This winter, the metro rail and bus systems in Washington DC shut down for an entire weekend while a blizzard made its way through the North East. Apart from emergency vehicles and a few brave souls who dared to trudge through the snowy streets and sidewalks, DC residents stayed put. In the days that followed, public transportation was reopened on a gradual basis. Bus routes were reinstated as it was safe to do so, while metro trains ran on a half service schedule. For those expected to report to their jobs while service remained limited, commuting became a tremendously frustrating and time consuming task. Among the overcrowded platforms and delayed trains, one thing was clear: a vast number of people rely on rail and bus lines for basic mobility.
Public transportation is a necessity that we often take for granted. In the same way that systemic issues are often overlooked in the fight against poverty, we have forgotten to look at the implications of poor and failing transportation systems. These improvements are a matter of convenience and efficiency for many Americans, but when we bring social and economic justice into the conversation, we see that the failings and successes of public transportation can have a disproportionate impact on working and low-income individuals. With a critical eye towards how these policies impact the most vulnerable in our communities, public transportation can quickly become a popular subject of discussion, just as it was for DC this January.
According to an article in The Atlantic, “Access to just about everything associated with upward mobility and economic progress—jobs, quality food, and goods (at reasonable prices), healthcare, and schooling— relies on the ability to get around in an efficient way, and for an affordable price.” When a person’s access to physical transportation impaired - whether in cost or physical location - it makes the process of doing simple things such as getting to work on time much more difficult, if not impossible.
Many individuals use public transportation because they have no alternative choice. Buying a car or living close to one’s office or place of work are out of the question for many who struggle financially. In turn, individuals are left at the whim of local transportation authorities. To use Washington, D.C., as an example once more, easy access to metro service is limited in poorer communities, and riding the bus either the full length of one’s commute, or to a metro station, is a necessity. But as the Atlantic article describes,
“Bus stops [are] in disrepair, providing inadequate shelter from precipitation or severe cold—a problem that is exacerbated by the book’s finding that even in cities that allow for digital tracking, bus arrival and departure times are often erroneous, leaving people to wait for untold periods of time. And thanks to overcrowding and inadequate space for things like grocery bags or bikes, once a bus arrives, passengers often can’t manage to get on.”
These conditions not only hamper one’s ability to plan for everything from job interviews to doctor’s appointments, but force many residents to trade both fiscal and social capital for lengthy and inconvenient commutes. As a result, the difficulty of climbing out of poverty is only exacerbated.
According to D.C. Council member Jack Evans, “Public transportation only works if it’s convenient and affordable.” For low-income households in our communities, it seems to be neither. Unfortunately, the policy world has paid little attention to just how big of an issue failing public transportation systems are. Education and jobs are often cited as the key to overcoming income inequality, while the means to achieving either of these goods remains overlooked.
Our government and local leadership have a responsibility to practice diligent oversight of the systems it runs and operates, including transportation. Rather than wait for crisis to arise, we need to begin to address accessibility issues, because they are affecting the poor here and now. We need to be concerned with the massive losses of productivity that occur on a daily basis - and not just when we face severe weather. As justice seekers, we need to find better solutions.
Where do we begin? To start, it’s important to ask hard questions about where the funding for our transportation systems is going. While long-term plans may have a glamorous appeal, practicality is of the essence, and we need to organize local voices in a way where the concerns and often overlooked needs of those who spend the most time commuting are heard. These steps are very feasible, and will lead to a more participatory system in the long-run where folks are not forced to respond to downfalls of transportation systems, but those systems respond to the needs of the people.
One point that cannot be overlooked in our advocacy is the disproportionate presence of transit deserts in poor communities. In these instances, where public transportation is altogether unavailable or severely limited, we need a more base-line approach. Where groundwork needs to be laid for new systems, it’s important for us to clearly and effectively explain the difference that public transportation can make. Areas with little to no public transportation share a high rate of poverty and the reason is clear: individuals are virtually stranded from the jobs that they need. As justice seekers, it should be understood that the solutions to the problems at hand will not have a standard solution, but one as diverse as the cities and towns across our country.
In her book “Move: Putting America’s infrastructure back in the lead” Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes, “Without adequate transit for the less-advantaged, opportunity will tend to pass them by, like overcrowded buses on a cold winter day.” Public transportation is truly an overlooked justice issue of today. As we seek to be champions for our neighbors as they look to rise out of poverty, we cannot forget that they need a physical means of doing so. If we aim our advocacy at accessibility and equality, we will begin to see real change in the well-being of our communities.
-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C.