On Feb. 5, civil rights, trade union, student, church, and environmental activists in communities across North America will come together in a variety of events to call attention to a looming crisis in public transit.
diversity of these groups indicates that they recognize not only the
urgent need to save what we have but also the potential crucial
role transit expansion can play in providing affordable
transportation that is accessible to all, that can reduce traffic
fatalities and congestion—and that
can curtail greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.
today, New York City’s subways—moving a record 5 million
passengers a day—are on the verge of collapse, a major line is
being shut down for renovation lasting for more than a year, and
their buses aren’t doing much better. Washington, D.C., has
neglected even routine maintenance, leading to accidents and delays
on the Metro.
contract negotiations remain highly contentious in Washington and
Chicago. Some public agencies continue to contract work out to
non-union penny-pinching private outfits who can do it cheaper only
by providing inferior service and paying substandard wages.
Washington, D.C., is moving to privatize the Red Line subway. More of
the same—and even worse—are in store.
is not the first crisis for transit. After setting record ridership
numbers during World War II, when there was full employment, no new
cars were being built, and tires and gasoline were rationed, the
ruling class took America into a very different postwar development
scheme. From the end of World War II on, highly subsidized urban
sprawl promoted a massive exodus of residents and jobs to new
suburban areas. The streetcar and bus lines in the urban cores did
not follow them.
many cases, such as in Los Angeles and Kansas City, consortiums of
auto, oil, and tire companies became silent owners of transit
properties. They dismantled their impressive electrified streetcar
and trolley bus networks—which would require many billions to
replicate today—replacing them with diesel buses produced by
General Motors, as they steadily slashed service. One result in Los
Angeles was the introduction of a new word to our vocabulary—smog.
Out of sprawl an important new division in the working class soon
emerged—either car dependent or transit dependent.
a high percentage of the transit-dependent population remaining in
the depleted urban cores are African Americans, transit has often
been on the agenda of the Civil Rights movement. The chosen date in
February marks the birthday of the late Rosa Parks, who became famous
for an act of civil disobedience that launched the well-planned
boycott campaign to end racial segregation on Montgomery, Ala., buses
This pivotal action, initiated by Black trade unionists led
by E.D. Nixon, is credited with launching the revival of the mass
Civil Rights Movement in the South—and propelling Dr Martin Luther
King into national prominence.
led to a Supreme Court ruling that segregating passengers was
unconstitutional. Soon afterward, most transit agencies voluntarily
ended their ban on Black bus drivers, and today transit jobs are
among the best employment opportunities for African Americans.
1974 Urban Mass Transportation Act stabilized shaky transit systems
by providing for the first time billions in federal funding for both
capital and operating expenses. During the 1970-90s, new subway
systems were built in the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and
Los Angeles. Less densely populated areas such as Seattle, St Louis,
and the Twin Cities launched highly successful “light rail”
systems linking urban areas to airports and suburbs.
money from Washington for operational expenses dried up long ago, and
matching funds for capital improvements are to be almost completely
eliminated under Trump’s budget “blueprint” as “offsets” to
pay for the mammoth tax cuts for corporations and the rich.
Equity Day was called by the Labor Network for Sustainability,
Amalgamated Transit Union, Institute for Policy Studies, Jobs with
Justice, Partnership for Working Families, and the Labor Community
Strategy Center. Their website is:
will not be marked by mass demonstrations like those organized around
women’s and climate issues soon after Trump’s election. The
initiators are setting more modest goals such as getting resolutions
passed by organizations, submitting opinion pieces to local
newspapers, organizing community meetings to discuss local transit
issues—and, where weather permits, outdoor rallies in public
choice of the date was a worthy effort to identify with the historic
link between civil rights and public transit. But it would have been
better to have issued the call much earlier. Some areas were getting
started with initial planning with only a month to go. The response
on Feb. 5 will give a better picture of the current potential for
building the effective transit advocacy movement that is so sorely
>> The article above was written by Bill Onasch, and is reprinted from Socialist Action newspaper.