The struggle for equitable public transportation began as a fight for the civil rights of transit riders and workers. It remains so today, as WMATA considers cuts to bus service across the region.
In 1917, African-American civil rights and union leader A. Philip Randolph started the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters movement to stop the abuse and discrimination against black railway workers. His efforts led to the 1941 Fair Labor Act, which desegregated government work, including jobs in public transportation in DC.
It is no accident that public transportation was the focus of two of our nation’s most renowned and recognized civil rights leaders: Rosa Parks and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 emerged from the struggle to give people of all races equal access to public transportation. The Freedom Riders in 1961 also fought for the right for African-Americans and white people to travel peacefully together on buses across state lines.
Here in DC, in 1969, African-American activists from Brookland and middle-class whites from Takoma Park, MD (as well as other neighborhoods) fought and stopped what was referred to as the taking of “Black Man’s Homes for White Man’s Roads.”
Working together, the activists prevented a large freeway plan that would have destroyed parts of town that at the time were largely African-American: Columbia Heights, Shaw, Petworth and Fort Totten, as well as mostly white neighborhoods, such as Tenleytown and Takoma Park. Due to their victory, rather than spending money on the freeway project, the Federal government used these funds to create Metrorail.
The metro system of today is a result of interracial solidarity and civil rights struggle.
The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689 is a direct legacy of this history, and its 13,000 dues-paying members fight every day to continue the legacy of promoting racial justice through the improvement of our transit system. ATU Local 689 is one of the key centers of black power in the region because the mostly-black workers before them fought to integrate WMATA. Because of their activism, WMATA adopted racial justice goals.
The Green Line is a great example of such a goal. Opened in 1991, an explicit purpose of the Green Line was to achieve racial equity by connecting the struggling African-American communities of Petworth, U Street and Columbia Heights with job centers. The train line revitalized neighborhoods that had literally burned to the ground after riots broke out in reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
WMATA would not be a world-class system if not for the civil rights struggle of the past and present, and our metro system should not lose sight of this important legacy. The best of future plans of WMATA should achieve racial justice ends, as the Green Line did.
Today's struggles mirror yesterday's
Along these lines, in 2011, WMATA set an ambitious goal of connecting the inner and outer suburbs through the Priority Corridors Network (PCN).
The PCN is a plan that would expand and enhance regional bus lines by creating dedicated lanes for mobility-enhanced, easy-loading buses with low decks that would enjoy priority signaling, better scheduling, fewer stops, and hybrid technology. The completed PCN would have been like adding dozens of subway lines to the region, but they would be above ground and on rubber tires.
These bus lines would move hundreds of thousands of people per day from the inner and outer suburbs to the city core and other centers of employment. They would be the lifelines of the region’s communities of color and working poor.
However, if WMATA cuts services, the PCN has no chance of existing, despite the fact that it would have been to communities of color what the Green Line was to the African-American community on U Street in 1991.
Currently, WMATA is proposing cutting Metrobus lines in Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties as well as parts of Northern Virginia— 30 bus lines altogether. The vast majority of the riders on these lines are black, Latino and middle and low-income workers. These cuts worsen the pain from late night service cuts on Metrorail (many black and Latino restaurant kitchen staff have already lost jobs to those changes).
If we allow WMATA to pull back service, we will be a more segregated and unequal region. Over time, these cuts to public transit will hurt the entire region and people of every race. Not prioritizing racial inclusion hurts us all – black, brown, and white alike.
In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes explicit the often hidden consequence of racist urban planning initiatives that continue and advance white supremacy.
In one powerful passage he connects our nation’s original sin of slavery to redlining, white flight, urban sprawl, our car-centered society and the resulting environmental and eventual self-destruction:
It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.”
Segregation, social exclusion and environmental destruction are forms of racial injustice, and the car is one of its main tools of advancement. Affordable, accessible, and plentiful public transportation is one way to fight back.
Any cut to service that lowers ridership supports the agenda of segregation. Any fare increase that makes it impossible for people to reach opportunities supports the agenda of inequality. Any cuts to bus lines that worsen capacity for the disabled to access the things they need supports the agenda of alienation. Any plan to scale back transit and attack the diverse workers of WMATA supports the agenda of racial injustice.
If we want more racial and economic justice in the Washington region, we must stop WMATA fare increases and service cuts. We must fight for more public transit and dedicated funding to rebuild and improve DC Metro.