Social Injustices in the Transportation Sector: How Does Our Country Continue To Suffer From Previous Mistakes?


Racism in the transportation sector has existed since the era of Jim Crow in the United States. African Americans have been victims of unequal treatment on trains and buses in the past, and while segregation in the transportation system may be gone, we continue to suffer from certain mistakes made in the past. The cutting of transportation services in minority communities has hurt their inhabitants, and it is up to the citizens of the United States to bring awareness to the issue, and stand up for one another.

History of the Issue

Accommodation Differences

The story of segregation in regards to transportation begins during the time of Jim Crow. African Americans were given dreadful accommodations on trains and harshly punished and  beaten when they resisted. Accommodations for African Americans were dreadful, while white Americans were able to travel in style on passenger trains. First class passenger cars, which were reserved for only white Americans and in very  special cases, elite black Americans were outfitted with luxury furnishings and beautiful wood. The first class passenger cars were located near the rear of the train to keep the air in the first class cars clean and smoke free. These trains cars were referred to as “palaces on wheels.”Railroad companies claimed that the accommodations for African Americans were separate but equal, yet this was blatantly false.

Deluxe First Class Overland Limited Train Operated by the Union Pacific Railroad

African Americans were forced to sit in a “smoker”,  which was usually the first passenger car located behind the locomotive(Kelly 351). Smoke and soot made the car hot, noisy, and uncomfortable. This was an extreme form of dehumanization because the conditions they were traveling in were not fit for humans. Segregation on trains and buses had psychological side effects and destroyed the relationship between African Americans and white Americans. 

Worsening Relations 

While at first glance not having free seating may not seem like the most important issue of the Jim Crow era, segregation limited the communication between white people and black people, worsening the relationships between the two groups. Martin M. Grossak notes that “segregation restricts communication to and within-groups and lessens the likelihood of correcting distorted perceptions or creating contacts between groups”(73). 

Segregated Streetcar

The majority of white Americans and African Americans did not have a solid understanding of the other group. This lack of communication led to the creation of false stereotypes, which then lead to an increase in racism rooted in false beliefs, which certain people could then use to justify their distaste for the other side.

Suffering the Consequences of the Past

The United States is suffering the consequences of racism of the past, and continues to endanger the most vulnerable. Atlanta has some of the worst traffic in the United States because of racist policies implemented in the past. Kevin M. Kruse, author for the New York Times magazine, states that “daily congestion [in Atlanta] is a direct consequence of a century-long effort to segregate the races… local expressways at first, then Interstates — were steered along routes that bulldozed “blighted” neighborhoods that housed its poorest residents, almost always racial minorities.” Highways were constructed in ways that divided “African American and white” sections in cities. While residential patterns may not be the same now, “the awkward path of I-20 remains in place”(Kruse 1).  I-20 was constructed in such a fashion because Atlanta’s leaders wanted to keep the main city and surrounding areas alluring for middle-class white Americans (New York Times).

Traffic in Atlanta

Efforts have been made by both the federal and state governments to refuse funding for transportation projects that support minority neighborhoods. MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) is the main transport system in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Rankin argues that “MARTA service cuts…impact its transit-dependent riders who are majority African Americans”(59).  Millions have been affected by the cutting of services: on March 31, 2010, the Clayton County transit system that was operated by MARTA terminated its bus services (Rankin 61).  Cutting bus services impacts minority groups because commuting times increase, and visiting doctors, [among other activities,] takes longer (Rankin 61).

Additionally, health related issues are forming in low-income neighborhoods because of transportation issues. A small neighborhood named West Side, located near Buffalo New York, suffers from an asthma rate that is four times the national average because local governments fail to act on issues facing minority communities (Ramey 1). Some advocates say that the increased asthma rates stem from “thousands of trucks driving overhead spew[ing] harmful diesel emissions and other particulates into their community. Fortunately, there are groups bringing awareness to the issue. 

What Has Been and Needs to be Done

Various small groups are bringing awareness to the issue of racism in transportation in very unique ways. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, for example, at Ohio State University created  the award-winning documentary “Free To Ride”. The film tells “the compelling story of hard-working residents of Dayton, Ohio, fighting for safe, reliable transportation to employment opportunities in the nearby suburb of Beavercreek, [and] demonstrates why transportation equity is a critical civil and human rights issue for our nation” (Ohio State University). Ohio State University promotes the films and achievements made by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. 

Macro Solutions

Inhabitants of minority communities must be given more options for transportation to increase their abilities to obtain jobs and receive medical assistance. According to Efon Epanty, author of The Institute for Policy and Governance, “transportation planning and policy practices can be tailored to enhance the accessibility and acceptability of public transit systems by providing a range of desirable travel options for all citizens, thereby promoting social justice and inclusion in transportation delivery and decision-making processes.”Additionally, transportation planners must understand the communities they are serving. Currently, many city  planners do not understand the diversity of the communities they serve. According to Nicolas R. Rankin, “Regime theorists argue that the organization of politics leads to very inadequate forms of popular control and makes government less responsive to socioeconomically disadvantaged groups”(66). We must be able to identify and recognize when local and state governments are overlooking the struggles of the less fortunate.

Individual Actions

On a more personal level, due to the fact that racism in the transportation sector is not the most clearly seen issue in the United States, bringing awareness should be the first priority. An individual cannot fight for an issue if they do not understand it and do not care about it. Joining groups and attending events that combat racism in the transportation sector is something that anybody can do. TransitCenter is an organization that tries to resolve issues in our country’s transportation systems. They recognize that both ” organizational culture and institutional barriers, as well as a lack of updated standards and guides, are impediments to adopting new practices”(TransitCenter). They also acknowledge that and “a lack of diversity in leadership positions” is hampering the transportation sector(Transit Center). They hold events that anyone can attend that can help spread awareness of the issue. 

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How do we combat an issue this big? I would greatly appreciate it if you could comment down below and give me some feedback for my project. 

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  1. April 26, 2020 by Riley

    Daniel – you obviously put a lot of work into this project, and it really paid off. You explained your topic and motives very clearly in your video. I love the blend of intriguing images with interesting statistics on your website, as they really pulled me into your topic. With regard to your writing, I had never thought about how segregation had affected communication between the races, or how past discrimination influences our current infrastructure. I honestly enjoyed the read – nice work!

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