The belt-tightening will affect millions of commuters. It will hit lower-income workers, who are more likely to be people of color, hardest. That's why Transportation for America (T4) —a coalition of public officials, transit and environmental advocacy groups, businesses and unions —is framing its pitch for better federal transportation funding in terms of racial and economic justice.
"Transportation is back as a major civil rights issue but in a 21st century form," says Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, which is a partner with T4 in the T4 America Equity Caucus. "The focus is not on getting out of the back of the bus," she says, but improving transportation options for people who are most dependent on it, making sure transit jobs are available to populations most in need of work and making decisions about where to locate new transportation links—roads or rail—with an eye toward health issues, such as obesity and asthma, that disproportionately affect the poor.
The equity coalition's focus is the federal transportation funding bill currently working its way through Congress. One "ask" is that 1 percent of U.S. Department of Transportation funding be earmarked for recruiting, training and retaining low-income people into transit jobs. It's part of a broader T4 agenda calling for federal policy that would foster dramatic increases in the use of bikes, walking, mass transit and rail in lieu of cars and trucks. T4's website offers a system-by-system look at the transit funding crisis and a state-by-state breakdown of commuting problems.
According to PolicyLink, blacks and Latinos are up to four times more likely to ride mass transit than whites. When it comes to auto travel, the cost and time of car usage reflect complex race and income patterns.
A 2008 Urban Institute report found that people living below the poverty line have shorter car commutes than more affluent workers, but pay a larger share of their income for car use than people living above the poverty line. Among all racial and ethnic groups below poverty, whites pay the biggest share of income toward gas. Above the poverty line, Latinos do.
And Latinos in poverty spend the most time getting to work, followed by Asians, then blacks. Above poverty, Asians travel for the longest time, followed by blacks and then Latinos.
Blackwell says some 110 cities—including Atlanta, where protesters recently painted red Xs on parked public buses to symbolize the impact of cuts—are considering cuts to transit. "It's going to hurt efforts to protect the environment. It's going hurt low-income people. And it's going to hurt productivity in this country," she tells City Limits.
According to the most recent Census Bureau survey data, 3 percent of New Yorkers take a taxi, bicycle or motorcycle to work, 11 percent walk and 30 drive. Fifty-six percent take public transportation. While New York City Transit's proposed cuts will generally hurt those groups most dependent on public transit—in other words, people with lower income—the geographic distribution of the cuts will shape their demographic impact. In its latest round of revisions in March, the MTA restored service on a bus that links Harlem and the South Bronx. But it left in place its cut to the Staten Island Railroad's service to the Yankees' minor league baseball stadium.