Urban Buses Host a Struggle for Equity Suburban vs. Urban Transit: Los Angeles Bus Riders Use Civil Rights Laws to Get Better Service

Article excerpt

Philip Ajofoyinbo and about 1,500 low-income bus riders here may be the 1997 equivalent of Rosa Parks.

In 1955, Mrs. Parks rode into American civil rights history by refusing to sit in the back of the local Montgomery, Ala., bus. A year-long boycott of the bus line - courtesy of Martin Luther King Jr. and followers - sparked court action and activism that led to landmark laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations.

Today, Mr. Ajofoyinbo and a union of blacks, Latinos, Asians, and native Americans are carrying a similar civil rights torch in a battle that could affect every large city in America. They say that all citizens have a right to clean, affordable public transportation. "The inner-city poor and transit-dependent should be no less served than the suburban rich," says Ajofoyinbo, a cultural anthropologist and writer who lives near downtown Los Angeles. "The 90 percent of us who use public transportation put up with old buses, high fares, and limited service while billions are spent on trains carrying 10 percent of commuters to outlying areas." For his morning commute to a nearby library, he sits on an overcrowded bus with graffiti scratched into every window. Black soot shoots out of the bus's exhaust pipe because the 12-year-old vehicle is one of hundreds not yet replaced with newer models that use cleaner-burning fuels. Court order Change is coming slowly. In a case being watched closely by activists in dozens of cities, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is moving to correct these long-standing inequities - but not by choice. Four years of pressure by Ajofoyinbo and the rest of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union - formed in 1993 by uniting immigrants, welfare recipients, and handicapped and elderly people - won a landmark ruling. In October, a California Superior Court judge held that the MTA had a statutory obligation to transit patrons "without regard to race, color, or national origin," and that all transit patrons should "have equal and equitable access to fully integrated mass transportation." A federal consent decree was signed mandating 152 more buses on the streets, lower bus-pass prices, and $1 billion in improvements over five years. In intervening months, however, the MTA has become strapped for cash. It is in danger of losing federal funds for rail lines that have been long promised to several suburbs, and federal legislators have asked the organization to design a "recovery plan" to get the city's grand subway project back in fiscal health. At least partly because of this cash shortage, the MTA has not been forthcoming with promised changes. Its proposals say it will be 2002 before the aging bus fleet will be replaced, bus service improved, and overcrowding reduced. "Nine months {after the consent decree} we have not seen a single new bus, and the MTA appears to be balking on all its promises," says Eric Mann, director of the Labor Community Strategies Center, a multiracial issues organization. In rallies, public demonstrations, and verbal protests at local MTA meetings, union members have tried to pressure MTA officials, but Mr. Mann says they will have to take the MTA back to court to enforce the consent decree. "This is a major test of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as well as a looking glass to examine whether and how the federal government keeps its promises," says Mann. …


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