Transportation Justice: from Civil Rights to the Right to the City

Kafui Attoh-

In the year 2000, the writer Joan Wypijewski visited Montgomery, Alabama, to observe the 45th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott. Her findings were notable: “Montgomery’s transit system isn’t segregated anymore. It barely exists.”

As Wypijewski told readers, the 1990s had not been kind to transit. After two decades of local Republican leadership, and following the elimination of federal transit operating assistance in 1996, Montgomery’s transit system had become a shadow of its former self. In 1997, the situation reached its nadir when the city decided to scrap its fixed route bus service altogether, replacing it with a cost-saving dial-a-ride service called DART. DART provided door-to-door service to local residents upon request, but required that these residents schedule their trips 24 hours in advance. As Wypijewski reported, the system was hardly popular. Not only were there dropped appointments, longer commutes, and overworked drivers, but it marked the end of what had been a “‘family of riders,’ the easy culture of transfers and [a shared] culture of urban mobility”. When Wypijewski published her exposé in 2000, Montgomery’s new Democratic leadership was already in the process of re-establishing a fixed route bus service. Even with change on the horizon, Wypijewski’s larger argument remained an important one. Here we might quote her directly:

“Today’s system is a spawn of the New South, which is not so much new or distinctly southern as it is an accommodation to the all-American way of racism—bigotry muffled for the sake of business, white privilege wrapped in the language of investment. As elsewhere across the country, whites in Montgomery abandoned the urban center and its services. With budgets shrinking, neglect of city schools, hospitals and transit could proceed as a ‘cost benefits decision.’”
For Wypijewski, the crisis facing Montgomery’s transit system revealed one thing: the stubborn persistence of racial bigotry, albeit wearing “new clothes”. Rather than the racism of billy clubs or Bull Connors, what afflicted Montgomery was the whispered racism of “property values,” “good schools” and “safe neighborhoods.” It was, in short, the racism of color blindness and real estate euphemism.  Wypijeski’s analysis is an important one, but there is a parallel story that is just as essential. That story is as much about racism’s “new clothes” as it is about the political economy of cities themselves, the limits of liberal civil rights discourse, and the necessity of embracing the more radical demand for the right to the city. 

The “right to the city” was coined in the late 1960s by the Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre. Writing in the decades following World War II, Lefebvre was responding to what he saw as the rapid transformation of French urban life.  As Lefebvre argued, the new French city was more alienating, more isolating, and less radical. Urban renewal had not only pushed traditional working class communities from the center of urban life, but had alienated them from what he deemed to be the product of their labor: the city itself. Lefebvre thus conceived the right to the city as a right to centrality and to spaces of encounter and exchange. It was a right against the atomization of French working class life and against the colonization of the central city by the wealthy.  Of course, Lefebvre’s work owed a great deal to Marx and Engels’ own radical notion of cities.  

Writing over 100 years earlier, and in the midst of the industrial revolution, for Marx and Engels, cities offered a window into both the vagaries of the new capitalist economy as well as the nascent political possibilities therein. As they suggested in theCommunist Manifesto, capitalist urbanization promised to “rescue a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” What they meant by idiocy, of course, was not that rural people were stupid, but that rural life was fundamentally alienating, isolating, and apolitical. They were using idiocy in its classical sense, as a synonym for privatized isolation. In the Greek city state, to be an idiotes was to be a private person isolated from public democratic life. In contrast to the isolation of rural life, the industrial city, they argued, held out the possibility of just the opposite: collective action, class consciousness, and worker revolution. For Lefebvre and many others, the idea of the right to the city has, if anything, been about rescuing this radical potential. Moreover, it has been about rejecting the range of neoliberal policies that have promoted the veritable idiocy of urban life – whether evidenced though the privatization of public space or the ongoing criminalization of the poor.

Where the right to the city rests on this radical notion of rights, progressive critiques of urban transportation have largely mirrored the critique advanced by Wypejewski. This is a critique focused on transportation racism, the persistence of racial bigotry, and the unmet promises of the civil rights movement. To start from the right to the city, however, is to place this critique within a broader analysis of political economy itself.

In the context of federal retrenchment, an anemic tax base, and interurban competition, Montgomery, Alabama, is like many cities in the country. In Montgomery, as elsewhere, public policy is shaped by bond rating agencies, institutional investors, and city administrators bent on enhancing “economic competitiveness.” In this context, basic investments in transit invariably take a back seat to projects aimed at selling the city to tourists, developers, or capital more generally—hence every quirky antiquarian street car, every airport connector, and every retrofitted downtown trolley. Indeed, it is why in Montgomery itself, as Wypijewski observed, city and state officials showed little hesitation—amidst a transit crisis—in redirecting federal and state transit dollars to the dedication of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum at Troy State University.  Here tourists could get glimpse at a replica of the 1955 bus that started it all while transit riders just outside the museum doors faced longer waits and poorer service.

To start from the right to the city is not only to place our analysis of transit within a broader critique of political economy, but to see initiatives like DART for what they are: idiotic alternatives to quality mass transit. Such initiatives are worth critiquing not simply because they are ineffective, or because they reproduce racial inequity, but because they undermine the public culture of transit itself, replacing a “family of riders” with atomized individual clients. Recent efforts by cash-strapped cities to issue vouchers to residents for Uber and Lyft trips are little different.

Of course, as many might argue, these initiatives are merely symptoms of a modern transportation system that has long championed idiocy. This is the idiocy of the lonely driver behind the wheel, of the isolated suburban cul-de-sac, and of the transit rider stranded at home. Having created an urban landscape that makes owning a car a virtual necessity, we have, on one hand, produced one class of individuals who – lacking the means to buy a car – are largely excluded from public life.  On the other hand, we have produced another class of individuals who—in ways that are no less isolated—must spend an incredible amount of time and money behind the wheel, often going into debt. Ironically, this car loan debt, as with all debt, has the perverse impact of making them both more pliant workers and more inclined to idiocy.

In the Montgomery of 1955, the question was a simple one:  do African American have the right to use public transportation as they please? Today, the question is yet simpler:  will there be a bus at all?  For some, this is evidence of racism’s “new clothes” and the need to fight for better public transit as a civil rights issue. Here we find a whole slew of organizations and enterprising lawyers who have hitched their cart to the power of Title VI analyses, weighted equity measures, and to legal fights against disparate impact discrimination. These fights are, of course, deeply important and necessary. To see transit in terms of a right to the city, however, is to spend less time ferreting out the racists and more time challenging the political economy of cities themselves.  As the legacy of the Montgomery bus boycott suggests, where the demand is for civil rights alone, we risk simply winning the front seat on a sinking ship. Instead, we might take a more radical tack. This means asserting public transportation’s role in producing less idiotic cities, and, ultimately, taking a page from the radical supposition of Paul Sweezy in 1973:

“…to make the city a better place to live, it seems to me an absolutely necessary condition that the causal link between the location of economic activity and profit anticipations has to be decisively broken… And this not only requires public ownership of land, but also socialization of the entire investment process so production can be guided not by profit but for the satisfaction of people’s needs.”

Kafui Attoh is an assistant professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. He is the author of Rights in Transit: Public Transportation and the Right to the City in California’s East Bay. ​