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Public transportation: Still a civil rights issue


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City buses were a central focus of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. Starting with Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger at the front of the bus and continuing with bus boycotts throughout the South, public transportation was an emblem of inequality and social disparity that helped the Civil Rights Movement gain momentum.

While African Americans are no longer required to move to the back of the bus or surrender their seats, public transit continues to be central to the struggle for civil rights.

Late last year a bipartisan group of lawmakers and local leaders announced that the city’s transit plan isn’t completely dead. It was welcome news considering how difficult it is to get around Indy without a car. The city is spread out, and other than downtown’s Cultural Trail, many of the streets are wide, encouraging cars to speed past pedestrians and cyclists. And as for reliable alternatives, there are none. The 30-60 minute wait times for buses are embarrassing for the 14th largest city in the U.S. And because it’s so unreliable people who don’t have to use it don’t. Unfortunately the plan to revitalize Indy’s public transportation will continue to be delayed, officials say, in 2011 and the initiative will not be on the ballot until the 2012 election, at the earliest.

There are plenty of reasons why Indianapolis needs better public transportation as soon as possible — public transportation is greener, cheaper and more stress-free than cars — but one reason that often gets over looked is that many of our city’s poor and non-white communities are being left behind because of the dismal transit options.

Why? Because people of color and people of low socio-economic condition are the ones using public transportation the most. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005-2009 American Community Survey of workers aged 16 and over (we’re not even talking about the unemployed), 57 percent of public transportation users are African American, while only 38 percent are white. On top of that, 32 percent of public transportation users make less than $10,000, while 81 percent make under $35,000, and 23 percent live below 100 percent of the poverty level. Plus, for the majority of riders (38 percent) there were no vehicles available to them, and 31 percent had only one vehicle available. It’s pretty clear they’re not using public transportation for the pleasure of waiting for IndyGo buses.

The city’s lack of reliable transportation options disenfranchises people of color while reinforcing the cycle of poverty. Unreliable public transportation limits job opportunities and makes it more difficult for people to get to work.

And while those who do have a car may enjoy better mobility, it comes at quite the cost. According to Transportation for America, the poorest one-fifth of Americans spends 42 percent of their annual household budget on automobile ownership.

In Indiana, we reinforce the notion that the car is a the first-rate mode of transportation and everything else is lesser because we pour a great deal more of our money into road and highway projects and less than 5 percent of the state's revenue is allocated to other forms of transportation.

Those lawmakers and citizens with the ability to easily navigate the city in their cars might think it’s progress to wait to take action on improved public transportation; they might not even see a rush to get a transit plan up and running, but there are many people in our city who need reliable, affordable public transportation sooner than later. In fact, it should be a civil right.


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