Mackenzie Hawkins

Around 30 politicians, activists and community members gathered at the intersection of Church and Chapel streets on Tuesday morning for a transit equity press conference that touched on how transit affects jobs, disability rights, public health and the environment, among other issues.

The event was the result of the combined efforts of Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs, Amalgamated Transit Union, Transport Hartford Academy/Center for Latino Progress, 350 CT and the Connecticut Sierra Club. Organizers began with a press conference concerning equity for all types of travelers — mass transit users, cyclists and pedestrians alike — that featured speeches from Mayor Justin Elicker, representatives of advocacy organizations and other New Haven residents. The event culminated in a bus pass raffle and a bus ride around the Elm City, supported by CTtransit. That ride had a reserved seat honoring Rosa Parks, whom speakers characterized as a pioneer in the fight for civil rights and the fight to include quality public transit among them.

“Even as we stand here today … we are still fighting for transit equity,” Dottie Green, founder of Rosa Parks Legacy, said on Tuesday. “It looks a little different than it did 50 years ago. It’s not about just getting a seat on the bus — it’s about where that bus takes you, how it takes you there and what it is that you have to do to make sure that happens.”

The first of those concerns was a major theme of Tuesday’s event. Several speakers lamented that the state’s public transit is unreliable and infrequent. For his part, Hamden Councilman Justin Farmer pointed out the problem of the “last mile” — the difficulty of reaching a destination when public transit can only take a traveler so far.

This issue becomes particularly poignant, several speakers noted, in light of job concerns. Dori Dumas, president of the NAACP of Greater New Haven, attributed “prolonged, chronic unemployment” in the area in part to inadequate public transportation that renders many unable to commute to and from work.

Green’s second equity consideration — “how it takes you there” — can be understood in terms of the methods by which people move from place to place. Speakers on Tuesday divided the impacts of these methods into two major categories: public health and the environment. Green noted exceptionally high asthma rates in New Haven and cited vehicle emissions, particularly those from single-occupancy vehicles, as the driving force behind the crisis.

According to the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement, 17 percent of residents in New Haven’s Newhallville and Dixwell neighborhoods report suffering from asthma, more than double the national rate. New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford — three of the largest cities in the state — are the hardest hit in a state that itself reports an asthma rate that exceeds the nation’s.

These disparities make transportation a fundamental component of environmental justice, Program Administrator of the Yale Center for Climate Change and Health Mauro Diaz-Hernandez told the News.

“Transportation is this huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn has these major implications on respiratory health [with] disproportionate effects of air pollution on communities of color,” he said.

Emissions, many speakers noted, affect the health of both the public and the planet. A press release issued by Melinda Tuhus of 350 CT reported that 38 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions is the direct result of a “car-centric transportation sector.” 350 CT is a chapter of the “now-international, mass-action, grassroots campaign to curb climate change,” according to the organization’s website. Ben Martin, also with 350 CT, said that this car centricity is no mistake. Rather, he characterized it as a result of the state’s failure to make public transportation the best option for local travel.

Specifically, Martin criticized Gov. Ned Lamont’s $21 billion transportation plan, dubbed CT2030, for focusing on highways and airports while neglecting buses and bikes. The plan allots $14 billion for roads and bridges and $6.2 billion for railroads, but only $450 million for buses and less for sidewalks and bike lanes. Martin also condemned the Lamont administration’s failure to conduct a climate analysis before rolling out its transportation vision.

Lamont spokesperson Max Reiss said in a November statement that the administration is “not saying the plan is perfect, but it is fully funded, and it is responsibly funded … We want to get people home faster, and we want to get people to work faster.”

Lamont’s press secretary Rob Blanchard did not respond to the News’ request for comment regarding climate analysis.

Finally, the third prong of Green’s equity concerns: “what it is that you have to do” to enjoy safe and effective public transportation. Several speakers noted that, for many, physically accessing public transit poses an additional burden. Ralph Buccitti, business agent for transportation union Local 281, said that his 33 years in the industry have shown remarkable improvements including wheelchair accessibility, kneeling buses and tap cards. Still, disability rights activists Elaine Kolb said that she has been arrested multiple times in her effort to get from one place to the next.

“I think it’s important that everybody should have equal access, including mothers with children, people with disabilities, elderly people,” New Haven resident and public transit user Miranda Bailey-Reussomano told the News in an interview. “Everyone should have access to public transportation.”

Yesterday would have been Parks’ 107th birthday.

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu