Bad public transportation keeps us poor, undereducated and isolated. Is help on the horizon?
Recently, after circling back to my house three times in a row because of a faulty memory, it occurred to me what a luxury and privilege it is to get four blocks from home and be able to turn around to retrieve glasses or a notebook — and still be on time for an appointment.
It is no secret that lack of transportation is a major deterrent to employment across the country. In addition to work, people without cars need to be able to travel to schools, grocery stores, doctor’s offices and recreational events. With limited hours, routes and few bus shelters, the Nashville public transportation system — like in many cities — is far from adequate.
According to Race, Poverty and Environment, a journal for social and environmental justice, most transportation systems in the United States destabilize urban core communities and don’t serve the needs of many ethnic and racial minorities, women, and working poor, young, elderly and disabled people in urban, rural and Native American tribal communities alike.
Considering that only 1.8 percent of Nashville’s population is reported to get on the bus, the moniker “mass transit” seems inaccurate. And in a community that is 67 percent white and 27 percent African-American, it is interesting to note that the majority of bus-takers in Nashville are non-white.
For many, a college education and gainful employment are the only hopes for joining the larger community at major social and cultural events that in Nashville seem to require an automobile.
Sharonda Campbell grew up in the Preston Taylor housing project in Nashville. She relied on public transportation and understands the painful connection between education and access. After one of her older brothers got involved with drugs, Campbell’s family moved from the projects to Antioch, where she felt further isolated from her friends.
Because bus service to Antioch was practically nonexistent, Campbell was unable to maintain relationships with family and friends at Preston Taylor.
Campbell became pregnant during her junior year of high school. She struggled to graduate and then held down several minimum wage jobs while raising her first child. During that time, reliable transportation was an additional stressor on a young woman overwhelmed with responsibilities and not always able to handle the costs of maintaining a car.
“I had to be at work at 8 a.m.,” she said. “I would get up at 4 a.m., get myself ready, walk my kids to my mother’s house so she could watch them and make sure they catch the school bus, while I went to the bus stop to catch the bus for work. The bus came at 6:20 a.m.”
A jaunt that normally takes 20 minutes by car took nearly two hours — daily.
“There were days that I just sat at the bus stop and cried,” she said. “I wanted to give up.”
Fortunately, we have a mayor who not only has a grasp of the issue but is committed to changing the face of public transportation. A former public defender, Karl Dean understands the challenges facing those without access. In June, Dean told The City Paper that mass transit is an essential component of future economic development.
“I am fully committed to this,” Dean said. “If we have to go it alone, we will, but I hope we can make it a more regional effort.”
Luckily, Dean is not alone. In spite of hardships and transportation difficulties, Campbell persisted and got a college degree. Like the mayor, she is committed to improving access — particularly for young black females like herself.