Maggie Colson | Class of ’15 | April 13, 2015
How do you get around Houston? Despite being a sprawling and car-dependent city, for many low-income Houstonians the answer would be “public transportation.” But using public transportation (or not) doesn’t just affect low-income urbanites. Car travel and highways can shield and segregate drivers from the conditions and inequalities present in the city.
One of our Community Bridges class assignments was to take public transportation to and from the Fifth Ward. My journey required both the use of the train and bus system. I started at the Memorial Hermann/Houston Zoo train station and took the northbound train for about twenty minutes. Then, in order to transfer to the bus, I walked about three blocks. The bus ride the rest of the way to the Fifth Ward was a little over thirty minutes. Although the return trip was identical, just in reverse, it took longer because the bus picking me up in the Fifth Ward was about fifteen minutes late.
While both the train and bus system are forms of public transportation, during my experience I noticed some important differences between the two modes of transportation. The train system was much easier to maneuver than the bus system. I found the bus system to be more complicated because you had to find the correct bus stop with the bus number labeled on it. In addition, you could easily end up going in the wrong direction – the buses did not have the directions labeled like the trains. On the bus you also had to know where you needed to get off. Unlike the train system, the bus did not stop at every stop and instead you had to push a button to request for the bus to stop. While this is not necessarily an issue once you know the route, trying to navigate for the first time was stressful. Without the use of my smartphone, I would not have found or gotten off at the correct bus stops.
Differences in maneuverability and reliability are of greater consequence when we consider who has access to the different modes of public transportation. The train passed through wealthier areas such as the medical center, Montrose, and downtown, whereas the bus route started out in downtown but then left and went out to the Fifth Ward. As soon as we left the downtown/business area, the bus passed through a more run-down part of the inner city and then left for the Fifth Ward. The bus route clearly went from a better off area and then went through progressively poorer areas until reaching the Fifth Ward.
One thing that struck me during this experience was the time and lack of control of mobility when relying on public transportation. Getting to the Fifth Ward using public transportation took over an hour without any unexpected delays. However, in a car I am able to get to the Fifth Ward in about twenty minutes. I found it interesting that the people who mainly use public transportation are already disadvantaged and have a poverty of time among other things. The public transportation riders are often the ones that could use extra time that driving a car could provide. Consequently, inequality is perpetuated and maintained through the ability to have a car. In our current state of transportation, having a car gives drivers the ability and ease of access to resources and employment opportunities that those dependent on public transportation do not have.
Additionally, the separation of the advantaged from the disadvantaged in transportation methods also perpetuates inequality by influencing the power and priority of the infrastructure for public transportation. There is often discrepancy in those making the decision versus those who the decision affects (Mohl, 2014). Those who have political power and have control over decisions regarding transportation most likely do not even utilize the transportation themselves. So again, those who are already disadvantaged become even more disadvantaged because they often to do not have power or a say over their environment. Moreover, the highways used by cars do not go through the streets of the inner city. Instead, car drivers can go straight past and over these areas on the highway without having to see or interact with anybody in these areas. In this way, our city is divided along racial and socioeconomic lines – both socially and physically – and this division in itself can have negative consequences for residents’ understandings of the city (Henderson 2006). But in addition, racial and class segregation in transportation methods propagates inequality because opportunities and resources are not accessed equally.
Some may argue that this segregation in transportation is inevitable because it is a person’s right to choose whether to ride in a car over taking public transportation. Personal choice definitely contributes to the segregation between cars and public transportation; however, I would challenge Houston to look at their policies and decisions that have influenced the direction of the city and choices of residents. Where has the funding and infrastructure been focused – highway/roads or public transportation? What additions/changes could improve low-income residents’ access to jobs and other resources?
While modes of transportation in Houston are currently perpetuating segregation and inequality, it can also be used as part of the solution. For example, improving the signage and timeliness of the buses would help with ease of use and help with access and timeliness to resources for those who do use public transportation. These changes might also encourage more people, including car-owners, to utilize public transportation more. And increasing public transportation writ large is not the only solution. We could also focus on improving sidewalks and bike paths. Not only are these used for local transport, they also can be used to increase and diversify interaction between residents and equalize access to resources.
Taking public transportation to the Fifth Ward was an eye-opening exercise, literally. It exposed many inequalities associated with transportation modes and brought other inequalities associated with the city’s geography into focus. But transportation is just one piece of a complicated and interconnected web of factors associated with inequality. It needs to be addressed in conjunction with other improvements to increase access and quality of resources to all.
Henderson, Jason. 2006. “Secessionist Automobility: Racism, Anti-Urbanism, and the Politics of Automobility in Atlanta, Georgia.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 30(2): 293-307.
Mohl, Raymond. 2014. “Citizen Activism and Freeway Revolts in Memphis and Nashville: The Road to Litigation.” Journal of Urban History, 40(5): 870-893.