Union says inner-city minorities are cheated on mass transit

CHICAGO — The Amalgamated Transit Union says that mass transit services available to inner-city minority residents in the Chicagoland area are inferior to those available to suburban non-minorities. ATU President Larry Hanley is demanding measures, notably more commitment and funding for buses and subways, to combat what he calls “transit racism.”

University of Chicago Associate Professor Virginia Parks told the February, 2014 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that the differences in commuting times for inner-city minority residents and suburban non-minorities were significant enough to affect minorities’ pay and job possibilities.

Using 2011 census data on commuting patterns, Parks reported African Americans spend an average of 15 minutes more per day commuting to and from work in the Chicago area. That can be a 25 percent increase over an average urban two-way commute of about an hour, she found. Her study compared workers with similar jobs.

“Because of racial segregation, blacks spend more time getting to work,” Parks reported. “The ability of workers to access jobs via a robust transportation system is positively associated with intergenerational economic mobility,” her paper, Density For All, added. That results in a disadvantage for minorities, especially African Americans, in getting and holding well-paying jobs.

In cities such as Chicago, low-wage African-American workers frequently must travel long distances outside their neighborhoods to find work, as few service and other low-wage job opportunities are available in their home communities, the paper adds.

As a result, they must spend more on public transit and on car costs, her paper said. Parks found the longest commute, among 95 percent of all workers, is 65 minutes each way. Higher-paid workers are willing to spend more time and money on longer commutes, she said. They also can afford the expense. The data also show that African-American women have the longest commutes, in time, of any group.

“Urban sprawl currently reduces employment opportunities for lower-skill workers and women and dampens the economic mobility prospects for the poor,” Parks added.

Hanley said national data, from the Brookings Institution, shows the same pattern-and it’s an argument for beefing up mass transit in the nation’s inner cities. That would expand job opportunities for the residents, too, says Hanley, whose union represents bus and subway workers, including workers for the Chicago Transit Authority’s buses and elevated railway system.

“The disparity in commute times for low wage African-American workers in Chicago as compared to others is the product of a country with a huge and growing urban population,” and with “no serious urban transportation agenda except to benefit the rich,” Hanley declared.

“This report reminds us of the daily struggles of thousands of workers, reinforcing the lack of mobility for many Chicagoans and the untold impacts of the decades of gentrification. Low-wage African-American workers have been pushed out of cities and denied access to the robust public transportation that has been shown to be essential for economic mobility. Unequal access in Chicago forms a type of transit racism and institutional racism of any kind that must be reversed with a serious urban agenda.”

Analyzing national census data, Brookings reported that an average metropolitan resident could reach only 30 percent of the jobs in his or her area within 90 minutes. Hanley pointed out one reason workers may be jobless, especially in inner cities, is due to lack of access to mass transit.

“Is it fair that those who depend on or choose public transit can’t get to a job or find one because they don’t have a car or bus route to get there?” Hanley asked. “This is what happens when you have a country whose cities grow more crowded every day, and whose only urban agenda is to dole out more favors to the wealthy.”

ATU, along with the rest of the labor movement, is lobbying lawmakers for a multi-year mass-transit and highway-funding bill. In a Feb. 25 speech in Minnesota, Democratic President Barack Obama, himself a Chicagoan whose Hyde Park home is on a CTA bus route, proposed a 4-year $302 billion highway-mass transit bill.

But congressional Republicans, influenced by anti-tax tea partyites, are cool to highway and mass transit spending, since Obama wants to fund it by closing corporate tax loopholes. Union leaders, who back the legislation, prefer a graduated increase in the current 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax, which hasn’t risen in 22 years.

“It’s time for the nation to start thinking big when it comes to public transit, which when done right has been and continues to be a great ladder of opportunity for all,” said Hanley. “In May, our coalition of transit workers, riders, and advocacy groups will spread the word that transit matters and our nation desperately needs an urban transportation agenda that enhances mobility for all of us.”

Photo: Workers repairing track for rapid transit trains, Feb. 22. Chicago Transit authority Facebook page.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.