The social justice (of) movement: how public transportation administrators define social justice.

Author:Wellman, Gerard C.


Throughout the United States' troubled history of race and gender relations, the simple ability to travel from one location to another has been a crucial element of social justice. Keeping African-Americans, women, and other minority groups "in their place" frequently became a preoccupation of dominant groups to limit other groups' physical and social mobility (Domosh & Seager, 2001, p. 115). Homer Plessy's 1892 arrest for riding in a railcar reserved for Caucasians became the basis of the United States Supreme Court's "separate but equal" doctrine which remained in place for sixty years. Rosa Parks' legendary refusal to move to the back of an illegally segregated city bus in Montgomery, Alabama not only led to a boycott of Montgomery's transit system, but also affirmed the use and place of civil disobedience to protest violations of civil and social justice (Banks, 1994; Parks & Haskins, 1992). The 1961 Freedom Riders' protests of segregated public buses through the very use of public buses, and the Southern violence that greeted them, exposed how the simple act of using publicly-provided transportation facilities can, itself, be a political act. Thus, among many notable others, Homer Plessy, Rosa Parks, and the Freedom Riders revealed the inextricably close relationship between physical mobility and social justice.

By denying subgroups of American population the right to use public buses, obtain drivers' licenses, or even through a "roads-only" transportation system which necessitates the expensive purchase of a private automobile, dominant segments of society can restrict undesired groups' social mobility, and, as Domosh and Seager (2001) argue specifically concerning women, this is nothing new. For women in nineteenth and twentieth-century America, "tight corseting, high heels, hobble skirts, the veil, prohibitions against women riding bicycles or horses, restrictions (legal or social) on women driving cars--all suggest the extent to which 'keeping women in their place' is often a literal undertaking" (p. 115). Similarly, current literature on social justice and mobility argues contemporary transportation investments reflect an analogous bias in which certain groups--predominantly minority, urban, and poor individuals--are trapped without the ability to make use of American society's transportation schema of roadways and highways which necessitate the purchase, maintenance, and licensing of a private automobile. Some authors like Lutz (2013) and Bullard (2003) argue that the requirement that individuals purchase and operate private vehicles before taking part in the cultural, employment, educational, and healthcare-related opportunities of society effectively operates as an extension of Jim Crow laws which severely restricted Southern African-Americans' movement. Rather than targeting African-Americans, it is suggested that contemporary American transportation policies disenfranchise the poor with strong racial overtones; within the previous decade, 24% of African-Americans, 17% of Latinos, 13% of Asian-Americans, and 7% of Caucasians lacked access to a private automobile (Sanchez, et al., 2003, p. 9; U.S. Department of Transportation, 2004).

In spite of the fact that few authors have explicitly linked social justice and transportation, the argument that other arenas of public policy, such as housing, economic development, community development, and environmental protection policies, are inequitable between and within communities has been made by a plethora of scholars and activists (see Boschken, 2002; Bullard & Johnson, 1997; Bullard, Johnson, & Torres, 2000; Harvey, 2009; Litman, 2007; Logan & Molotch, 1987). Such authors fundamentally decry the fact that certain policies are created to accrue benefits to certain segments of society by spreading the policies' costs to other segments--and this crucially fails most scholarly definitions of social justice. Specifically with regard to transportation, the average American family presently spends more on transportation-related expenses than all other types of expenses except housing (Center for Neighborhood Technology, 2011). Critically, the percentage of net income spent on mobility-related expenses increases as income decreases (Bullard, 2003). In other words, because of the strongly regressive nature of transportation expenses, the poorer an individual is, the more it costs them to travel from one location to the next. In the United States, the poorest quintile of individuals spend 40 cents of every dollar earned solely on transportation expenses, twice as much as higher-income earners (Bullard, 2003; Deka, 2004; for an excellent discussion on the regressive nature of car-centric transportation planning see Lutz, 2013). Naturally, this results in isolation, separating lower-income individuals and groups from employment, cultural, educational, and healthcare-related institutions, and some scholars suggest this is an intentional outcome of transportation policy.

Bullard (2000) discusses the former Planning Director for the city of Cleveland, Ohio (originator of the concept of equity planning) who saw the entire urban development process as inherently unfair and oppressive of the socioeconomically disadvantaged (Garrett & Taylor, 1999, p. 8). Isolating the poor, the Planning Director claimed, is explicitly achieved by creating poor public transportation accompanied by "massive public investment in urban freeways that helped to empty out central cities of middle- and upper-income residents" (Garrett & Taylor, 1999, p. 8). Exploitation of the poor is at least partially accomplished by isolating them with inadequate public transportation, requiring large investments in personal cars, subsidizing the middle class flight to the suburbs through the provision of continually-widening expressways, and in the negative health effects of those large freeways when they are built or widened in socially disadvantaged neighborhoods whose residents are frequently too poor to utilize them.

As Richard Davies noted in 1975, neighborhoods selected to be "invaded" by the newly built, publicly subsidized urban interstates of the 1950s and 1960s linking central business districts with suburbs were often minority and poor: planners knew that "these residents had less political influence and were less likely to organize an effective protest" (p. 32). In Nashville, Tennessee, Davies claims, Interstate 40 was built directly through a poor African-American neighborhood, "leaving more than fifty dead end streets, forever dividing what had been a cohesive neighborhood" (p. 32). What greater metaphor for isolation, separation, and elite exploitation of the poor need exist than 50 newly created dead end streets? Thus, transportation policy and its inherent negative externalities is a prime, but frequently ignored, locus of social justice considerations.


Some literature on transportation policymaking claims that because mobility and accessibility are crucial to a functioning society, transportation should be construed as nothing less than an essential, pivotal public service (Jones, 1985). If a society, as Barr (1998) claims, is "a cooperative venture for the mutual advantage of its members" (p. 44), and if that society's institutions positively or negatively affect individual's "life chances" (p. 44), then one can expect to find internal conflict about how that society should be arranged, how its institutions should function, and what constitutes the societal obligations of its members. Transportation, Deka (2004) argues, is an institution of society; therefore public transportation's relevance to society's members, along with the conflict, benefits, and costs that ensue, as well as the outlook and perspectives of transit administrators on justice and fairness issues, fits squarely within the interests of public administration and governance.

The public's role through government policy in providing transportation access for the poorest strata of society where racial minorities, as discussed earlier, are over-represented --has many facets: environmental justice, land use policy, institutional racism, and transportation equity to only name a few. It is governing and administrative policy, authors like Deka, Bullard, and Harvey claim, that both causes and meliorates the challenges the poor face. Such policy, with regard to transportation and urban transit, is defined as a type of malleable social contract created through negotiation among interested, competing parties (Jones, 1985, p. vii). As will be discussed in following sections, the mobile members of American society are those "interested, competing parties." The daily negotiation of transportation policy is immediate, evident, and nearly universal in Western societies: driving a car or boarding a bus inherently requires the use of scarce societal resources which must be allocated among groups (Sheller & Urry, 2000). Providing for the mobility of society's individuals has costs and benefits which, arguably, are not equitably distributed among all users.


Equity, similar to justice and fairness, is concerned with how the benefits and costs of public policy are distributed (Litman, 2007, p. 2). Transportation equity has often been ignored because of the difficulty of identifying and measuring its variables (Litman, 2007, p. 2: Paaswell & Recker, 1978, p. 41), because it is a problem that primarily affects the poor and many academics prefer to focus on issues of race and gender (Oldfield, Chandler, & Johnson, 2004; Johnson, 2004), and because it is often not in the interest of the policy-making class of elites (Bullard, et al., 2000; Domosh & Seager, 2001; Sachs, 1992). The role of class conflict with regard to transportation equity has been explored, notably by Robert Bullard and various coauthors, whose treatment of the subject often coincides with questions of...

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