Ansje Miller is a program director for Redefining Progress and staffs the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, a consortium of environmental-justice, religious, and policy groups.

Sunday, 20 Feb 2005

LOS ANGELES, Calif.

Driving down California’s Interstate 5 from Oakland to Los Angeles, the need for a new vision for the future of transportation was clear. The pouring rain transformed the usual L.A. gridlock into nothing short of a parking lot, with no other mass transportation options in sight. Six lanes of traffic full of cars carrying one person; in that moment, I understood the meaning of the phrase “road rage.”

But my rage turned to excitement as I entered a room full of 300 environmental-justice activists, transportation activists, and concerned Los Angeles residents ready to challenge the auto culture and build a movement for public transportation. The weekend Future of Transportation Conference, sponsored by the Center for Transportation Strategies (a project of the Labor/Community Strategy Center), brought together old and new friends from around the country to tackle not only the gridlock problem I experienced on my journey, but its relationship to transit racism, global warming, clean air, access to education, and the threats posed by fossil fuels to our indigenous brothers and sisters.

Heavy topics to take on over the course of one weekend, no? But before anyone had a chance to get overwhelmed, two members of the Bus Riders Union Advisory Committee gave us the strength, courage, and energy to face our future. Rosalio Mendiola told us how he joined the union to take on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s high bus fares, limited service, and emphasis on rail, which has perpetuated racial segregation and poverty in the city. At the beginning of that struggle, a friend asked him, “How are you going to win against a multimillion-dollar agency?” Mendiola replied, “Friend, we are here and we are not leaving!”

“To win a long-term struggle,” Mendiola continued, “you need constancy, constancy, constancy. In other words, to fight, to fight, to fight.” Through constancy and fighting, Mendiola and his fellow activists at the BRU won a civil-rights consent decree to increase countywide access and mobility of the transit dependent. Mendiola’s example brought the entire room to its feet, with a shout from the back of the room, “We’re ready for a war!”

As Mendiola left the stage, Grandma Hee Pok Kim rose to the podium. Grandma Kim has been with the Bus Riders Union for the past four years, organizing Korean elders for transportation justice and leading local struggles to get Korean translation at the MTA meetings. Through her 20-something Korean-English translator, this 80-year-old revolutionary reminded us, “We are not day flies. We have a tomorrow. A social movement like this should be continued in the next generation.” And most importantly, Kim added, “We can do it.”

The need for this work was detailed in the first panel by Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. Dr. Bullard presented the findings in his book Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity, which documents how cities are subsidizing sprawl and growth in outlying areas and creating a system of “transit apartheid.” “People are so in love with their SUVs that they are willing to drive in and drive out,” Bullard exclaimed. “It is the equivalent of drive-by pollution.”

The pace of the conference was perfect. Powerful presentations such as Bullard’s on the research about transportation equity were complemented by reports on legislative activities from local assembly members Karen Bass and Fran Pavley. Then energizing stories of organizing from activists such as BRU’s Manuel Criollo were punctuated with a drum-and-chant corps that brought the audience out of its seats in song.

And let’s not forget the solutions, the strategies. In the afternoon, BRU unveiled its plan for the future of transportation in Los Angeles. The plan creates an integrated three-tier bus network for fast, reliable, countywide access that includes a freeway bus network, metro rapid bus, and expanded neighborhood and general services. This plan will create 576 new buses, 50 shuttles, and — impressively — 2,351,000 new bus in-service hours each year.

Clayton Thomas-Mueller, the Indigenous Environmental Network‘s oil-and-gas campaigner, taught us how switching to compressed or liquid natural gas was destroying indigenous communities where the gas is extracted. Thomas-Mueller pointed out that “indigenous peoples are hit first and hit the hardest.” As many environmentalists are supporting a move to this form of powering transportation, this is an important lesson in our struggle to save not only our own communities, but communities across the planet.

And that, I believe, is one of the ways that this conference was different from so many gatherings on the fate of our planet. As Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center pointed out, “The mainstream environmental movement wants less pollution in Iraq, less pollution in white communities.” Hopefully, the vision from this conference will create health, transportation, and economic justice for all of our communities.

To put the future of transportation in a global context, we watched the Independent Television Service video Rising Waters. This powerful film traces the impacts of climate change from the tropical Pacific to the island of Manhattan, interweaving the international policy process to address this pressing issue. In the film, Penehuro Lafale from Samoa expressed his frustration at how slowly that process is moving, while rising sea levels force his people to consider evacuation. “We may be the first victims of this phenomenon,” says Lafale, “but your time will come up later, whether it be your children or your grandchildren.”

Every effective networking conference includes a late-night session — usually held at a bar or dance club. And this conference was definitely effective. But, on the dance floor that night, I was drawn to the television broadcast of the evening news. Lafale’s words haunted me as I watched the reports of storms that touched down in the Los Angeles area earlier in the day, ripping off roof tiles, destroying fences, breaking car windows, flooding eight houses, and cutting power to 7,000 homes. In nearby Sun Valley, the rains left a massive sinkhole in the middle of a local street. And on our ride home, the street and the curb were indistinguishable because of the rising waters that erased their separation. I can’t help but think that Lafale is right: Our time is coming. It’s time to stop talking and start doing.