This Saturday is Transit Equity Day, which takes place on Rosa Parks’ birthday to honor her historic action to demand equality for public transit riders. Parks’ refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery, AL bus in 1955 and the bus boycotts that ensued lead to the landmark Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.
Although public buses are officially integrated, transit inequality persists in other ways. For one, Black and brown people in many cities are less likely to have access to safe and affordable transit. Making things worse, the pandemic plummeted transit ridership in many cities, causing transit agencies to lose funding and decrease service. Transit providers are still operating at those reduced levels in many cities, which disproportionately affects the many Black and brown workers who never stopped working in-person.
There’s another dimension to today’s transit inequity: many workers who are building our country’s public transit vehicles experience modern-day segregation at work. Lured by generous tax incentives, many multinational companies are building plants in the South to manufacture these vehicles. But by and large they are not improving quality of life for the working class Black and brown people who live there.
But there is a better way to do things. Last year, JMA signed a Community Benefits Agreement with New Flyer, the largest manufacturer of electric transit buses in North America, for its plants in Ontario, California and Anniston, Alabama. This is especially poignant in Anniston, the site of the 1961 attack on the Freedom Riders and just two hours from Rosa Parks’ historic civil disobedience. The CBAs in good manufacturing jobs with better training and more advancement opportunities for workers, particularly those from marginalized groups.
As domestic manufacturing of electric school buses ramps up, JMA is looking to transform that world, too. While school buses aren’t always considered public transit, they are responsible for getting millions of kids to their public schools every day—and currently, those kids are breathing in dirty air. The unionized company Thomas Built is setting an example for what equitable ESB manufacturing looks like, but other ESB makers—and electric vehicle manufacturers in general—have not committed to creating good jobs. In Illinois, we’re building a coalition to win a community benefits agreement with Lion Electric, a company that built its first U.S. factory in the port town of Joliet.
As an organization that works to do the most good with public good, we believe in equitable access to public transit. We also believe that companies receiving public money—whether that’s through tax incentives or government contracts—to build transit vehicles must create good jobs that improve communities, not harm them.
On her birthday, let’s honor Rosa Parks’ legacy by creating equity in public transit—both for riders and workers.