There are two things that I want desperately: justice, and better public transit.
I am a car-less person living in St. Louis, Missouri. I was car-less in 2014 during the numerous police shootings and protests that are now referred to as simply “Ferguson.” I am car-less now during the protests sparked by the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a former St. Louis police officer who in 2011 was recorded on a police dashboard camera saying something that sounds like, “I’m going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it” before fatally shooting Anthony Lamar Smith.
Being car-less during times of protest is doable, albeit challenging. I’ve taken public transit to protests and to town halls, but transit isn’t always a viable option. The day after Stockley was acquitted, there was a protest at the West County Chesterfield Mall. According to Google Maps, the recommended transit route from my apartment to Chesterfield Mall takes 1 hour and 31 minutes. It involves 23 minutes of walking and at least one transfer. I only live 17 miles from Chesterfield Mall.
It’s been several weeks since the not-guilty verdict was announced, and protests are still happening in St. Louis almost every night. A few weeks ago, I went to The People’s Town Hall, a response to Mayor Lyda Krewson cancelling the town halls that people had planned to attend. Krewson didn’t attend this one. After the event, I waited 30 minutes in the dark for a bus ride home.
Buses have long had a place in civil rights movements. In “Another One Rides The Bus: Systems of Mass Transit as Vehicles of Protest,” Julia Thomas explains how buses literally mobilized people during the civil rights movement:
“While buses have been the sites of heavy state control and segregation across the world, they have also been places in which groups have organized bus boycotts, commandeered control of transportation, ridden across state lines, and taken over spaces that allow them to express power by occupying a significant area.”
The Montgomery bus boycott was a 381-day protest that started with Rosa Parks’ arrest and ended with the Supreme Court ruling segregated public buses as unconstitutional. Years later, the Freedom Riders rode buses into the Deep South to protest segregation in interstate bus terminals.
Transportation as a social justice issue didn’t end with the civil rights era. In 2016, the St. Louis County NAACP and Missouri Coalition for Better Transportation addressed a report to the U.S. Department of Justice in which they argued that the Missouri Department of Justice was in violation of Title VI Civil Rights laws for unevenly distributing transportation funds between rural and urban areas. The two groups asked Missouri Congressman Lacy Clay to file a civil rights claim against the Missouri Department of Transportation. So far, nothing has come of the request.
Missouri ranks 46th in public transportation funding among the 50 states, according to data collected by Citizens for Modern Transit.
The lack of transportation funding has serious consequences. Studies have shown that access to transportation is crucial to escaping poverty. The relationship between social mobility and access to transportation is even stronger than that between social mobility and other factors such as crime or quality of schools.
The Ferguson Commission Report was released Sept. 14, 2015 in response to urgent cries for change. The report gives many actionable goals for healing the region, including enhancing access to transportation. Suggested projects include implementing Bus Rapid Transit and extending MetroLink along the North-South corridor.
Unfortunately, not much progress has been made since the report was released. St. Louis officials are still debating whether to pursue a North-South MetroLink expansion, as they have been for almost two decades. I still have to wait 30 to 60 minutes for a bus. We still have an ostensible justice system.
I went to a “Protest to Policy” panel on Wednesday night. This one Mayor Krewson did attend. Afterward, I approached her and asked about these transit expansion options. She told me she’s looking into reduced fares for some customers, and referred me to a member of her staff. I told her we need transit that’s better, not just cheaper for some.
Imagine not being able to move about your own city to access work, school, food or health services. Lack of public transit maintains inequality. Creating the infrastructure for accessible and reliable public transit is easier when there are actually people utilizing transit and supporting it financially. Use transit. Talk about transit. Let officials and legislators know transit is important.
Some days it seems like America is more likely to build an extensive cross-country hyperloop than it is to build a bridge across political divides. I want us to do both.
Whether you put your right hand over your heart or your right fist in the air, you’re expressing a message of unity and solidarity. Riding public transit while surrounded by people from many different backgrounds feels like unity to me.