“I had to drop out of school because I couldn’t afford the fare. And then I can’t really get to job interviews as easily,“ said Oliver Williams, an unemployed 22-year-old from Rainier Valley whose family’s primary mode of transportation is Metro. “It really impacts my sister who gets out late from work when the buses don’t run so often. It’s so unsafe.”
Williams is a member of Got Green, a grassroots group in South Seattle that promotes an equitable, green economy as a means to fight poverty. There, he participated in the Young Workers in the Green Economy Project, a 10-month undertaking to survey young people from communities of color and low-income backgrounds on their opinions about challenges regarding employment, education and the environment. Close to 150 young people took part.
In roundtable discussions and one-on-one interviews, the young people described how King County’s overburdened public transportation system has caused them to miss employment opportunities and delayed achievement of their goals.
“Some days the buses are so full they pass me without stopping, so I have to remember to leave an extra
30 minutes early just to catch a bus further south before they fill up” said Florence McCafferty, a project participant. “It’s clear that we need these buses, but they keep cutting and cutting.”
During surveys and roundtables, young people spoke of numerous issues that make Metro’s services, which they deem necessary, difficult to use: late buses, rising fares, long transit times, routes that require transfers downtown and crowded buses. Compared to Seattle as a whole, where 16 percent of households lack access to a car, 32 percent of the young people surveyed had to rely on public transportation or an alternate means to get to school and work because they couldn’t afford a car or lacked access to one. Williams and McCafferty, now leaders of a committee made up of project participants, are two of the many young adults who felt that lack of transportation to school and work, together with lack of access to financial aid and paid work experience, were barriers to success.
With Metro ridership at an all-time high — the transit agency provides 400,000 rides each day and is nearing its annual record of 119 million riders set in 2008 — the program is in crisis mode. On Nov. 7, Metro announced that it was cutting service by 17 percent and that these proposed cuts would “revert Metro’s service to levels not seen since 1997.”
What’s not being prioritized in these proposals are the disproportionate impacts on low-income communities of color, particularly youth who are often trying to juggle work and school. Historically, public transportation has been the main connector of opportunity for communities of color in South Seattle. Community organizing efforts in the 1970s won three bus routes — the 42, 48 and 49 — that connected Rainier Valley to the universities in the north. These same communities are waging a similar battle, 40 years later, to ensure that young people of color can physically reach higher education.
Rainier Beach, in the heart of the racially diverse ZIP code 98188, is a higher education desert, with no colleges easily accessible by public transportation. For an idea of how geographically inaccessible higher ed is, the drive from Rainer Beach to the closest community college, South Seattle Community College, takes about 17 minutes. By bus, the same journey takes about one hour and 20 minutes.
South Seattle has already dealt with the negative impacts of bus cuts. In 2011, service on the 42 was greatly reduced because transit planners decided the bus’s route along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South mimicked part of the light rail route. But the bus made many more stops than the light rail. Eliminating some service on the 42 hindered accessibility for Asian-Pacific Islanders and seniors.
State legislators will need guts to come together and pass a transportation package to give city and county governments authority to raise revenues. But Metro must also find the courage to fight cuts and prevent our city from reneging on its mission to fight climate change and get more cars off the road.
Transit cuts made without considering racial justice can further disconnect communities of color from work and school, especially young people who are trying to better the situation for themselves and their families.