Second-Class Transit? Los Angeles Bus Riders Union Fights for Equal Treatment

Although light rail trains are favored by many forward-thinking transportation agencies, buses carry far more commuters. The public transportation fleet in the U.S. consists of 129,000 vehicles; 58 percent of them are buses, and only one percent are light rail cars. Sixty-one percent of all public transportation employees work for bus services. Of the 8.7 billion trips taken by American travelers in 1998, 61.6 percent were taken in buses, and only 11 percent were taken in the "all other modes" category that includes light rail. Since 1984, however, light rail trips have doubled while bus trips have stagnated, proof that transit agencies—and passengers, too—have become entranced with this modern way of getting around. But light rail growth may have come with social costs attached.

Los Angeles’ Bus Riders Union plays hardball in its campaign against light rail funding, which it says discriminates against disadvantaged consumers. The group won a $1 billion settlement against the city’s transportation agency in 1996.
Courtesy of Bus Riders Union

The Bus Riders Union, an arm of the activist Labor/Community Strategy Center, says bus passengers get short shrift in Los Angeles, and that there"s a racial component to the unfair treatment. The Union was formed in 1992, and it quickly began a Billions for Buses campaign to defeat what it calls "the transit racism reflected in the policies of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority [MTA] of Los Angeles."

George W. Bush"s energy plan, announced last May, makes nary a mention of the role mass transportation could have in reducing energy demand. But according to a paper entitled, Private Transportation vs. Mass Transit by Stephanie Corson, a fully-occupied bus offers six times the fuel efficiency of the average commuter"s automobile, and the fuel efficiency of a fully-occupied rail car is 15 times greater than that of the average commuter"s automobile. A 10 percent nationwide increase in transit ridership (now less than five percent of all trips to work) would save 135 million gallons of gasoline per year.

In 1994, the Union filed a civil rights lawsuit charging the MTA with running a separate but unequal system that punishes 94 percent of its passengers—the 350,000 bus riders—and rewards users of the "primarily suburban and business district" rail system. The Union contended in the suit that MTA spends 70 percent of its operating budget on the six percent of its ridership who are rail passengers. The bus riders, it said, are 81 percent black, Latin and Asian, 60 percent female and 60 percent poor, with incomes below $15,000 a year. In the last decade, according to the Union, MTA has reduced its peak-hour bus fleet from 2,200 to 1,750 and subsidized subway riders 18 times more than it did bus riders.

In what was undoubtedly a surprise to transit officials, Labor/Community Strategy Center v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority was a winner. In 1996, a federal district court ruled that such inequities do exist. In a court-ordered consent decree, the MTA agreed to invest more than $1 billion in bus system improvements in the 10 years until 2006. It was the first successful attempt to use Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act against a transit agency and the largest settlement in civil rights history. As Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out, "Urban transit systems in most American cities are a genuine civil rights issue."

Instead of spending money on light rail systems, the Union supports a $1.6 billion plan to create a 600-mile network of bus-only express lanes, similar to those in Curitiba, Brazil, on Los Angeles" freeways and major surface roads. Such an arrangement, it estimates, could carry two to three million more people a day than the present 1.2-million-passenger system. The buses would do away with the polluting diesel engines that are of particular concern in smog-ridden Los Angeles, replacing them with natural gas power.

The Union is willing to play hardball to achieve its goals. It seeks a total moratorium on construction of any new rail lines in the Los Angeles area, particularly trying to stop a 6.8-mile extension of the MTA"s $1 billion light rail Blue Line to Pasadena. The Union also launched "Don"t Play Ball With a Racist City," an attempt to deny funding for a new football coliseum in Los Angeles until the MTA agrees to buy an additional 481 buses.

The fight over light rail transportation in Los Angeles is not a clear-cut, black-white issue. Three of the more prominent black and Hispanic MTA board members support the Pasadena light rail. The Union has reserved some of its most bitter criticism for a former supporter, ex-Assembly Speaker and unsuccessful mayoral candidate Antonio Villariagosa, who now favors the Blue Line. The Union"s attempt to label the rails as being for suburban and business use oversimplifies what is plainly a complicated ridership pattern. As LA Weekly points out, "For most of its 12-mile length, the [fully built] Blue Line would be the Barrio special, serving far more people of color than Anglos."

Critics like Richard Silver, head of the influential Train Riders Association of California, claim that the Bus Riders Union, with a $400,000 annual budget largely gathered from out-of-town foundations, represents no real constituency in Los Angeles. Another critic, Kymberleigh Richards, who publishes the San Fernando Valley Transit Insider, charges that the high cost of complying with the Union"s consent decree has delayed service improvements on some highly traveled lines.

But the group has a point: Light rail routes are expensive to build, and each mile of new construction has the potential to cause a cost reduction in other parts of the system. The LA transit system, under the best circumstances, has a difficult time coping with a metropolitan region that was wholly built up around the needs of automobiles. Mass transit provides a major safety valve for the overloaded highway system, as was made clear during the city"s agonizing transit strike in the fall of 2000. Without buses or light rail trains, a new fleet of entrepreneurial "bandit operators" took to the streets in cars and vans, many of them gouging the three percent of Los Angeles" commuters who are otherwise fully dependent on public transportation to get to work.