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Justice In Movement

When I hear the term “urban transit,” it conjures a flurry of images. My brain instantly turns to public forms of transportation. This includes your buses, metro lines, transit stops, maybe even bicycle share programs. If I sit on the term a bit longer, I start to think of abstract planners making decisions in closed-door offices, who pass down resolutions with impacts on the populace for generations to come. They look a bit like Tom Hanks in Catch Me If You Can, a stoic bureaucrat in a dark suit and skinny tie. But if I allow myself to move beyond the caricatures imbued in me by popular media, I will come to grassroots efforts for transportation equity, environmental justice, and working-people’s movements. From my vantage point, in the City of Los Angeles, the term urban transit conjures complex images that blur the past and present, the personal and the public, movement and justice.

Before I began training as an interdisciplinary historian, I was in training to become an urban planner. It was there that I learned about the ways our transportation systems shape access to jobs, healthcare, and education. I read about histories of transit discrimination through the legacies of freeway development that disrupted communities of color in Los Angeles, many of them Latinx. I am still struck by the insightful work of my colleague Eric Avila, whose books Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight (2004) and Folklore of the Freeway (2014) chronicle how communities of color were divided by freeway development, first in Los Angeles and then across the United States. What has stuck with me the most has been how aggrieved communities responded to displacement with protests, art, and historic reclamation.

It was also in planning school that I learned (and continue to learn) about activist efforts to envision modes of moving based on transit equity or social justice. The idea of justice-based transportation planning challenges need-blind models based on efficacy, economy, and end products. Instead, it advocates for people-centered models based on accessibility, inclusivity, and process.

The efforts of the Bus Riders Union (formed in 1994), a project of a multiracial social justice organization called the Labor Community Strategy Center, epitomizes this shift. The BRU famously took on the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority in a lawsuit arguing that the expansion of light rail, more heavily used by middle-class suburbanites, was funded at the expense of a bus system used primarily by the county’s working-poor in a way that was racially discriminatory. The ruling reversed an increase in bus fares and mandated increased investment in bus services. Their work, although receiving some criticism, remains an important lesson in cross-generational, multilingual, working-class organizing written about by scholars, activists, planners, and journalists.

Throughout Los Angeles, we can find models that help us rethink the intent and logics of urban transit so that equity is placed at its center. I look to the work of organizations and coalitions such as Alliance for Community TransitInvesting in Place, and CicLAvia, among the many community-based efforts to challenge conventional transportation planning.

Read entire article at The Metropole