Before Black History Month passes us by, let’s take a few minutes to think about how Black history and transit advocacy are linked. Many know the famous story of Rosa Parks, who in 1955 refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her action was a key part of the Civil Rights Movement and sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in which Black residents of Montgomery refused to ride public transit to protest segregation. The boycott lasted a year, from December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956, ending when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation to be unconstitutional.
In more recent decades, many Black transit advocates have raised their voices to highlight discriminatory and racist treatment, including their neighbourhoods being underserved by transit, sometimes called a transit desert (Dozens of U.S. Cities Have ‘Transit Deserts’ Where People Get Stranded - Smithsonian Magazine), as well as issues of racial discrimination on transit in terms of enforcement and fare collection practices (How to fix anti-Black racism ingrained in the TTC - Toronto Star). We also know the sad reality that racial minorities, specifically Black and Indigenous individuals, are overrepresented among lower income groups here in Ottawa and throughout Canada. As a result, they are more likely to be dependent on public transit as their sole means of transportation.
This is not just a “somewhere else” problem; inequities happen here. Using data from the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study, we can see that the neighbourhoods with the highest prevalence of racialized residents are often the same neighbourhoods as those with high proportions of low-income residents. Examples include Ledbury - Herongate - Ridgemont (41.2% low income; 65.4% racialized), Bayshore - Belltown (31.4% low income, 58.6% racialized) and Parkwood Hills - Stewart Farm (37.9% low income; 52.7% racialized). None of these neighbourhoods are directly served by our LRT system (though Bayshore - Belltown will be in the future) and residents may see little benefit from the train or the associated fare hikes. These neighbourhoods are also often reliant on just a small handful of bus routes. We need to be cognizant that cuts to routes like the 44 or 86, especially cuts to evening and weekend service, will cause disproportionate harm to Black and other racialized riders. These concerns must be front of mind of transit advocates in these uncertain times, as OC Transpo may consider service reductions should funding from other levels of government not become available to cover revenue shortfalls during the pandemic.
Especially now, we recognize that our work on campaigns such as ParaParity and #FlattenTheFares is one way that we can work to combat some of the harshest inequities in our society, particularly those that affect racialized communities. Having free or low cost public transit that is frequent, comfortable and environmentally sustainable, which accommodates all riders and goes where they need to go is essential. It provides an equal playing field for those who seek access to employment, education or simply dignified access to our city’s amenities. Everyone deserves good quality public transit and we will keep working toward that goal.