I take the bus every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Last Friday, I spent three hours on New Haven buses. I used three different lines and a total of $2 to go from downtown to Fair Haven to State Street to Hamden to James Hillhouse High School in Newhallville and back to Fair Haven.
There were giggling kids and smelly kids. There were two diaper changes. There was an old woman struggling with her bags of groceries filled with boxes of Pampers and baby formula. There were two kinds of Spanish being spoken. There were people laughing and helping each other.
There were 11 Yale dining hall and Yale-New Haven Hospital IDs. There was a drunk man who refused to pay or get off. And there were tired working mothers holding sleepy children, coaxing them not to cry or yell or bite. In three hours on three bus lines, there was not a single white person.
As I pressed my nose against the window, wondering, “Where have all the white people gone?” I saw them. They were sitting in the cars next to us on the road, whizzing by to suburban-sounding places like Westville, East Rock and the East Shore.
It was exactly 46 years ago last Saturday that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., sparking a 382-day mass community mobilization that finally integrated the bus system. This is the event American schoolchildren learn about when they first hear about a civil rights movement; the bus boycott and the achievement of court-ordered integration convince small children throughout the country that we have transcended the ugliness and gross inequities of Jim Crow.
So what does it mean that, for the most part, our buses in New Haven are not integrated, racially or economically? What does it mean that Department of Transportation of the richest state per capita in the richest country in the world targets its poorest and darkest citizens when it is faced with budget problems?
On Nov. 26, the Connecticut Department of Transportation announced that effective Jan. 20, it will cut New Haven’s bus service 15 percent, affecting approximately 750 passengers daily and saving the DOT about $1.2 million, which is 6 percent of its operating budget. Hartford and Stamford are also targeted, but to a lesser extent. Bridgeport, Connecticut’s fourth largest city, will suffer a loss of service in addition to fare increases. Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport are three of Connecticut’s four largest cities and home to the state’s largest concentrations of poor non-white citizens.
New Haven’s buses are a vital resource to its working-class citizens. They use public transportation to reach living wage jobs, grocery stores that aren’t overly expensive, and the schools and day care centers used by their children. The people who use buses are mostly people who are already struggling, who daily waste time out of already busy lives making unnecessary stops. They look tired from work and children and sitting in a noisy, crowded bus.
Other poor communities of color throughout the country are fighting their state transportation authorities and organizing to demand transportation justice. The relentless Bus Riders’ Union in Los Angeles has won freezes on bus fare increases, substantial reductions in bus pass fares and a 5 percent increase in the bus fleet to remedy overcrowding. Bus-riding communities in Connecticut can do the same.
Black Americans won the right to ride the bus — the bus system belongs to non-white New Haveners these days. Non-white Connecticut residents also have the state’s oldest public housing, its worst public schools, and 73 percent of its prison cells.
What does all of this mean? I think it’s time for a new Rosa Parks and a Connecticut revolution.
Though separated by distance, transportation obstacles and different city bureaucracies, we should work actively with our city government to support New Haven’s bus-riding community and unite with the bus-riding communities in cities throughout Connecticut to demand transportation justice.
Happy Rosa Parks Day.
Sushma Gandhi is a junior in Saybrook College.