By Genevieve Carpio
When I hear the term “urban transit,” it conjures a flurry of images. My brain instantly turns to public forms of transportation. This includes your buses, metro lines, transit stops, maybe even bicycle share programs. If I sit on the term a bit longer, I start to think of abstract planners making decisions in closed-door offices, who pass down resolutions with impacts on the populace for generations to come. They look a bit like Tom Hanks in Catch Me If You Can, a stoic bureaucrat in a dark suit and skinny tie. But if I allow myself to move beyond the caricatures imbued in me by popular media, I will come to grassroots efforts for transportation equity, environmental justice, and working-people’s movements. From my vantage point, in the City of Los Angeles, the term urban transit conjures complex images that blur the past and present, the personal and the public, movement and justice.
Before I began training as an interdisciplinary historian, I was in training to become an urban planner. It was there that I learned about the ways our transportation systems shape access to jobs, healthcare, and education. I read about histories of transit discrimination through the legacies of freeway development that disrupted communities of color in Los Angeles, many of them Latinx. I am still struck by the insightful work of my colleague Eric Avila, whose books Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight (2004) and Folklore of the Freeway (2014) chronicle how communities of color were divided by freeway development, first in Los Angeles and then across the United States. What has stuck with me the most has been how aggrieved communities responded to displacement with protests, art, and historic reclamation.
It was also in planning school that I learned (and continue to learn) about activist efforts to envision modes of moving based on transit equity or social justice. The idea of justice-based transportation planning challenges need-blind models based on efficacy, economy, and end products. Instead, it advocates for people-centered models based on accessibility, inclusivity, and process.
The efforts of the Bus Riders Union (formed in 1994), a project of a multiracial social justice organization called the Labor Community Strategy Center, epitomizes this shift. The BRU famously took on the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority in a lawsuit arguing that the expansion of light rail, more heavily used by middle-class suburbanites, was funded at the expense of a bus system used primarily by the county’s working-poor in a way that was racially discriminatory. The ruling reversed an increase in bus fares and mandated increased investment in bus services. Their work, although receiving some criticism, remains an important lesson in cross-generational, multilingual, working-class organizing written about by scholars, activists, planners, and journalists.
Throughout Los Angeles, we can find models that help us rethink the intent and logics of urban transit so that equity is placed at its center. I look to the work of organizations and coalitions such as Alliance for Community Transit, Investing in Place, and CicLAvia, among the many community-based efforts to challenge conventional transportation planning.
In recent years, there has also been an emerging conversation around a broader movement for “mobility justice.” Mobility justice draws attention to historic and contemporary forms of limited mobility access, while also laying out a vision for alternative paradigms of mobility at scales from the personal to the planetary. Its principles have been laid out by multiracial collectives such as the Untokening and People for Mobility Justice, as well as by scholars and research networks, such as sociologist and mobilities scholar Mimi Sheller, author of Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes, scholar-activist Adonia Lugo, a contributor to this forum and author of Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture, and Resistance, and the newly organized Mobility Justice Research Network, a group of scholars growing out of an experimental workshop on the topic in 2019 organized by Sarah Rebolloso McCullough and others at UC Davis.
Calls for transit justice, and the more expansive mobility justice, recognize that communities of color continue to pay the highest cost for agendas focused primarily on enabling more mobility (not more justice). It is well known that private automobiles reliant on fossil fuels are an unsustainable transportation practice with dire environmental impacts. Many of those most affected are from low-income communities of color who live along transportation arteries stretching across the nation from the Los Angeles/Long Beach ports.
Freeways built in the mid-20th century represent some of the most dangerous legacies of unequal mobilities, or our unequal ability to choose when, how, and where we move (or stay put). The Interstate-10 freeway, for instance, is a scar that, when constructed, separated historic Mexican communities from one another even as it wove commuters across an expansive region. It was through public humanities work with Inland Mexican Heritage that I learned about the everyday ways these legacies continue to linger in our built environment, or more accurately in its absences.
Take my regular commute to a favorite coffee shop in Redlands, a town in the California Inland Empire. It was through Inland Mexican Heritage’s extensive oral history work that I learned that each time I drive onto the I-10 freeway from the 6th Street on-ramp, I pass over the remains of a Mexican neighborhood split and paved over for the interstate. Among these razed homes is that of Concha Yglesias, a young mother who lived with her family on Pearl Street. In the larger documentary growing from this work, Living on the Dime, you can hear testimonies by Mexican Americans who found themselves separated from family, friends, and neighbors by towers of concrete and who struggled to maintain social, institutional, and economic relations across the divide. These ghosts haunt our transportation history and are among many stories in which the existence of people of color along the Interstate-10 corridor was sacrificed in the name of progress.
At the same time, aggrieved communities have been using public and private forms of transportation for progressive and subversive purposes for a long time. I write about these efforts in my book, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race. My book looks historically to the subversive and progressive efforts of aggrieved communities who experienced their racialization through permissions and prohibitions on their mobility. It includes stories of contest, such as those of Japanese bicyclists involved in early racing circuits, Latina youth who would defy racial and gender norms in the Depression era, and Mexican American lowriders who would claim a place on the iconic Route 66 as cities in inland Southern California respond to deindustrialization and economic restructuring.
Whether looking to the past or the present, it is evident that the primary goal of urban transit should not solely be to increase movement throughout the region, as dominant transportation discourse might suggest. Rather, we might ask ourselves, what would the distribution of the benefits and costs of movement look like in a just world? And in this search, we should look first to the insight of those who have historically and habitually been on the losing end of this equation.
Featured image (at top): Dusk skyline view of Los Angeles, California, looking west over the Interstate 10 (Santa Monica) freeway toward the setting sun, Carol M. Highsmith, 2013, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Genevieve Carpio is an Assistant Professor in UCLA’s César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies. She is author of Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (University of California Press, 2019).
 Bloomberg & Brozen
 Mann, Eric. A New Vision for Urban Transportation: The Bus Riders Union Make History at the Intersection of Mass Transit, Civil Rights, and the Environment. Los Angeles: Labor/ Community Strategies Center, 1996; Manuel Pastor, Chris Benner, Martha Matsuoka. This Could Be the Start of Something Big: How Social Movements for Regional Equity Are Reshaping Metropolitan America. Cornell University Press, 2009; Ryan Reft, “From Bus Riders Union to Bus Rapid Transit: Race, Class, and Transit Infrastructure in Los Angeles, KCET, May 14, 2015.