KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Thanks to Rosa Parks, people of all races can sit where they want on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. That's if there is a seat - or a bus at all. The problems in Montgomery's bus system illustrate the challenges for public transportation in many parts of the country, and it's today's story from NPR's Cities Project.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Becoming a world-class city.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Keep the transit running.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We have to move people a lot more efficiently.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Come, take a ride of the future.
MCEVERS: The Montgomery bus boycott began nearly 60 years ago - December 1, 1955. And we're going to take a journey with bus riders there now to see how things have changed. A quick note that you will hear an offensive word as one woman recalls being the target of a racial epithet. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The downtown Montgomery bus terminal is just a few blocks from where Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white passenger. The waiting room is full of mostly African-American riders. Among them, Lilly Mae Bradford, age 87.
LILLY MAE BRADFORD: That's my bus.
ELLIOTT: She's on her way home after an afternoon of errands, a large shopping bag at her feet. Bradford has been riding since she was a teenager.
BRADFORD: Yes, still taking the bus, love to ride it. I like to sit in the back of the bus (laughter) not because I have to, but because I've got that option now.
ELLIOTT: She did not always have that option. A few years before the Montgomery bus boycott drew attention to segregated buses, Bradford was arrested for walking to the front of the bus to get a transfer from the white bus driver.
BRADFORD: After I got up there and I asked him for a transfer, he told me, [expletive], get back to the back of the bus.
ELLIOTT: She refused and was taken away by a policeman at the next stop. Four years later, when Rosa Parks was arrested in December of 1955, black riders boycotted for more than year until a federal court ruled segregated buses were unconstitutional. Bradford is proud of the change that came but says she would've expected more progress in 60 years.
BRADFORD: Some of the things like they're going backwards. Take, for instance, the buses.
ELLIOTT: Frequent riders have long lobbied to improve Montgomery's bus service, which has been scaled back over the decades. The complaints today are that the city's bus fleet is in disrepair, the buses are cramped and overheated and that they don't run frequently enough or to the right places. Callie Greer, with the Montgomery Transportation Coalition, is at the downtown bus terminal during the morning rush. She's frustrated to see a small bus pull up, clearly overloaded.
CALLIE GREER: Packed in like sardines. You know, but the first thing I saw was someone sitting on the stairs where you get on the bus at, and then I saw all - there was nowhere else to be.
ELLIOTT: Once those passengers disembark, Greer climbs aboard.
It's still crowded, but she finds a seat on the back row. Others are standing in the aisle.
GREER: It was an awesome thing that Rosa Parks did, but I don't think she'd be celebrating this bus system. We got the right to sit anywhere we want on the bus. OK, now, where's the bus?
ELLIOTT: Fifteen fixed bus routes run about every hour to 90 minutes during the week, with reduced hours on Saturday and no service at all on Sunday. Greer says the bus boycott was as much about economic justice as it was civil rights.
GREER: If you can't get to work, you're going to continually be poor.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Thank you, sweetie. If you're going back downtown, you have to pay another fare.
ELLIOTT: Bus fare is $2, discounted by half for seniors and students. The fare box brings in less than a million dollars a year for a system with a budget of about $6 million. The rest comes from government subsidies, and therein lies the problem, says Montgomery Area Transit manager Kelvin Miller.
KELVIN MILLER: We can only put the service on the street with the funds that we have available.
ELLIOTT: The system has struggled with deficits in recent years, particularly when gas prices spike. Miller says there's no money to expand. Right now his main goal is to replace out-of-date equipment.
MILLER: A bus only has a limited useful life. It's only supposed to last so long. And the majority of the equipment that we have have exceeded that useful life.
ELLIOTT: Which raises safety concerns. A dramatic example came last summer when one of those old buses caught fire. No one was injured, but the fire drew attention to the aging fleet.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Twelve, cancel route 12.
ELLIOTT: Other midsized American cities also struggle to keep buses running. But in Montgomery, the past informs the debate, says Jim Earnhardt, the retired community engagement editor at the Montgomery Advertiser.
JIM EARNHARDT: Given our history with the bus boycott, you know, our bus system gets - I'm sure - much more scrutiny than a town this size would ordinarily get.
ELLIOTT: Some argue Alabama's contentious civil rights history led to policy decisions that undermine public transportation. Stephen Stetson is with Alabama Arise, an advocacy group for low-income residents.
STEPHEN STETSON: A major part of the story of race in Alabama is geographic, spatial segregation. That plays out in the housing arena, and I think it plays out in the public transportation arena - that white people are afraid of black people and there's a fear of crime, there's a fear of poverty. It's part of the narrative.
ELLIOTT: He says there are practical explanations as well. There's an expanding black middle class since the civil rights movement and cities have sprawled. Most taxpayers drive cars and see little benefit in paying for a service they don't use. Alabama is one of only five states that don't spend any public funds on mass transit so bus systems like Montgomery's run only with federal and local monies. In fact, there's a constitutional prohibition on using state oil and gas taxes for anything other than roads and bridges. And Stetson says there's little political will to change.
STETSON: In a place like Alabama, where the fiscal climate is really restrictive, it's deemed to be something that we just can't afford to pay for.
ELLIOTT: Back at the downtown bus terminal, Rose McCall, with the Montgomery Transportation Coalition, says it's bad economic policy that the buses don't reach the best-paying jobs in town, including an automaker and a grocery warehouse.
ROSE MCCALL: To Hyundai, the Coca-Cola plant and Winn-Dixie, which are major employers, but there's a seven-mile stretch where you can't get bus service to it - coming or going.
ELLIOTT: She argues fare collections would improve if the buses went to the right places. The coalition is pressuring city leaders to expand, but it's a hard sell.
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TODD STRANGE: Do you have to guarantee that every job in the city limits of Montgomery needs to be on a bus line?
ELLIOTT: That's Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange. He says it's a challenge just to come up with the $3.2 million-a-year the city spends to keep the current system running.
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STRANGE: We would love to be able to expand our bus system, but it is a matter of the parties and deciding whether you want to have five more firefighters or 10 more police officers or two more buses.
ELLIOTT: So without additional resources, riders will continue to have to wait just a little longer for the next bus. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, at the Molton Street bus terminal in Montgomery, Ala.
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