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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #1 (January 4, 2005), page 12.

How do we get there from here?

Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism & New Routes to Equity

Edited by Robert D. Bullard, Glenn S. Johnson, and Angel O. Torres

South End Press, 2004

Paperback, 246 pages, $20.00

By Andrew J. Weber

Ever since Rosa Parks refused to ride at the back of the Montgomery city bus in 1955, transportation issues and civil rights have been intimately tied. According to Highway Robbery, not much has changed since then. Although blacks can now sit anywhere they want on the bus, that doesn’t do them much good if the bus doesn’t stop in their neighborhood or reach their intended destination.

And transportation is now more important than ever. As this slim volume attests, "Americans spend more on transportation than any other household disbursement, including food, education, and health care … Transportation is neither a marginal cost nor an irrelevant need, but a necessity." It’s no mistake that legal identification in our society is a driver’s license; if you can’t get around, you’re no one.

Highway Robbery brings together a collection of separate essays about transportation issues, each meticulously researched and footnoted — an academic’s dream. However, they are also dry and laden with acronyms, and read like the minutes from a policy-board meeting. Still, their point is clearly made: in city after city, the disparities faced by minorities and lower-income people in terms of access to public transportation are indisputable.

Unexamined is the claim that this is the result of "racism"; the dissimilar outcomes are assumed to be the result of discrimination, as opposed to economic, political, or other contributing factors. Nonetheless, it is without question that from Pittsburgh to Baltimore to San Francisco, minority communities invariably face greater challenges in getting from their homes to work, to the store, or to school than their middle-class white counterparts. They also bear the brunt of the externalities of public transit, such as pollution and noise.

The problem with Highway Robbery is that it is full of indignation about the past when it should be inspirational about the future. With so much focus on "Transportation Racism," the "New Routes to Equity" promised in the other half of the book’s title are few and far between.

The golden age of the automobile in the U.S. is arguably already in the past, and probably reached its peak in the 1950s and ’60s when the Interstate Highways were new, the roads were wide open, and oil was essentially unlimited. Public transportation was largely seen then the same way Highway Robbery sees it today: as a last-resort method of getting around for the few people without access to a car.

But that is not how most new transportation programs are currently designed. For better or worse, in this era of "Small government," if middle- and upper-class taxpayers are going to support transportation programs for which they will foot the majority of the bill, they demand to see a return in benefits for themselves. New public transit no longer aims to help those without cars; it primarily serves those who own a car (or several) and are looking for an efficient alternate to traffic, pollution, and parking hassles. Portland’s own MAX light-rail system is an excellent example.

In the face of these realities, Rosa Parks might complain today not that she is forced to ride in the back of the bus, but that instead she is forced to ride in the bus at all because the high-speed train goes nowhere near her community. Highway Robbery recognizes the problem, but has nothing to say about the changing political and economic realities that have created it, or how those issues can be addressed to solve the problem and create more equitable access to transit for minority groups who might otherwise be left behind.

This book should present a grand vision of what the future of transportation can be for the U.S. in the twenty-first century, a plan for development on a national scale. Instead, it really shows only the way things have gone wrong in the past. "Defining what equity means — or what definition of equity matters most in a given situation — is sometimes as difficult as achieving it," argues one essay. Yet these essays do succeed admirably in convincing the reader that equity does not exist; where they fail is in creating a viable path to something better. If Highway Robbery demands that equity be built, at least it could provide a blueprint.

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