The Human Rights Argument For BRT And Pricing

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A map produced by the Pratt Center [pdf] shows neighborhoods with a high concentration of low-income commuters with long commutes.

With congestion pricing now before the City Council, the coalition pushing it forward shows signs of strengthening at exactly the right time. One group we'll be hearing more from is Communities United for Transportation Equity (COMM.U.T.E!), a recently-formed partnership between the Pratt Center for Community Development and community organizations in low-income neighborhoods around the city. At a press event this morning, COMM.U.T.E! representatives spoke about their strategy to lobby for congestion pricing and greater funding for BRT in the MTA capital plan. 

Their campaign will call attention to stark inequities in New York City commute times. The Pratt Center has crunched 2000 Census numbers showing that two-thirds of city residents with commutes longer than one hour earn under $35,000 per year [pdf]; and that black New Yorkers face a 30 percent longer commute, on average, than white New Yorkers [pdf]. Disparities were present, if less pronounced, across other racial groups as well. Considered alongside the transit improvements that congestion pricing will make possible, the findings again pierce the argument that pricing is a regressive tax.

The problems revealed by the report are fundamentally about "human rights and dignity, rather than dry economic measures," said Joan Byron, Director of Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative at the Pratt Center.

Time lost to long commutes is "corrosive to community life and family life," said Silvett Garcia, Senior Planner at Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice in the Soundview section of the Bronx. "That is time people cannot spend with their families, cannot meet with their children's teachers, cannot go to community events." She noted that bus commuters in the Bronx have to transfer twice to make a trip across the borough, which takes an hour. The same trip only takes drivers ten minutes.

Byron applauded DOT's commitment to a BRT pilot program, but noted that the scale of a BRT system would have to exceed current plans to seriously address inequities in transit access. The only way to dramatically improve transit access in neighborhoods that are currently underserved, she said, is to implement congestion pricing and significantly boost MTA funding for BRT.

"In the MTA capital plan, resources earmarked for BRT are too small compared to rail projects," she added, distinguishing between rail projects that do improve transit access, such as the Second Avenue Subway, projects that enable real estate development, such as the 7 line extension, and ones that serve a small number of mostly affluent users. "The money for the JFK-Lower Manhattan rail link -- $6 billion -- could be used to blanket Queens with BRT."

Citing the success of Enrique Peñalosa's vision for transit in Bogota, COMM.U.T.E! hopes to rally elected officials around congestion pricing and BRT as means to address inequality, analogous to campaigns for affordable housing.

"Electeds in New York have a mastery of affordable housing issues," said Byron, "but they've been out of the game on transit." 

COMM.U.T.E!'s two-pronged strategy will involve lobbying elected officials to simultaneously pass congestion pricing and influence the MTA capital plan.

"Electeds have a chance to own this issue," said Byron. "We're going to be reaching out to folks one by one. We have statistics for every district. Guys like Brodsky have captured headlines with a fake populist stance. The breakthrough that needs to be made is that people see a revolutionary change coming out of this. BRT is that revolution."

We'll hear more from COMM.U.T.E! on February 18th, when they publicly unveil the roster of elected officials and community groups who've signed on to their platform.