OPINION: Transportation while Black

Written by: Madelyn Collins

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Photo by Jeremy Stewart on Unsplash

Historically, Black people do not have a good relationship with transportation. From the decades of transportation protests to the dangers of simply walking down the street, Black folks experience multiple forms of oppression while just trying to get to where they need to go. 

Multiple movements have surfaced to shed a light on this topic, especially when it comes to active transportation. Active transport describes walking, cycling, and other physical modes of travel. Using public transport such as catching a bus or train also involves active travel too when walking or cycling to and from stops, stations, homes, and destinations.

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Active transportation is often positively known for its health and environmental benefits, but for Black people, there is often a darker side to it. The simple act of movement for the Black community can often be a source of anxiety and fear. Acknowledging how those sources of trepidation intersect within the Black transportation experience is vital in making active transportation a safe and viable option for everyone. 

Below I will go into some of the dangers and obstacles Black people face every day moving throughout our country.

Walking While Black

Walking while Black is acknowledging the dangers that go into simply traveling on foot for Black people.  

A study was done in Las Vegas about crosswalk safety for Black pedestrians compared to White pedestrians. It was found that more cars passed through a crosswalk while a Black person was crossing the road compared to a White person. Disturbingly, similar data was found when it came to the rate of harmful traffic encounters for Black pedestrians walking the streets. According to a 2021 report from Smart Growth America, from 2010 to 2019, Black pedestrians were 82 percent more likely to be hit by drivers. 

Black pedestrians are also more likely to be policed while walking. For example, The Voorhees Center reviewed five years’ worth of citations given to pedestrians in Jacksonville, FL, and found that 55 percent were issued to Black pedestrians even though the city’s Black population is just 29 percent. Jaywalking tickets were also disproportionately given to Black pedestrians, a trend that is found in many American cities.
This constant threat of danger and policing directly correlates to the anxiety and fear Black people feel walking. A Black author and father, Shola Richards, wrote about his fear in a now well-known post. He described how he is scared to death to walk alone. He wrote, “In the four years living in my house, I have never taken a walk around my neighborhood alone (and probably never will).” This is a sentiment many Black people have as in the U.S., Black adults are less likely than all other racial groups to say they feel safe walking alone. If Black people don’t even feel safe walking on their own two feet, what does this say about the state of Black transportation in America? It’s in dire need of change, and one of those first steps should be making Black people feel safe just stepping outside their door.

Biking While Black

According to senior transportation researcher at Rutgers University, Charles Brown, being stopped and harassed is one of the top concerns for Black and brown cyclists. In Brown’s findings, 15% of more than 2,000 Black and Latinx cyclists in New Jersey said they’d been unfairly stopped by a police officer while riding. Many study participants even said they avoided certain areas completely to avoid being stopped and questioned about their activities and their rightful ownership of their bikes. Overall, Brown’s study found that Black cyclists are stopped more often, searched and arrested more frequently, and seen as more suspicious or posing a threat while biking. 

However being policed while biking isn’t the only oppression Black bikers experience, unsafe infrastructure also contributes to their anxiety and fear. Nationally, Black cyclists are more likely to die in bike accidents than white cyclists—in part because the routes through Black neighborhoods tend to not be safe or protected. When Black cyclists are forced to ride on sidewalks for safety, they are more at risk of being policed. In Chicago, more than 90% of tickets given in Black neighborhoods were issued for riding on sidewalks. Biking should be an environmentally-friendly way of transport– not a life-endangering way of transport.

Riding While Black

The public transportation system has always been steeped with a racist and inequitable history. From Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott to the formation of the Safe Bus Co. in Winston- Salem, there has always been inequality riding while Black. Since the recession, more than 70% of the nation’s transit agencies have cut service or raised fares, having a disproportionate impact on the poor, especially for Black riders who make up a large percent of ridership. 

The Center for Transportation Equity in 2017 found that the people most dependent on public transportation—those in minority neighborhoods—received the lowest level of service, based on transit coverage and frequency. It has also been found that riders of color are more likely than white public-transit commuters to have “long commutes,” defined as a one-way commute of 60 minutes or longer. The unreliable service and unequal access to transportation have caused many barriers to opportunities for the Black community, especially when it comes to jobs. 

It is also a common experience for Black riders to not have safe and accessible bus stops to their destinations. A film called “Free to Ride” explored this topic by looking at bus stops in Dayton, Ohio. Their city buses, which serve a majority black population, were not allowed to stop at the Mall at Fairfield Commons. After taking the bus to the closest bus stop, workers would have to walk a mile, including crossing a busy highway, to get to their jobs. The reasons that were given to not place a bus stop at the mall included racist coded language like “security” and “crime”. This perception that Black riders pose a threat is not a new one. It is a narrative that has contributed to the long-established structured racism that has affected and still continues to affect the safety and mobility of Black communities. 

Transportation is important in our society as it gives freedom. Freedom to climb the social ladder, freedom to evacuate danger, freedom to get medical care, and the freedom in general of being able to move. However, it is clear that the freedom to move does not apply to everyone, and until the transportation system is equitable, this legacy of harm and callousness will continue to reign.

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