Thursday, December 01, 2005

Rosa Parks Day

Rosa Parks Day

Today is the 50th anniversary of the day the late Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the front of a Montgomery, Alabama city bus.

Despite the popular mythology, Ms. Parks wasn't just physically tired. As Marian Wright Edelman noted, in her autobiography Ms. Parks stated "the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

Symbolically, Rosa Parks started the civil rights movement. More concretely, she was arrested for sitting in the "whites only" front seats of the bus, and thus started a nearly year-long bus boycott, culminating in a November 1956 Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses violated the 14th amendment.

Now, of course, anybody can sit on a bus anywhere they want, with the important exception that senior citizens and persons with disabilities do get priority for the front seats.

However, starting even before 1955 and continuing in the 50 years since, the percentage of urban bus riders who are white has precipitously declined. The dismantling of streetcar systems and replacement with buses that are perceived as less appealing probably didn't help.

According to the American Public Transit Association (1992 statistics) in places with less than 50,000 people, 82% of transit riders are white.

However, in places of 500,000 or more people, that drops to 45% white - which is also the national average. Nationally, then, the majority of transit riders are minorities: 31% African-American, 18% Hispanic, 6% other groups.

So, even though the vehicles may be de-segregated, the system is segregated.

Further, white transit users in places like St. Louis are overwhelmingly concentrated on MetroLink light rail and a handful of suburb-to-downtown peak-hour only express buses.

Within the cities, and on reverse commute trips to suburban jobs, the vast majority of bus riders are minorities. In St. Louis, bus riders are still predominantly African-American.

And there's a pretty strong class overlay as well. Public policy, social norms, and convenience keep most people of means - of all races - in their cars for commuting, shopping and running errands. They don't necessarily mix with transit riders very much. Many of them wouldn't know how to ride a bus if they had to do so.

Just as many racist and classist whites abandoned public schools as de-segregation happened, and abandoned urban neighborhoods as they became de-segregated, they also abandoned public transportation when they could get cars. Obviously, I'm over-simplifying the situation dramatically. But, there is something of a parallel.

As a young white guy who rides the bus daily in the city and on reverse commute trips, I'm an anomaly. Indeed, although most grad students like me earn very little money, most still manage to afford cars. There's just a presumption that you must have a car in order to live a "normal" life in St. Louis. Even the Coro Fellows program requires participants in St. Louis to have their own cars. Likewise in Los Angeles; but not so in New York or San Francisco.

Usually, I sit in the back half of the bus - sometimes all the way in the back. Today, I sat on the very back bench seat, right in the middle on the #70 Grand. Even on the WashU shuttle, for some reason, I usually insist on going all the way to the back - which can be rather painful, given that many drivers seem to have a penchant for going over the many large on-campus speed bumps at fairly high speeds!

3 comments:

Umar Lee said...

Public transit in STL doesnt take you everywhere and it is not that good so a lot of jobs will not hire you without a car. I wonder what the racial stats are about Metro bus riders?

Joe said...

No disagreement there. Many job ads specify "reliable transportation" or "personal transportation" etc. I tried to get a part-time teaching position at a professional school in West County several months ago. When I mentioned that I would be taking the bus there, the interviewer seemed un-impressed. I didn't get the job, although I met most of the basic qualifications.

I looked for demographics on Metro ridership, but couldn't find anything online other than something from Citizens for Modern Transit about MetroLink being mostly "discretionary" riders. They deliberately ignored race, it seems.

Anonymous said...

CMT has race reported in its "A New Way to Go and Grow" brochure, though listed as "ethnicity" and without any year or source. Anyway, MetroLink ridership is reported in this CMT booklet as 52% caucasian, 43% african-american and 4% other.

Other MetroLink tables in this CMT booklet show that 56% of riders earn more than $35,000 annually, 57% own two or more cars, 54% are female, 65% are between 22 and 54 years old, and 65% are destined to employment for their ride.