding. "Our position is that we both want the same thing, but it will take time."
The Bus Riders' Union sees such comments as stonewalling. They are continuing their "no seat, no fare" program, and organizers have been approached by activists in Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco to help form similar organizations.
"We are not sardines," says Rudy Pisani, a member of the union. "The overwhelming majority [who] use public transportation are bus riders, and we deserve clean, reliable, comfortable service."