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.’”
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