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Study: Civil Rights Protections Lack Teeth When It Comes to Transportation

American transportation policy has a woeful history of civil rights abuses. For a good part of the 1950s and ’60s, using highways to level black neighborhoods was a matter of national policy. And the white flight and segregation that those highways engendered have left a legacy that continues to shape much of America in the present day.

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Wisconsin is sinking billions into highway expansion projects while city transit service languishes. Photo: Milwaukee Business Journal

Out of those chapters in American history came a few key protections. Laws like Title VI of the Civil Rights Act aim to safeguard people from discrimination by federally-funded agencies.

But are these protections shaping a fairer transportation system? Not according to a recent study by researchers at the University of California-Davis published in the Journal of Transport Geography [PDF]. Authors Alex Karner and Deb Niemeier say that most metropolitan planning agencies are simply going through the motions, not making equitable decisions.

Right now, “basically anything goes,” Karner told Streetsblog. “You can make anything look good from a civil rights perspective” under current law, using conventional metrics to demonstrate compliance.

As a last resort, civil rights activists can use federal laws to take action in court. Black and Hispanic community groups in Wisconsin, for instance, are suing the state Department of Transportation under the National Environmental Policy Act for shortchanging transit with the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange project, outside Milwaukee. But Karner and Niemeier say the whole federally-required “equity analysis” process needs to be reformed if it is to have a meaningful effect on decision making.

Here’s what Karner and Niemeier recommend to give civil rights protections some real teeth when it comes to transportation investments:

1. Perform Equity Analyses Early in the Planning Process

Metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs, are agencies that play a big role in distributing federal transportation dollars. They generally decide what they want to do first, then spend a lot of time developing plans, and then at the very end perform the required equity analysis.

“After all the major planning decisions have been made, it’s a pro forma thing,” says Karner. “They just kind of check a box.”

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Commemorating March on Washington, Foxx Links Transport to Civil Rights

Photo of Rosa Parks seated on a bus

Today marks 50 years since the landmark March on Washington, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. I was privileged to join tens of thousands of others on the National Mall this weekend to commemorate the anniversary.

In a blog post today, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx noted the role that transportation has played in the nation’s civil rights struggles:

In the mid-1950s, a young woman who sat down and refused to get up — she did it on a transit bus. And the boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system resulted in changes that spread across the South.

Foxx notes that the nation’s highway-building boom contributed to racial divides. ”Rarely in the last century did an urban interstate highway plow through a neighborhood that wasn’t characterized as poor,” he writes. “In 2013, many communities are tearing down those divisions and building bridges.”

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WisDOT Faces Civil Rights Suit Over $1.7 Billion “Zoo Interchange”

In the politically polarized Milwaukee region, there are two widely divergent visions of what transportation should do.

Wisconsin is going to spend $1.7 billion rebuilding and expanding its "Zoo Interchange," outside Milwaukee. Civil rights and environmental groups believe the massive expenditure, while the city's transit system faces cuts, is discriminatory. Photo: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

There’s the Waukesha vision, which might be summarized as all highways, no transit. This suburban Republican stronghold — one of the most conservative counties in the country — has for years been systematically severing the already limited transit connections to its core city, Milwaukee.

Then you have the Milwaukee vision, which prioritizes transit, at least to the extent that it can. This is a city that tore down a highway before the feds were handing out TIGER grants to fund such projects. It is currently planning a streetcar project. In 2008, Milwaukee County voters elected to raise their taxes in order to expand transit options — before the state legislature refused to authorize the collection of funds.

That should give you a sense of the transportation feuds in Wisconsin’s largest metro area. The region’s weak transit system is a key factor in Milwaukee’s status as the nation’s most segregated metro area. But in this battle, the Waukesha vision is generally winning — and it’s not that close.

There is no better example of where Wisconsin’s transportation priorities lie under Scott “No Train” Walker than the Milwaukee Zoo Interchange megaproject. At $1.7 billion, it is surely one of the most expensive interchanges ever built (keep in mind this is a state that “couldn’t afford” to operate passenger rail at $8 million a year). And guess who will benefit most from Wisconsin’s massive road expenditure — the transit riders in Milwaukee, or the super commuters from Waukesha?

This week, a civil rights group and an environmental group filed suit in federal court against WisDOT, alleging that the interchange project — which contains no provisions for transit — is in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Title VI requires government agencies that receive federal funding to not administer it in a way that has a “discriminatory impact” on minority groups.

Thats exactly what Wisconsin’s asphalt-only transportation policies do, says Dennis Grzezinski, an attorney for the plaintiffs, the Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin. The groups are seeking to halt construction until a new plan can be developed that does a better job addressing environmental and equity concerns.

“We’re pointing to this incredible imbalance between billion and billions spending on the highway system and the deterioration of the transit system,” said Grzezinski. “That’s the sole means of transportation for a larger part of the Hispanic and African American communities. If we keep spending huge sums of money on highways, these groups are just going to be left behind in terms of health and education and work.”

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Voter ID Laws Marginalize People Without a Car

The 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965, twice thwarted by brutal police assaults, inspired Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which is now under attack through various state voter roll purges and photo ID laws. Photo: Charles Moore

Sustainable transportation advocates may read news headlines about new voter ID laws, roll their eyes at the prejudices of red-state legislators, and turn the page — at their own peril. This seemingly unrelated issue may have far-reaching consequences for transportation policy. New state laws mandating photo ID for voters threaten to disenfranchise nondrivers, and the skewed elections that would result could lead to political control by forces hostile to transit, cities, and even Safe Routes to Schools.

A report issued in early July by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law [PDF] spells out how the strictest new laws in ten states* discriminate against nondrivers.

The first, and most obvious, way is that drivers have a driver’s license, which can function as the required photo ID. That leaves nondrivers as prime targets of voter ID laws.

Source: Brennan Center

Eleven percent of eligible voters lack the necessary ID, and, as the table above illustrates, nearly half a million people in the 10 affected states both lack access to a vehicle and live more than 10 miles from the nearest ID-issuing government office.

To make matters worse, many of the same states now requiring photo ID for voting also fail to support transit. The report brings home the reality for the targeted voters:

Voter ID laws are especially burdensome for citizens in high-poverty areas. Not only are these eligible voters among the least likely to have photo ID, they are also among the least likely to have access to government services, such as public transportation… Citizens with limited vehicle access will be highly dependent on public transportation to obtain the ID necessary for voting. However, the states that passed the most restrictive voter ID laws are among the nation’s worst investors in public transportation… Seven of the ten restrictive voter ID states rank in the bottom half of the country when it comes to investment in public transportation.

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Civil Rights Group Demands End to Car-Centric Transportation Policies

“This is the civil rights dilemma: Our laws purport to level the playing field, but our transportation choices have effectively barred millions of people from accessing it.”

The civil rights fight for equitable transportation didn't end with Rosa Parks.

So says a report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a project of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The coalition wasn’t involved in the transportation reauthorization debate in 2005, when SAFETEA-LU was passed, and they’re determined to be at the table this time.

In March, they quietly published their report, “Where We Need to Go: A Civil Rights Roadmap for Transportation Equity”, and since then they’ve put out three more reports, springboarding off of that first overview. The subsequent reports focus on access to health care [PDF], access to housing [PDF], and access to jobs [PDF].

They never really released these reports to the press, which is why we’re just letting you know about them now. Some media outlets caught wind of it in late July and a small flurry of stories came out in the week or two after the Leadership Conference hosted a “fly-in” lobby day, where nearly 40 constituents from nine target states came to Washington to meet with their representatives’ offices.

According to the Leadership Conference report, racial minorities are four times more likely than whites to lack access to a car and to rely on public transportation for their commute to work. African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but 20 percent of the pedestrian fatalities. And the problem is far worse for Native Americans on reservations. Pedestrians there have the highest per capita risk of injury and death of any ethnic group in the U.S. While vehicle fatalities are dropping around the country, they’re on the rise on reservations.

All of that explains why the a group focused on civil and human rights would be interested in transportation – it’s an issue of racial justice. It’s also an economic issue, they say: with job sprawl pushing more and more jobs far outside the urban core, access to those jobs can be exclusively by private car. Even three out of five jobs “suitable for welfare-to-work participants” are not accessible by public transit, the report says.

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Hunter Planners: Expand the Bike Program, Beat the Bikelash

DOT needs to accelerate the build-out of the city’s bike network in working-class neighborhoods outside the center city, say graduate students in the Hunter College urban planning department. They argue that expanding the geographic focus of the bike program would not only improve access to safe cycling for underserved neighborhoods, it might just help overcome the current backlash as well.

A high number of schools in Queens, outer Brooklyn, and Staten Island are inaccessible from existing bike lanes. A Hunter College team recommends linking bike network expansions to a more robust Safe Routes to School program. Click to enlarge.

Unless the city devises a successful strategy to build bikeways in neighborhoods where bike infrastructure is scarce, the Hunter team writes in “Beyond the Backlash” [PDF], many parts of the city may get left behind for years to come. “A lot of the city isn’t served as well by the bicycle network as the central business district and Downtown Brooklyn,” said group member Jennifer Harris-Hernandez in a presentation at NYU on May 6. “This has reinforced transportation inequalities around race and class.”

The Hunter team notes that the pattern of building the best cycling infrastructure near the city core may inadvertently give ammunition to opponents of bike infrastructure by overlooking the full breadth of New Yorkers. “Counting [working-class, outer borough] cyclists and planning with them in mind will create a more equitable and relevant network while countering recent claims that bicycling in New York City is for the privileged,” they write.

To that end, the Hunter team proposes a geographic shift in focus for the DOT’s bike program, paired with more intensive public outreach at the local level. At a moment when the city’s tabloid press is launching weekly attacks on bike projects and local politicians seem to think they’re doing constituents a favor by blocking plans for bike lanes, the Hunter team’s report offers a thoughtful and constructive critique intended to strengthen the city’s bike program.

The accelerated expansion of the bike network has built new bikeways in every borough and brought safer conditions to some low-income neighborhoods, but overall the city’s bicycle planning has concentrated the most and best bike infrastructure in close-in, affluent neighborhoods. The bike network is at its densest and most interconnected in downtown Manhattan and northwest Brooklyn, and the overwhelming majority of the new protected lanes are located in high-income neighborhoods. While bike lanes serve many people who ride from outside the immediate vicinity, neighborhoods like Chelsea, the Upper West Side, and Park Slope are so far the primary beneficiaries of protected lanes and the robust pedestrian and cyclist safety improvements they produce.

There are good reasons for the bike network to be expanded this way. The roll-out of new bike lanes has tended to follow the path of least political resistance, at least in the short run. The Hunter team notes that the neighborhoods that have received the most bike infrastructure are the same ones that already had bike-friendly community boards or strong local advocates.

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Rev. Jackson Joins Labor, Enviro Groups in Call for Transit Funding

At a rally yesterday headlined by Rev. Jesse Jackson, a new coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations stood together to demand more funding for transit agencies across the country. With service cuts afflicting bus and train riders in dozens of major cities, the "Keep America Moving" coalition is focused on securing funds to maintain transit service. Their first goal is passing legislation in Congress that would make federal operating aid for transit permanent. 

JesseJacksonPhoto.JPGFrom left to right, TWU Local 100 president John Samuelson, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Congressman Charlie Rangel, and Congressman Greg Meeks. Photo: Noah Kazis.

The star of the rally was Jackson, introduced by Congressman Charlie Rangel as someone who "not only brings a political stimulus, but answers to a higher power." Calling the budgetary woes of the nation's transit agencies part of "the heart of the urban crisis," Jackson told the crowd that "we must now bail out from the bottom-up," beginning with urban transit. 

Jackson added that the coalition's fight "may end in a massive March on Washington," linking the coalition to the history of the civil rights movement.

Keep America Moving increasing operating funds for the nation's transit systems. Nationally, the coalition is pushing to pass Missouri Congressman Russ Carnahan's bill to allow cities with more than 200,000 residents to use federal dollars on transit service, not just capital projects. Transit systems across the nation are facing huge budget deficits as a result of the recession. Multiple speakers at the rally questioned the wisdom of buying new buses if you can't pay anyone to drive them, a situation that gained widespread attention when the 2009 stimulus bill emphasized funding capital projects instead of maintaining service.

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Judge’s Decision on NYPD Parade Rules Tinted By Windshield Perspective

A federal judge yesterday upheld NYPD rules which effectively outlaw bicycle rides with 50 or more cyclists that proceed without a permit. The case is closely associated with police crackdowns on Critical Mass but affects any group ride of sufficient size.

In his 54-page decision in favor of NYPD and the city of New York [PDF], District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan, a Staten Island native who holds a JD from Harvard Law (Class of 1969), dismissed the case put forward by the Five Borough Bicycle Club, Columbia history professor Kenneth T. Jackson (who organizes educational nighttime rides for students), and several Critical Mass participants. The cyclists' attorneys argued that the NYPD permit rules violate First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, and that police have selectively issued citations to cyclists who have not broken any traffic laws.

Judge Kaplan rejected these claims across the board. One of the more fascinating aspects of Kaplan's ruling is his application of local traffic law to cyclists' behavior, and the way his judgments about traffic safety influence his judicial opinion. In concluding that NYPD's 50-person limit on group rides justifiably advances public safety, for instance, Kaplan writes:

Large groups of cyclists may well be more visible than individual cyclists and may take up less space than large groups of vehicles, but countervailing factors such as their lack of predictability and their tendency to try to stay together in a moving column, even if this means going through a red light, nevertheless endanger other travelers and disrupt orderly traffic flow. Their presence may add traffic volume that otherwise would be absent.

This reality was borne out by a video clip of the September 2007 Manhattan Critical Mass ride shown... at trial. As the Court noted at the time, the clip shows a cyclist engaging in dangerous behavior by pulling out and to the right of a motor vehicle that itself was in the process of pulling out of the bike lane to its right. The biker comes up from the motor vehicle driver’s blind spot and passes the motor vehicle on the right just as the motor vehicle begins to pull to the right and out of the bike lane. I find that the video demonstrates the danger of the cyclist's actions.

According to a court transcript obtained by Streetsblog, Kaplan is in fact referring to video shot in July, 2007, which appears beginning at the :37 mark in the above YouTube clip. It depicts a cyclist traveling south in the Broadway bike lane at 19th Street. When he encounters a BMW SUV partially obstructing his path, he bikes into car traffic and passes the SUV.

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Oakland’s Stimulus Flap: A Shot Across the Bow for Transport Equity?

The Obama administration's warning that the Bay Area has jeopardized federal stimulus funding for its Oakland Airport Connector project -- a story Streetsblog San Francisco has been following for months -- could have national consequences for other urban transit proposals that risk harming low-income riders, civil rights and transit advocates predicted yesterday.

HegenbergerRd_P1_HRes3000px_small.jpgThe proposed Oakland Airport Connector train. Photo: BART via Streetsblog SF

Several Bay Area advocacy groups briefed the media on the civil-rights complaint they filed against the OAC, which the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) heeded last week in a letter [PDF] that threatened to yank $70 million in stimulus money from the project unless planners comply with federal equity rules.

Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, said advocates' victorious bid to push Bay Area's transit planners to examine more cost-effective and equitable alternatives to the OAC would "have a ripple effect" as other cities re-examine how their transit plans would affect lower-income and minority riders.

The FTA's decision on the OAC, described as the first of its kind, "represents government at its best," PolicyLink president Angela Glover Blackwell told reporters, adding that by "us[ing] the power of purse to make transportation agencies accountable, government shows it can be consistent with its values."

So where else are civil rights complaints playing a role in local transportation decision-making?

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Help Put an End to Parade Rules and Police Tactics That Target Cyclists

critical_mass_arrests.jpgLast Friday's assault on a Critical Mass rider -- and the attempted cover-up that followed -- has heightened public attention on police misconduct against cyclists. If you, or some other cyclist you know, have been the subject of selective enforcement or inappropriate police action, lawyers from the Five Borough Bike Club would like to hear your story. They can be reached at [lawsuitinfo] [at] [5BBC] [dot] [org], and their deadline is Friday, August 8. Here are the details:

Time is running out. The Five Borough Bike Club and several others are plaintiffs in a lawsuit which challenges New York City's attempts to suppress Critical Mass rides. The Court has given us an August 8 deadline to gather information concerning summonses, arrests and other NYPD action against bicyclists. For those of you who don't know, the suit challenges the constitutionality of recently implemented rules that require a group of 50 or more to obtain an NYPD permit before proceeding together (the "Parade Permit Rules"). The suit also challenges various other tactics that NYPD uses to target and suppress Critical Mass rides. Details on how to provide information you believe may be helpful are provided at the end of this post.

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