With the murder of George Floyd in late May, America – specifically white America – experienced a mass awakening. We realized, yes, police brutality is indeed prominent and directed at people of color (POC) and especially Black people. We began to realize what Black Americans have said for so long: racism is embedded in our society, and the police are just one more widespread means of enforcing systemic racism.
Every single industry and subindustry is guilty of being complicit in accepting and furthering racist practices, if not being racist outright, via their involvement of law enforcement. As for transportation planning within the broader field of urban planning? Well, that’s no exception.
Let’s look at public transit in particular. Transportation agencies are supposed to be, in theory, by the people, for the people (as is our government – but we’ll leave that scathing critique for another time). But it’s difficult to believe this concept when we see our transit agencies playing a hand in what are supposed to be outdated and problematic policing tactics: disproportionately policing POC for fare evasion, including citing Black people more often; using public buses to transport police to anti-police protests (a decision that was later reversed); using public buses to detain protestors; and generally existing for white comfort – which involves racial profiling of transit users.
As much as I am a proponent of public transit and want to be a part of the agencies that run our transit systems, I can’t and won’t stand for continued dismissal of racist policing tactics as the “norm.” Our role in the transportation field is to provide pathways towards freedom by creating a reliable and equitable network for people to get to where they need to go – and, as we all know, mobility is so much more than this. Transportation obviously requires the key component of moving people from Point A to Point B, but mobility adds another level: empowerment. To have mobility is to have freedom.
It’s up to us as urban and transportation planners to ensure that mobility is treated as a form of empowerment. As a way to enable people to travel to job interviews, seek therapy, bring home money, visit friends. And to do all of those things independently. If mobility is continually used as a way to police people – especially low-income POC – and to prevent individuals from traveling where they need to go when they want to go, well, then we’ve failed. Resisting and preventing these systemic failures, where police and transit collide, must be a collective effort.
The views reflected in this blog post are solely those of the author.
Danielle Dirksen is a graduating Urban Studies and Planning student at the University of Southern California. She is currently interning with the Orange County Transportation Authority and hopes to become a bus operator for field experience after graduation, eventually pursuing her Masters in Planning and Civil Engineering at UC Berkeley. Danielle's specific passions within transportation are community engagement, mobility justice, and public transit.