Why fixing our public transit systems can help us fight racism | The Optimist Daily: Making Solutions the News
Today’s Solutions: June 22, 2024

In the US, the opportunities afforded to people can often rely on how connected their communities are transportation-wise. This is something Darnell Grisby knows well.

Growing up as a Black man in Southern California during the 1980s and 1990s, Darnell Grisby saw how limited public transportation options in Black neighborhoods were preventing workers from accessing better-paying jobs. His grandmother cleaned homes, but since many of the better-paying jobs were hours away by bus, she had to work locally; thus, she made just $5 a day. 

After graduating from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Grisby became a policy leader in the world of public transportation with the goal of connecting more communities to opportunity. As Grisby points out, the Black Lives Matter movement has made it painfully clear that we are still far from equity—and he believes reforming public transit can play a powerful role in closing the racial divide. With that in mind, here’s how Grisby believes we can fix public transit in order to fight racism in America.

We need to address transit governance: In some communities, the structure of governance leads to project decisions that promote the needs of predominantly white suburban commuters at the expense of communities of color with higher transit use and more supportive land use. Often a transit district that includes suburban communities may prioritize extensions of light rail lines into the suburbs over the more expensive but compelling transit needs of denser, more diverse urban communities. 

Transit advocacy is about a lot more than transit: We may spend billions on a new light rail system, but if spending on the unhoused is insufficient, the trains will be full of homeless people. If communities shirk their duty to build and maintain sufficient affordable housing, displacement will remove those that most need and most use the adjacent transit service. What is defined as a “transit issue” is now inclusive of the effective provision of all municipal services, as transit does not operate in a vacuum. A political action committee dedicated to the broader policy environment, while crafting messages and strategies more inclusive of voters of color, is necessary.

Reform transit agency CEO recruitment: Traditionally, transit operations experience has been a critical determinant in choosing a transit CEO. Today, however, the job has changed: It’s become more government affairs, community relations, and media-driven. The Black managerial class with those skills gets minted in MBA, law, and policy graduate programs with clear job pipelines after graduation.

A mid-career professional from that pipeline is more than qualified for most transit agency CEO positions. However, the focus on prior operational experience puts these candidates at a distinct disadvantage, reducing the pool of applicants of color. 

Research shows that 60% of transit riders are of color. However, according to self-reported data from the American Public Transportation Association’s Transit CEO Committee, only 16% of CEOs are of color. The industry is missing out on people with personal experiences with the product and a political passion for justice. 

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