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Improving Los Angeles Public Transportation Is a Civil Rights Issue

Los Angeles County’s inability to expand public transportation limits access and further disenfranchises its most vulnerable populations.

By Jessica Rowshandel


(Photo: Mikey Wally/Flickr)

Los Angeles has a ubiquitous car culture with a national reputation, which comes with well-known environmental and quality-of-life problems such as pollution and traffic congestion. But drivers and lawmakers alike have failed to adequately consider the varied needs of transit-dependent people who rely on public transportation to travel beyond their neighborhood. Most Angelenos who rely on public transportation come from low-income households and are people of color. There’s also a growing female ridership; all of which is to say, ignoring the needs of transit riders is more than an urban transportation problem: It’s an issue of inequity and civil rights.

The well-being of other vulnerable riders, such as people with disabilities and seniors, should be considered as well. Addressing these needs goes beyond expanding and encouraging the use of public transportation. It requires examining cultural expectations related to driving and how those expectations interact with other social justice issues like racism, ableism, housing, and unemployment — examinations that are best led by those with the lived experience of being transit-dependent in a car-dependent culture.

In L.A., many transit-dependent people either cannot drive or cannot afford to drive. Owning and maintaining a car can be costly. To afford a car a person needs a job. But in L.A., it’s harder to get and maintain a job without a car. It’s a confusing riddle that researchers and policymakers are still trying to solve.

University of California–Los Angeles professor Evelyn Blumenberg and researcher Greg Pierce examined the relationship between transportation access and employment outcomes. They found that, for study participants, “the presence of a car raises the probability of finding a job by a factor of two, and of being employed at both time periods [examined in the study] by a factor of four.”

Ignoring the needs of transit riders is more than an urban transportation problem: It’s an issue of inequity and civil rights.

When licensed clinical social worker Sonia Arias was no longer able to drive due to epilepsy, she was forced to leave her job, one that she enjoyed. A majority of social work jobs in L.A. County require the use of a car. Because she couldn’t drive, her job search was further restricted by job location.

“Even though there’s a ton of jobs out there, I couldn’t apply,” she says. After months of job searching she considered leaving the social work profession entirely to find a job that didn’t require driving. And when she did find a job, they required her to attend meetings at far ends of the county a few times a month. Those employers never ask her whether or not she drove. As car culture would dictate, the assumption was simply that she did. For a long period of time, Arias used ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, along with public transportation to make it to those meetings.

Arias is back to driving now that her epilepsy is under control, but the experience has given her an insider’s appreciation for L.A. public transit.

Cynde Soto, a disability rights advocate from Long Beach with quadriplegia, also relies on public transit to make it to her job in downtown L.A. Getting there, however, requires that she take subway elevators since she uses a wheelchair and cannot use stairs. Because of her paralysis, she relies on other riders to push the elevator buttons. “I have to be really patient at every single elevator. I have to wait until somebody comes by,” she says. Though people will at times offer to press the button opening the elevator, most will quickly walk away, not realizing she also needs help once inside the elevator. Soto must then sit inside, waiting for the next person to enter.

Many people with limited mobility travel with “helpers” to assist with accessibility challenges like elevator buttons. Soto cannot afford a helper, and her health insurance does not provide coverage for an aide. What would help, she explains, is for kick plates to be installed in the the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (Metro) elevators. She could use her wheelchair to kick the plates that would trigger the elevator to open; once inside, the other kick plates would enable her to choose the floor she needs.

“Kick plates as call buttons outside the elevator cab would be very helpful for some individuals with disabilities. To make it work we also need to implement automatic running when the kick plate is activated,” says Dan Levy, the chief of civil rights programs for Metro. “We need to get state regulatory approval, and the elevator companies need to offer the option and offer new programming. I am hopeful we can do it, but it may take time.”

Despite his optimism, Levy is unsure how long that process would take. “It’s in the hands of our engineering staff at the moment, but I have no idea.”

Soto says that, when she spoke with Levy in the past, he told her that Metro will not be retrofitting elevators with kick plates because they couldn’t afford it and were afraid that they’d be vandalized. Soto claims Levy also pointed out that, ultimately, kick plates are not required by the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“I’m 60. I would really like to see that before I die,” Soto adds.

Access to transportation is another challenge. Dwight Istanbulian avoids the 10-minute walk to the Metro’s Red Line because “several construction projects make it harder and less pleasurable to get there.”

A person in a wheelchair or with other mobility limitations would certainly find this challenging. Instead of maneuvering around construction sites, unsafe crosswalks, and lopsided sidewalks, getting to public transportation should be “safe, easy, and appealing to access,” says Gloria Ohland, the communications director for MoveLA, a public transit advocacy group.

To get around this, Istanbulian chooses the quick drive to North Hollywood where he parks and takes the Orange Line to work. The commute on public transportation for him is a more pleasurable and quicker alternative than a traffic-filled drive. “This, they got right,” he says about the Orange Line, which is a Bus Rapid Transit line in the San Fernando Valley. “It’s a bus but it exists almost like a train. It’s accurate within two or three minutes. They only have to contend with traffic lights.” This is because the Orange Line operates on its own busway with no other traffic. Because of its accuracy, Dwight can take the bus to work and know that he will arrive on time.

To get to his previous job, Istanbulian chose to drive; his commute via public transportation would have required a dizzying number of transfers, which would be challenging for someone with a mobility limitation.

“If I don’t catch a certain bus, which only runs once every 40 minutes, I’ll have to walk a mile back to get another bus, which passes every 22 to 24 minutes, and that will involve more walking at the end point, which will then tack on about another 15 minutes to the whole ride,” he says. “A lot of it had to do with catching everything on time. What I’d have to make wouldn’t necessarily be certain and then I’d have to go on the MTA website and reroute. Then, for certain, I’d be late.”

For most employees, tardiness can lead to job loss, so the difference between relying on Bus Rapid Transit versus using buses that contend with traffic can easily be the difference between keeping and losing a job.

As much as public transportation affects employment, it’s inextricably connected to housing as well. Because of this, MoveLA, which primarily focuses on public transit, has made affordable housing advocacy one of its top priorities. If people can afford to live near public transportation and closer to where there are more jobs, some of the inequity would be relieved.

The connection between public transit, employment, housing, and disability is clear for Arias. Because there are still temporary periods where epilepsy prevents her from driving, she will always need to live near public transportation. “It’s a big part of my life. Even when I think of retirement, I’ll have to live in a metropolitan area near public transportation for the rest of my life. And I have to be near it now to get to work. I feel dependent on the metropolitan area but, as it gentrifies, it’s pushing a lot of people out.”

Ohland says that, because of L.A. County’s sprawl, gentrification, and lack of affordable housing, residents are moving further away from areas with a higher concentration of jobs. The further out in the county one lives (including beyond its borders into San Bernardino and Riverside counties), the less available public transportation becomes. Thus, to get from the outskirts of the county or outside of the county to go to work in more job-rich, metropolitan parts of L.A. without a car is often not a viable option.

In their study, Blumenberg and Pierce found that low-income households represent “the people who currently use cars the least and … need them the most.” The researchers use this point to argue for the creation of policies that would provide greater access to cars for low-income households.

Despite the sluggish efforts, improving L.A.’s transit system has been ongoing as plans for growth continue into the immediate future. Angelenos supported these growth efforts last November by voting for the passing of Measure M, which provides new funding for Metro’s transit projects.

“Even when I think of retirement, I I’ll have to live in a metropolitan area near public transportation for the rest of my life.”

The development of better public transit in L.A. has long been part of civil rights-era history. Then, policymakers realized that social exclusion and high unemployment rates were exacerbated in impoverished black neighborhoods by an inability to travel beyond one’s neighborhood without a car.

Despite improvements, civil rights issues and inequity related to transportation exist today. Examining this requires us to re-evaluate car culture and consider the entire human experience. Transportation is interconnected to and interacts with social issues related to race, age, gender, disability, employment, poverty, housing, and having basic household and personal needs met. Further understanding how these issues inform each other is essential to moving toward an equitable L.A. and will only be understood by prioritizing the stories, voices, and concerns of people whose lives are directly impacted by these interactions.

Even knowing the county has a ways to go. Ohland, the MoveLA director, offers a hopeful view of the future: “L.A. is on the verge of this undeniable transformation. People are realizing that equity is at the core of L.A. County being a better place for everybody to live.”