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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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Cop Assaults Critical Mass Rider. Charges Filed Against Cyclist.

Words fail when watching this clip of an NYPD officer forcibly knocking a Critical Mass rider to the pavement last Friday. The assault was caught on video by a bystander in Times Square. Compounding the injustice, reports Gothamist, is what happened next:

A representative for TIMES UP! tells us that the cyclist in this video was arrested, held for 26 hours, and charged with attempted assault and resisting arrest.

Mark Taylor, an attorney with the firm representing the cyclist, says he is hopeful the charges will be dropped in light of the video evidence. Asked whether the NYPD plans to go ahead with the charges, a department spokesman said the matter is being investigated. Since the video surfaced, the officer has been put on desk duty.

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At Critical Mass, Reverend Al Calls for NYPD Accountability


The Reverend Al Sharpton, the family of Sean Bell, and an all-star cast of civil liberties advocates joined cyclists in Union Square last Friday for one of the more anticipated Critical Mass rides in recent memory. The gathering, which filled up the south end of the park, came three weeks after the Reverend led hundreds of supporters in an attempt to shut down major bridges and tunnels, protesting the acquittal of the officers who shot and killed Bell.

After a roster of speakers addressed topics ranging from parade rules to police violence to gay marriage, Sharpton tied up the disparate strands with a call for mutual support in the face of NYPD misconduct:

When we can come together as Critical Mass, if we can ride together, if we can protest together, we can make this city livable for everybody together. This is the picture they don't want to see -- people of all ages and all backgrounds and all races that will stand together. Because as long as they can play one community against each other, they get through the middle. It's when we gather as historically has happened at Union Square that the powers that be have to turn and buckle... When you demand the right to ride, that is all Sean Bell was doing that night, is trying to ride. And we are going to work together to have a critical mass in this city, where we can ride in justice.

The question is: What is wrong with the morals of a city that thinks there's something wrong with men going home from their bachelor's party? They're suspect. But it's the same mentality that tells us we can't gather in a square or a park, and read and talk and discuss.

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Opposition Mounts to NYPD Assembly Rules; Rally Tonight


As the City Council takes up legislation to lift NYPD rules against public assembly, cyclists and advocates will hold a rally and press conference before tonight's Critical Mass ride.

From BikeBlog:

Critical Mass participants will be joined by a diverse group of videographers, artists, activists and politicians outraged over NYPD regulatory constraints on the civil liberties of New Yorkers. Prominent speakers from the community will participate in the "Still We Speak" rally to denounce the NYPD's First Amendment abuses, including the parade permit rules which limit the number of people who can legally assemble in a public place.

In addition to the council bill, the police department also faces a suit brought by the Five Borough Bike Club. For you legal types, here is a plaintiff's motion citing arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement by the NYPD, as illustrated in the video, along with notes and summonses from the July 2007 Critical Mass. In footage to be shown at tonight's event, officers are seen roughing up and detaining citizens for taking pictures and video of police action in Times Square during the March 2007 ride.

Tonight's events start at Union Square North at 7:00 p.m.

Video: rusticumjudicium/YouTube

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Mendez Bill Would Overturn NYPD Parade Rules

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A cyclist is ticketed during Critical Mass last spring

City Council Member Rosie Mendez has introduced a bill to overturn the NYPD's parade permit rules, which require groups of over 50 to obtain a permit before assembling. Enacted a year ago, the rules were seen as a way for the city to subvert Critical Mass rides and have been the subject of civil rights action and at least one lawsuit.

Mendez, along with Alan Gerson and Gale Brewer, were to introduce the "First Amendment Assembly Act" yesterday. According to a media release, the bill [PDF] "decriminalizes parading without a permit and allows groups that need exceptions to various laws, such as traffic laws, to obtain such for their events."

Streetsblog has posted consistently on how the NYPD seems more intent on harassing cyclists than protecting them. And just last week Commissioner Ray Kelly got an earful from citizens who are fed up with unsafe conditions for cyclists and pedestrians.

The full press release from Mendez follows the jump.

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