Pedestrians and bicyclists fight for space on Oakland streets designed for diesel trucks in former industrial areas that are now among the few affordable places to live. Massive concrete structures jut out like exposed bones in a city where once-bustling African-American cultural and economic centers have been repeatedly destroyed by giant transportation projects.
One such project, the West Oakland aboveground Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) track built in the 1970s, loomed over jazz clubs that were forced to close when the constant noise of trains drowned out the music. The 7th Street corridor—once the stroll for legendary local blues heroes—is now a desolate strip in the shadow of the BART overpass.
Soon, East Oakland residents may see the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC)—a driverless, cable-pulled shuttle atop an elevated track—looming over their neighborhood. Designed by an Austrian architectural engineering firm known for its aerial ski lifts, the three-mile Connector would whisk passengers from the Oakland Coliseum BART station to the Oakland Airport parking lot.
Maxine Oliver-Benson shakes her head in disbelief over the price of the project—$484 million. “I won’t ever use it for anything—the majority of people in my community won’t ever use it,” says the activist and 19-year resident of East Oakland, staring moodily at the throngs of people heading to a game at the Oakland Coliseum on the overhead walkway that connects the BART station to the arena.
In July 24, 2010, an estimated 300 cyclists took to the streets for the third annual Bikes 4 Life Peace Ride. The approximately 10-mile circuit took the riders through the streets of Oakland—around Lake Merritt, down International Blvd, past the Fruitvale BART station (where a candlelight vigil was held for Oscar Grant), and back to West Oakland. As the cavalcade passed through neighborhoods people cheered and motorists honked. The Peace Ride illustrated some of the best qualities of what has become known as the urban bike movement. It’s one thing to get on a bicycle and go for a ride, and quite another to share that experience with a large group of people from diverse ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds. There is strength in numbers and a palpable power in hundreds of cyclists essentially reclaiming public space while raising awareness about transportation, public safety, social justice, non-violence, and environmental issues.
Five years ago—while the Bush administration was in power—Sylvia Darensburg of Oakland filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). On behalf of the class of minority bus riders she represented, Darensburg hoped the federal courts would force MTC to change its funding priorities, which favored affluent rail commuters over transit-dependent people who rely on local bus service for access to employment, education, health care, and other essential services. (See ”Bay Area Transit—Separate and Unequal” on page 30.)
Back then, civil rights and Environmental Justice (EJ) advocates could not have foreseen that it would be a federal regulatory agency and not the federal courts that would step up for equity in the allocation of transportation funding. But that is what happened on February 12 this year when the head of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), citing civil rights violations, withdrew $70 million from a $500 million rail project on MTC’s priority transit expansion list.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) pulled $70 million in stimulus funds from BART's Oakland Airport Connector project last month based on our civil rights complaint, finding that BART ignored civil rights laws. Fortunately, the Bay Area didn't lose that funding—it was distributed among the region's ailing transit systems. But the transit administration's action makes it clear that public money must be spent fairly or agencies will be held accountable.
A project isn't "shovel-ready" until it is fair. Agencies receiving federal funds are legally obligated to ensure that low-income and diverse communities share fairly in the benefits of that funding. To do so requires analysis and community involvement. BART failed to live up to these responsibilities. As the project evolved, the anticipated round-trip fare rose to $12 (plus BART fare), and intermediate stops that could have given workers access to hotel and retail jobs en route to the airport were eliminated. But BART didn't study whether those features excluded low-income and minority riders from the project's benefits, and East Oakland communities never had a chance to have their say when the airport tram project was revised.
Public transportation is actually helping the environment and the price effectiveness of public transportation literally dictates how the environment will end up. Let’s face it, if public transportation costs too much, folks wont take it, they’ll buy cars.
We have a lot of youth who live in public housing, who’ve grown up in public housing, and who have used the transportation system. They utilize these services. It’s all about public transportation while you’re in high school and even in college, commuting. You’re not rich at 21 or 20 or 19, so you’re going to need housing and transit.