The Bay Area Rapid Transit system, or BART, has always lived a double life, split between its sleek public presentation and its unadvertised purpose. The ad campaigns and lobby efforts supporting the $792 million bond measure of 1962 to finance the system presented BART as a cure for traffic congestion and air pollution. The engineering reports at the time, however, plainly discussed the need for a rapid transit system not to ease traffic jams, but to protect and enhance downtown San Francisco property values and direct urban development.
BART’s schizophrenia is no accident. The system was created by and for the San Francisco Bay Area’s urban elite class—engineering firms, oil companies, and banks that all profited enormously from BART’s unusual design. And neither the schizophrenia nor the profiteering are matters of history: BART continues to absorb about 80 percent of the Bay Area’s mass transit budget, and its recent San Francisco Airport extension and the proposed San Jose extension follow upon the same split between public perception and private intent. To this day, BART remains a transit system that subsidizes land speculators and the mishaps of engineering firms, reinforces the regional dominance of the automobile, and displaces most of the economic and environmental burdens onto low-income communities of color.
Traditionally, labor unions and environmentalists have fought over issues such as urban development vs. growth management, or natural resource extraction vs. preservation. But the lean and mean ‘90s, which are becoming characterized by a growing tendency to privatize public services and roll back environmental protections, makes this a decade to recast our alliances.
For the past two years, I have been participating in exploratory meetings between the Coordinating Council of Bay Area Transit Workers Unions (Coordinating Council) and some of the Bay Area's environmental organizations.* Overall, the group found that there were many opportunities to work together and good reason to move forward. One of the first projects for the group was a jointly crafted vision statement on public transportation. Based on the vision statement the group has begun to identify strategic areas of reform and some general objectives for addressing those targets. (For additional details and the complete article, see RP&E, Fall 1995 at www.urbanhabitat.org/20years/95.)
Fifty years ago, Rosa Parks did not give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Public transportation, and more specifically buses, became the stage from which the civil rights movement was launched. This act of courage is fresh in our minds due to the recent passing of Mrs. Parks. Viewed as a national hero, her body was placed in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol—the first woman ever accorded such a tribute.
The irony is that today, discrimination is alive and well in mass-transit bus service. In the Bay area, for instance, a federal civil rights lawsuit is pending in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, charging that the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC)—which plans and allocates funding for the area's transit needs—supports a “separate and unequal transit system” that discriminates against poor transit riders of color.
When the late Rosa Parks protested an apartheid bus system 50 years ago, transit riders in Montgomery, Alabama, whether black or white, poor or well-off, all rode the same bus. Today’s segregation, while less obvious, is in some ways more pernicious. Affluent whites have left urban bus systems the way most left New Orleans on the eve of hurricane Katrina: in their cars. Of those who commute on public transit, most now ride deluxe rail systems, leaving people of color to rely on a second-class and deteriorating bus system.
This is the scenario many low-income communities of color face in the San Francisco Bay Area, where substandard bus service operates as a “separate and unequal” transit system. Darensburg v. Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), filed in April, 2005 by East Bay bus riders and civil rights advocates against the region’s transportation planning agency, challenges today’s pervasive and insidious form of discrimination.
Penn Loh is a professor at Tufts University's Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. From 1996 to 2009, he served in various roles, including executive director (since 1999) at Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), a Roxbury-based environmental justice group. He holds an M.S. from the University of California at Berkeley and a B.S. from MIT. Before joining ACE, he was research associate at the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California.
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Jesse Clarke: What was your involvement with environmental justice in the early ‘90s when you were at the University of California Berkeley?
Penn Loh: I went to UC Berkeley because I realized that much of the work of electrical engineers (I had an undergraduate degree in that field) at that time was really in the military industrial complex. It seemed like the profession, rather than making life better for people, was largely involved in projects supporting war research. So, I started down a different track.
At that time, I saw environment as a secondary concern to other social justice issues. But at U.C.Berkeley I met folks who had just attended the 1991 People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington D.C. I got involved with that student group and also took a class with Carl Anthony. Suddenly, light bulbs went off and I realized, “This is what I can do to contribute to something positive and which goes real deep with respect to my own social justice commitment!”
His background and experience include community planning and policy work both in the United States and overseas with international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). While at UH, Bob led the successful 2008 Campaign to help pass a regional measure, Measure VV, which raised funds to keep bus passes affordable for seniors, youth, and disabled riders. Currently, Bob is leading UH’s efforts on federal and state transportation advocacy. Bob received both his Bachelors Degree in Political Science and History and his Masters in Public Administration from Rutgers University.
Listen to his presentation to the Bay Area Social Equity Caucus about the Oakland Airport Connector