Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity’s.
More than 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called urban public transportation “a genuine civil rights issue.” And like everything else Dr. King thought, he was right.
Our nation’s roadways are, to put it politely, a mess. Not only are they congested and crumbling, but more than two out of every five miles of America’s urban interstates are congested, and one out of every five miles of highway pavement is in poor condition. They also remain a colossal monument to systemic racism. I talked about this specific topic in the recent special transportation justice series on The Coolest Show podcast, because it’s so important for all of us to understand how our roads impact our Black and brown communities.
As described in the episodes, for decades, highways were purposefully built to bisect Black communities and wall off Black homes and neighborhoods from white enclaves. As a result of these decisions, Black communities are exposed to 66% more pollution from cars and trucks, compared to white communities, and this type of air pollution is deadly. Fossil fuel emissions killed 8 million people in 2018 alone, and tailpipe pollution has been linked to other health effects like asthma, heart disease, cancer and a litany of other health impacts.
Moreover, the burdens of transportation pollution are unequally felt. Transportation planners decided to run highways near or sometimes directly through Black and brown communities, and these areas are now exposed to significantly more roadway pollution — especially from trucks. Trucks make up only 4% of vehicles on the road today, but contribute a baffling 90% of nitrogen oxide and diesel vehicle emissions.
Further, studies have shown that transportation is more impactful than schools or crime in escaping poverty, and commute time has emerged as the single strongest factor in determining who climbs the rungs of the wealth ladder. A Harvard University study of more than 5 million households found that the longer than average commute in a given county, the worse the chances are of escaping poverty. Yet, people of color spend more time than any other group getting to work, in some cases more than 15 minutes per day than white commuters. As a result, Black and brown people spend up to 46 more hours each year commuting, losing the equivalent of 3.5 weeks of work, pay and benefits.
Fortunately, trucks, like cars, are beginning to electrify. Along with providing more access to reliable public transit options, electric trucks, which don’t have a tailpipe and therefore don’t contribute to roadway pollution, are essential to helping Black and brown communities escape the burdens of air pollution. Analysis from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, released this month, found that electric trucks already have a 13% lower total cost of ownership than diesel trucks, and can be as much as 50% cheaper to own by 2035. That is a strong financial incentive for truck owners to go electric, which will accelerate the transition to electric trucks.
Equitable policy is needed to achieve an all-electric trucking and transportation future. Federal infrastructure policy can accelerate the buildout of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, and incentives that make it easier for fleet owners and independent truck drivers to choose an electric option can also help. A portion of these funds should be reserved specifically for installing charging infrastructure in communities of color and converting heavy duty truck fleets that operate predominantly in or near Black and brown communities. These measures can both alleviate the health burdens transportation pollution forces onto Black communities and help our climate problem, as transportation is the largest source of climate pollution in the U.S.
We now have a President and administration that purportedly cares about transportation justice — a movement and policy term used to describe what needs to be done to correct these historic wrongs. We’ve got a chance to get our federal government to do something about the fact that Black and brown Americans have less access to clean and reliable transportation, breathe more pollution spewed from the cars and trucks that clog our massive networks of roadways, and face longer commutes to get to work, school and stores.
Congress is poised to debate, and hopefully pass, a massive infrastructure package. As much as $2 trillion is on the table and can be spent in ways to help mitigate the impacts from the race-motivated decisions to place highways, bridges and tunnels through Black communities. This infrastructure spending can go to things like giving states money to make more bicycle and walking lanes, adding mass transit options like buses and trains, and accelerate the transition to electric cars and trucks by building out public charging networks. These investments create a generational opportunity to shift how transportation works in this country and who it works for — but only if you let your voice be heard in the process.
Join me in telling your elected officials to pass an infrastructure package that helps people get out of cars or into clean ones. Write them an email or letter, tweet at them or share this op-ed with your networks. Congress needs to hear from everyone, not just lobbyists, environmentalists or climate justice warriors like me.