The United States

Atlanta’s Answer to America’s Urban Transit Apartheid

By Bruce Dixon

The contours of urban apartheid in twenty-first century America are depressingly familiar. Where post WWII government spending built the interstate highway system and the suburbs to fuel white flight from the cities, the dispensation for the new century involves massive diversions of public resources toward the objective of disempowering and expelling the black and poor from central cities.

Far from being a problem to flee from any more, the central cities now have what America’s elite covet. Everything in the U.S. runs on oil, but dense urban populations enable a far more sustainable transit infrastructure in this era of increasingly expensive fuel. The cities also have public assets in the form of public health networks and infrastructure, tax revenue streams, public education systems, public housing and public lands, all of which chambers of commerce nationwide are eager to privatize.

Given this agenda, any degree of democratic control over local resources by the current residents of inner cities is an obstacle to the goals of gentrification and privatization, which are the intended future for the nation’s cities. And while chambers of commerce are traditionally Republican bastions, Democrats, have often been enthusiastic boosters of handing the public assets of cities over to private control.

On the federal level, the cynically misnamed HOPE 6 (Housing Opportunities For People Everywhere) law, passed during the Clinton administration, enabled the destruction of tens of thousands of units of public housing nationwide, and the unmonitored dispersal of hundreds of thousands of their former residents into existing stocks of substandard housing by erasing the requirement that replacement housing be built when such units are demolished. Rather than protect residents of the cities who made their own careers possible, black Democratic elites in cities across the nation have more often than not been eagerly complicit in the looting of urban resources, which accompanies gentrification. Communities looking to their local black Democrats for leadership, or just for useful information to protect themselves against dispossession and dispersal have been repeatedly disappointed and betrayed.

Corporate media do their part to ensure that the only voices heard in public discussion of how cities should be developed are members of their own chorus, lauding the virtues of the elite’s economic plan for the cities, which in every case amount to moving poorer people out and richer ones in, giving the process names like “revitalization”.

In Atlanta for instance, where two out of twelve metro counties (the two with black majorities) taxed themselves to build and operate 90 percent of the region’s transit assets with no state funding whatsoever, the state, along with suburban and exurban counties and the local Chamber of Commerce have performed a legal carjacking which gives them ultimate control of those assets. For the most part, black Atlanta’s well-developed black political elite, just like the black political class nationwide has been silent on questions of gentrification and the privatization of public assets. Although Atlanta’s string of Black mayors stretches back to the mid-1970s, its visionary leadership seems to be coming from outside the political establishment altogether.

In response to a multi-year campaign in the state legislature and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to bring the city’s transit agency under the control of the chamber of commerce and suburban counties which contributed no revenue to build the system, Atlanta Jobs With Justice (JWJ) put together the Atlanta Transit Riders Union (ATRU). JWJ-ATRU’s organizing effort reached out to the area’s unionized transit workers, to the disabled and transit dependent, to the black clergy and to the tens of thousands who use public transit daily.

“...our black “think tanks” and academics, our black political elite, their stunted political imaginations limited to the gains and losses of the next funding or election cycles, have offered us no alternative models of urban economic development...”

Over the course of several years, JWJ-ATRU has stopped a transit fare increase, and flexed its community organizing muscle to persuade the transit authority to restore bus service to areas it cut.

“That was a good start, but not nearly enough,” Terence Courtney of Atlanta JWJ told us. “We could see the need not just to react to service cuts and the atrocity of the month, but to make the peoples’ voice heard on the planning and policy level. Private, unrepresentative and un-elected bodies like the Chamber of Commerce are always coming out with their master plans for housing, transit and education which provide the framework for what little discussion takes place on these issues.

“The voices of those who use transit, not just the individual voices, but the voices of entire communities are nowhere in their master plans. The voices of the workers who drive the buses, maintain the tracks and stations, repair the buses and trains, and who also live in the communities the transit system serves, these voices are nowhere to be heard. So we began to understand that if we are going to have a public discussion, if we are going to pick a political fight over the future of our city and the region we had to come up with and to advance the peoples plan for sustainable regional public transit. We understood that it had to be a plan that serves the needs of communities already here, not the communities that will be built after they’ve used our tax money to gentrify this place and evict us all, not the interest of bond holders and real estate speculators.

“So that’s what we did. We got the assistance of some good people at Georgia Tech, most notably Laurel Paget-Seekins who did a lot of the heavy lifting, putting all the pieces of this plan together. We got the input of the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union, of faith based organizations, of communities of disabled and transit-dependent people and tried to put all this in a context of democracy. The result is the plan we presented on April 29, and which you can download from our web site. We think it should be a template for these kinds of organizing efforts across the country where decision making is being passed from public and accountable bodies to private and unaccountable ones to silence and marginalize the voices of real people.”

“‘This study presents a future vision of transit in Atlanta that is accountable, affordable and accessible,’ said Laura Paget-Seekins, a graduate student at Georgia Tech. ‘It’s accountable by having a democratic decision making structure that values the knowledge and experience of workers and riders. It’s affordable both in terms of its fare structures and its funding sources, which are equitable, and it’s accessible to people regardless of physical ability and to all parts of the region.’

“We propose to do this do this not by drawing route lines on a map, but by ensuring that there are service standards throughout the region ensuring that no matter what growth takes place in terms of jobs, no matter where affordable housing is pushed out of, that there will be transit access in the future based on the criteria that there should be no new service for riders of choice at the expense of service for riders who are transit dependent.”

Putting forth the plan is an important step, but only a step. There will be months and years of political struggle over which plans are finally implemented, and how. If the mostly complicit silence of the black political establishment on other questions of gentrification and privatization of urban public assets is any guide, it will be a sharp struggle, and it will have to be waged against some African American elected and appointed officials.

The democratic and people-centered approach of the ATRU transit plan is the polar opposite of the market-driven models favored by America’s bipartisan political elite. For the American elite, economic development has long been a matter of selling the land out from under poorer urban residents and “revitalizing” neighborhoods by filling them with richer neighbors from somewhere else. Despite the fact that these processes have unfolded nationwide and in plain view for more than a generation, our black political class of elected officials and candidates, our black “think tanks” and academics, our black political elite, their stunted political imaginations limited to the gains and losses of the next funding or election cycles, have offered us no alternative models of urban economic development, much less any plan of action for implementing them.

Could it be that just as the emergence of the decentralized, civilly disobedient grassroots movements of the fifties and sixties heralded the passing of old and less relevant leadership, that Atlanta’s transit workers, transit riders, its faith and community based entities and others are showing the nation a way forward?

Bruce Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and can be reached at

—Black Agenda Report, May 14, 2008