Opinion: Honor Rosa Parks by demanding officials increase support for public transit

Her act of nonviolent resistance should be linked to the rights of all people to high-quality public transportation run on clean energy.

Today, Feb. 4, is the birthday of Rosa Parks, whose act of resistance in refusing to give up her seat on the bus sparked the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956.

This Feb. 4, we plan to join the Labor Network for Sustainability on Transit Equity Day as they connect Rosa Parks’ act of nonviolent resistance to the rights of all people to high-quality public transportation run on clean energy. You should, too.

“Urban transit systems in most American cities have become a genuine civil rights issue because the layout of rapid-transit systems determines the accessibility of jobs.”

We are thinking of this Martin Luther King Jr. quote as Black History Month begins because 65 years after Rosa Parks’ act of resistance, transit equity is still being fought for. Access to safe, reliable, environmentally sustainable, and affordable transit is still threatened by lack of funding even while it is more important than ever.

With increasing pollution levels near highways exacerbating environmental injustice, the climate crisis upon us, and essential workers relying on buses and trains to get to their jobs, we must continue the fight for transit equity.

Reeling from the pandemic, local transit agencies like AC Transit are grappling with drastic reductions in ridership and have been pleading for help from Washington. As Berkeleyside reported last summer, AC Transit has been considering service cuts to numerous lines in Berkeley including the 80 line on Ashby, the popular 51 line which carries students and workers to UC and downtown, and the 7, 65 and 67 lines running in North Berkeley. Such service changes could undermine the ability of many in Berkeley to get to work and school post-pandemic, including City workers and UC staff and students who are issued EasyPasses.

While the most recent federal stimulus bill has thrown transit a lifeline, transit agencies that transport essential workers to their jobs simply aren’t getting the equitable support from our communities need them to have, unlike big oil businesses. According to an article published by Sierra Magazine, over 7000 oil, gas and petrochemical companies received an estimated $3 billion to $7 billion in COVID relief funds, i.e., two to three times the allocations to transit agencies across the county. These numbers, provided by an analysis of the Small Business Association data, represent a desire by the former administration to preserve Big Oil. All the while, over 10% of the oil companies reported no jobs retained as a result of the tax-payer funded bailout.

If transit funding isn’t maintained and improved, how many Berkeley workers and students who’d have typically taken the bus to work and school will be forced to use more private automobiles on local streets?

Perhaps a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the reduction in private motor vehicle use, a boon to pedestrians and cyclists. That reduction and the ability to use “slow streets” in Oakland and “healthy streets” in Berkeley have been blessings to many hoping for safe travels walking and cycling on local streets.

We will need well-supported local transit to build upon this little piece of positivity after the pandemic, to prevent transit service cuts that would likely result in more cars on the road. Additionally, studies suggest that use of public transit can reduce collisions and fatalities from collisions, and that well-supported public transportation makes our streets safer, offering an important strategy for attaining Vision Zero.

We recognize that transportation is both an equity issue and a climate issue and that recent governmental reports underscore the need for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report has warned that there is only about a 10-year window to reduce emissions in order to avoid cataclysmic climate change, emphasizing the need for speedy transformation at all levels of the economy, including transportation. The U.S.’s National Climate Assessment emphasized the increasingly serious consequences of climate change to humans and the economy, especially in absence of immediate mitigating actions.

The California Air Resources Board (ARB) has found that California is not on track to meet targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transportation is the largest contributor. Simply put, not nearly enough investment is going toward climate-friendly transportation — including walking, biking and public transit. Action is needed at every level of government — cities, counties, regions, the state and federal governments — to reverse the negative trend.

This Thursday, on her birthday, we want to honor Rosa Parks’ legacy in the struggle for transit justice while calling on elected officials to increase support for public transit and commit to greater reductions in carbon emissions. Join us and the Labor Network for Sustainability on Transit Equity Day as we all connect Rosa Parks’ act of nonviolent resistance to the rights of all people to high-quality public transportation run on clean energy.

And please remember to tell your representatives that we need them to support our local public transit agencies – to transport essential workers to essential jobs, to help us make our streets safer by providing alternatives to private automobile use, to help us reduce carbon emissions, to help us get where we need to be.

The writers are Berkeley residents, Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter leaders and public transportation equity advocates.