Environmental Justice: Why access to reliable public transportation matters

High Ground News is working with Urban Art Commission on a series of stories about environmental justice at the neighborhood level.

Environmental justice is a response to environmental racism and focuses on how harm to the environment uniquely affects marginalized communities. Examples of environmental racism include placing dumps and factories in communities of color, or unequal access to healthy food and clean water. These systemic inequalities can create health disparities that affect families over many generations.

What is environmental justice and how does it relate to transportation? As defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Environmental justice is the fair and just treatment of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” This means that no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences.

Transportation is one of the many environmental issues that has gone unrecognized.
In terms of transportation, Environmental Justice (EJ) can be defined as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, from the initial planning phases to the end product, and throughout the entire decision-making process. Ensuring opportunities for the main stakeholders to be at the table — in this case, our transit customers — creates a preventative measure for disproportionately high and adverse effects of transportation deficiencies on minority and low-income communities.  

It’s lower income residents that especially rely on public transportation and the poverty rate in Memphis is disproportionately high among the city’s minority populations, making a robust and responsive public transit system all the more important when considering issues of equity. According to data gleaned from the 2021 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet, the city of Memphis has a poverty rate of 24.6 percent. That rate is disproportionately higher among Black and Hispanic/Latino populations — at 29.5 percent and 29.3 percent, respectively — than it is the non-Hispanic white population, which comes in at 11.3 percent.
These statistics place an even greater prioritization on safe, affordable, and efficient public transportation. Community members must have mobility access in order to maintain and increase their quality of life. In cities such as Memphis, many residents rely on public transportation to get to jobs, to school, to healthcare appointments — the list goes on. Compared against the price of purchasing and maintaining cars — and gas — public transportation provides a more affordable option for many.

“Since the pandemic, it has been difficult to keep a job because I rely solely on public transportation,” says Tiara Dillard, a single mother of two who lives in the Raleigh community of Memphis. Dillard takes the bus to work everyday. In her experience, “The city’s (public) transportation, just in a nutshell, is not reliable.”

Tiara Dillard is not alone. She and other customers who take the MATA bus often echo the same cries of unreliability, rude drivers, and sometimes never even showing up. This has been an ongoing complaint of MATA for decades and, as Ms. Dillard says, became even more apparent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Illustrations by Robbi Burns.

Historically, MATA has been underfunded by the City of Memphis and Shelby County since it was founded in 1975, which resulted in difficult cost-cutting decisions such as eliminating bus services. It wasn’t until this summer that MATA received a dedicated funding source.

When asked what MATA can do to improve mobility for herself and her two children, Dillard says, “MATA needs more routes and better frequency; no more than a fifteen minute wait between buses.” She says that the long wait times in between buses put her at risk of getting bit by stray dogs and makes her vulnerable to male predators.

In Memphis, Tiara Dillard is but one of many people of color who live in a low-income community and have limited access to quality public transit. Unfortunately, communities of color and low-income populations are disproportionately underserved and their transit options underfunded. In order to achieve fair practices, public transit must first become a priority in the minds of local and national leaders.

Cities whose leaders invested heavily in public transit have proven time and time again that the poverty level decreases because residents are enabled to get to the places they need to go.

A top concern

Just ask Vivian Bolden, a longtime resident of the Klondike neighborhood in the heart of North Memphis.

“Transportation’s a top [concern]. Klondike and Smokey City is in a food desert with the grocery store closing,” Bolden says.

Last year, the only grocery store that served the  neighborhoods of Klondike and Smokey City closed. This left residents with little to no access to fresh fruits and vegetables to purchase for themselves and their families.

The community members in these two neighborhoods decided it was time to take action. With the help of Memphis nonprofit Whole Child Strategies, leaders in the neighborhood were able to make contact with the staff and general manager at Memphis Area Transit Authority. The staff at MATA listened and agreed to provide exclusive service for the two neighborhoods, along with the first 200 rides free.

MATA’s current general manager, Gary Rosenfeld, has made a commitment to better serving the city’s public transit customers. As part of the program they’re calling Residents on the Move, MATA now transports Klondike and Smokey City residents to Cash Saver-Midtown and Catholic Charities each Tuesday, and the downtown Memphis Farmers Market each Saturday.

“The people, they bring their children and we just have a ball. We have a great time. Everybody loves it,” Bolden says. “And our riders are becoming more frequent, and they are growing every Saturday and every Tuesday.”

Equitable transit has the potential to increase the quality of life for folks in low-income areas. Environmental justice is rectified when transit customers are unlocked to move freely to the places they need to get to.

“It’s a great partnership,” Bolden says. “We couldn’t have done better.”

Illustrations by Robbi Burns.

A long time coming

In the beginning of 2019, the MATA Board of Commissioners approved the Transit Vision of the Memphis 3.0 Comprehensive Plan, which was drafted with input from the public, stakeholders, and elected city officials. Programs like Residents on the Move is only a fraction of what is possible through new investment and a redesigned transit system as proposed by the Transit Vision and its Recommended Network.

With a fully-funded Transit Vision, MATA would be able to make the significant improvements necessary for Memphians to reliably get to work, school, and other daily destinations. The city is getting closer to realizing that vision. On June 27, 2022, the Shelby County Commission voted “yes” on an ordinance that provides dedicated funding for MATA for the first time in the city’s history.

This long-awaited success will enable Memphis’ transit-dependent customers to perform important everyday tasks, like getting to work and doctor’s appointments. Environmental justice includes having access to the resources people need to improve and sustain a better quality of life.

Another innovative approach proposed by MATA is a Bus Rapid Transit System here in Memphis. The project is named mConnect. The priority of this project is to improve the rider experience. This rapid system is designed to get customers to their destinations more efficiently — and faster, too.

MATA’s mConnect will expand service for all riders. It’s touted to increase access to jobs by 39 percent in an hour for all of its customers, by 49 percent in an hour for low-income residents, and by 45 percent in an hour for minority residents.

It’s been a long time coming, but Memphis city leaders and MATA are currently listening and responding to the needs of the people who live, work, and play here. A new culture of public transit is slowly taking shape. It’s also one more battle in the fight for environmental justice, for every human has basic needs and those basic needs are met when people have proper access to public transit.

It’s hoped that the nation’s successful transit systems will continue to inspire Memphis to evolve. Maybe one day Memphis will become an inspiration for other cities to evolve, too.

Illustrations by Robbi Burns, whose portfolio of work is available online at www.weareglasscutter.com/burns.
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Read more articles by Tafui Owusu.

Tafui Owusu (formerly Shelia Williams) is a resident of the Bickford-Bearwater area of North Memphis and a graduate of the second High Ground News Community Correspondents program. She is also a board commissioner for MATA.