Ride, Drive, or Walk? The Decision is Not So Simple for Some

Social contexts of transportation choices in Atlanta, Georgia

Commuters wait for the bus in downtown Atlanta, 1974. In 2010, about 70 percent of MARTA passengers were African American. Photo by Jim Pickerell, National Archives and Records Administration. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Commuters wait for the bus in downtown Atlanta, 1974. In 2010, about 70 percent of MARTA passengers were African American. Photo by Jim Pickerell, National Archives and Records Administration. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the U.S., about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions are related to travel. Many of these trips are short – perhaps a 10 minute drive to work, or a 15 minute trek to the grocery store. Using public transit, walking, or biking to these destinations could help limit carbon dioxide emissions.

However, there are barriers to using alternative transportation, and in some places, sustainable travel is perceived as impractical, unsafe, or impossible. A recent study, published in City & Society and led by U.S. Forest Service social scientist Cassandra Johnson Gaither, examines such issues in a case study of the Cascade community in Atlanta, Georgia. The community is predominantly African American and contains both middle class and moderate and lower income neighborhoods.

The scientists collected information about people’s perceptions of mass transit and of their neighborhood’s walkability by conducting focus groups and interviews. They also used data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the city to map transportation infrastructure and impervious surfaces such as roads and parking lots.

In Atlanta, African Americans’ access to public transportation has been an issue for decades. In the 1940s and 1950s, the company that owned Atlanta’s bus and streetcars refused to provide services to black communities. In more recent decades, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) has been accused of causing overcrowding on buses by not providing enough buses for predominantly black neighborhoods.

Currently, MARTA only provides services to 2 of the Atlanta region’s 28 counties. “The lack of transportation networks connecting in-town Atlanta to suburban neighborhoods is arguably an outcome of white opposition to desegregation,” says Johnson Gaither.

Despite these limitations, African Americans in Atlanta are more likely to use public transportation than whites – in 2010, about 70 percent of MARTA passengers were African Americans. While this suggests that African Americans are already making sustainable choices that limit carbon dioxide emissions, these choices are often born of necessity.

“There is no evidence that African Americans willingly use mass transit as a means of reducing carbon emissions,” says Johnson Gaither. “Lower income residents of Cascade routinely use mass transit, while middle and upper income earners are reluctant users of Atlanta’s mass transit system.” The scientists suggest that among those who could afford it, the preference for personal vehicles is partly related to the geographic limitations of MARTA’s service.

In addition, highly efficient vehicles, such as hybrids, are not as popular in the African American community as luxury cars. “To many people in the African American community, vehicles are a way to signify status,” says Johnson Gaither. “Many of African American’s cultural icons exemplify glamour, style, and highly consumptive lifestyles – particularly around transportation.”

The study results underscore the importance of examining transportation choices in the larger context of consumption. The built environment also affects people’s decisions about sustainable mobility, such as mass transit and walking. In the study area, Johnson Gaither and her colleagues found that people who lived in high income areas were sometimes unable to walk because of a lack of sidewalks, while people who lived in low income areas were worried that they would be victims of crime.

“People make transportation decisions from within a social context and physical environment,” says Johnson Gaither. “Multiple forces in the Cascade neighborhood constrain alternative mobility options, and ultimately, responses to climate change.”

Of course, African Americans are concerned about climate change – in a recent national poll, 52 percent said that climate change is a major problem, and 63 percent said that people they knew would be willing to change walk, take the bus, or use other transportation practices to limit greenhouse gas emissions. However, these positions should be viewed in light of physical and social constraints on people’s transportation options.

Read the full text of the article.

For more information, email Cassandra Johnson Gaither at cjohnson09@fs.fed.us.

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