Power and place: the achievements and pitfalls of free public transport

While the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 aims to improve infrastructure in the United States, the United States currently receives a C grade on it from the American Society of Civil Engineers and are often poorly ranked compared to other countries. The fact that this rings especially true for public transit comes as no surprise when you look back at how long public transit has suffered from divestment in US history.

In the 1940s and 1950s, control of transit’s transition to municipalities led to a high-cost, low-revenue system dependent on fluctuating federal, state, and municipal funding. Additionally, following public acceptance of the automobile industry and federal investment in highways in the 1950s, cities were built around the movement of cars rather than transit routes. . Financing issues as well as the configuration of the cities play a key role in the examination of this project.

While Americans have historically disinvested in public transit, transit systems perpetuated segregation. The perspective of place stratification is increasingly used by scholars who position public transit as a “good that disproportionately benefits some communities over others.” This can happen when transportation systems are intentionally developed by planners, developers, and government agencies to better serve white and affluent communities or to encourage gentrification.

Whatever the mechanism, the result is inequality in the distribution and design of public transport, which compounds inequality in access to real citizenship, the day-to-day rights that people exercise such as the right to food or water.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to look any further than Baltimore to see this in action. The red line had the potential to counteract some of the disproportionate benefits received by white and affluent communities through transportation design. However, the Red Line was rejected, unlike the Purple Line, which serves some of Maryland’s wealthier counties. It is these types of intentional decisions that have contributed to the inequality of access to real citizenship that we observe today.

Some US cities are beginning to struggle with these issues. With the recent passage of her proposal, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu secured $8 million in funding for a project that makes three bus routes — 23, 28 and 29 — free. The $8 million comes from the $558 million Boston received from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and will support the project for two years, after which the funding will revert to the state. The recently implemented free transit project will focus on some of the most congested roads serving low-income minority communities.

While this project currently only affects three routes, it’s no secret that Wu wants to make free public transit a reality for all of Boston, something she cements even in the parlance of equal urban citizenship. . The project’s goal of increasing access to public transit can help correct and reduce many existing inequities. Reviewing this project allows us to make recommendations on how Boston should proceed with this project and how other cities such as Baltimore should do the same.

By making public transit free, the ability for the wealthy to buy preferential treatment is erased and the increased burden on low-income riders who rely on daily passes, which are more expensive in the long run, is relieved. Additionally, low-income riders who tend to pay in cash or buy physical tickets are hampered by the shift of transit lines to cashless payment methods. By sidestepping the cost, this question is rendered moot.

Beyond direct benefits, focusing on improving access to public transit also highlights how equity in the distribution of other substantive entitlements will increase. Health care, social services, employment opportunities and food will become more accessible to people served by these roads. With the elimination of tariffs, individuals will have more money to spend and will be able to access these services more easily. In addition, travel times and delays should be reduced.

These benefits are further supported by the project’s plan to work collaboratively with community activism and transportation groups to ensure they can collect granular data and stay focused on the path they have charted.

However, the project only addresses one aspect of equitable substantive rights, accessibility, and fails to rectify many design factors that are closer to the root of the inequality of American citizenship. For example, it does not address issues related to the pre-existing uneven distribution of supermarkets. While this project has major benefits for the equity of the distribution of actual citizenship, unfortunately several important aspects of citizenship are being overlooked, many of which need to be addressed as this project and others like it move forward.

One of the main concerns about free transit, especially its current use in Boston, is the possibility of fostering gentrification. Greater accessibility to communities can encourage neighborhoods to replace their traditional residents with younger, middle-class residents who can dictate the transportation that best serves them. This, in turn, reinforces the inequality of citizenship in these already marginalized areas. By increasing accessibility on only these three routes that serve low-income minority communities, the current potential for gentrification is high.

Another related concern is the growth machine and how public transit often favors private establishments and fosters racially contrasting development. In other words, low-income minorities often lose out when spaces are reallocated and redesigned.

One of the reported potential economic benefits of the projects is to incentivize owners and developers to move to higher traffic areas. It is precisely reorientation that operates in the growth machine, which further exacerbates the unequal distribution of goods and services. The project also aims to enable businesses to increase their customer base through increased accessibility and lower costs to the surrounding area. However, the key questions here are “who understands this clientele?” and “how will the influx of customers shape the distribution of goods and services and, therefore, equal citizenship in the regions where they arrive?”

The final concern is whether increased accessibility to employment will have an impact on socio-economic background citizenship differences. With regard to access to employment opportunities, recent findings suggest that equalizing accessibility does not equate to equalizing socio-economic outcomes. This suggests that public transportation systems are designed so that white communities have access to jobs that create positive socio-economic outcomes, while public transportation that connects minority communities to jobs fails. .

This finding is critical, as it ultimately negates one of the important benefits expected from free public transport. Ultimately, it seems that the pursuit of equal urban citizenship in transit will need to extend beyond the issue of equal access and must examine the structural design of transit systems. in common.

Although I have presented both critiques of the project, it is essential to note that many are not current issues but need to be considered as the Boston project progresses and similar projects are implemented elsewhere. If these concerns are addressed and resolved, the project could be an important first step in addressing and reducing many existing inequalities in contemporary citizenship and could lead to a deeper examination of how the underlying layout of cities can perpetuate inequalities.

Julian Madrigal is a sophomore transfer from Los Angeles studying psychology. He is an undergraduate research assistant in the Students for a Positive Academic Partnership with the East Baltimore Community research lab.

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