Originally published in NJ Spotlight

On what would be the 108th birthday of Rosa Parks, who refused to move to the back of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, riders and activists in New Jersey said people of color need a bus riders bill of rights to address issues highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Disadvantaged neighborhoods also need electric buses to reduce health problems from diesel fumes, and better service to get them to work, school and the grocery store, said riders, community activists and groups speaking as part of an annual Transit Equity Day forum Thursday.

“We honor Rosa Parks and her contribution to civil rights,” said Tanisha Garner, Ironbound Super Neighborhood Council President and a small business owner in Newark. “We can’t stop at a seat on the bus, we deserve better public transportation.”

Parks’ refusal to give up her seat and move to the back of a bus where Black people were required to ride started the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. That led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on buses was unconstitutional.

Garner was among many speakers who supported dedicated transit funding and legislation to establish an NJ Transit bus riders bill of rights, an idea that was proposed in October 2020 by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. It would guarantee basic minimum service levels and community participation in changes to bus routes or when fare increases are proposed.

Bus riders bill of rights legislation was co-sponsored last November by Assembly Transportation Committee chairman Dan Benson and Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, both D-Middlesex, and Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle, D-Bergen.
“If we want folks to be able to get to good quality jobs and health care, we need a transit system that works for everyone,” Benson said. “We need system where buses show up, show on time and show up frequently.”
While the bill is waiting for a hearing, NJ Transit has started an extensive community outreach program for its redesign of 38 bus routes serving Newark.

Dedicated funding for NJ Transit, which could speed up deployment of electric buses to reduce pollution, also was supported by speakers. Transportation is a leading contributor to air pollution and respiratory diseases.

“Public transit is an essential lifeline. Many households don’t have access to a car and rely on buses,” Garner said, adding she is the mother of three children with asthma. “I use the #1 and #25 bus to go everywhere, including grocery shopping and picking up supplies for my business.”
Some issues with local bus service were highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic, as essential workers continued riding local buses to and from work.
NJ Transit officials responded to some of those by adding buses and changing schedules. Despite ridership declines on rail and buses to and from New York, local buses have the agency’s highest ridership since the pandemic hit, fueled by essential workers.

“The pandemic shined a light on the injustices,” Garner said. “Many people ride the bus because there is no other way, or they are essential workers.”

Many of the speakers called for a roll out of electric buses in urban neighborhoods affected by diesel exhaust. Currently NJ Transit is studying how effective electric buses are in a pilot program in Camden.
But other public transit needs were brought up, such as the lack of service at some affordable housing developments.
“You may be able to get housing that fits your income level and find out there is no transportation to get you anywhere and kids to school,” said George Gore of Our Communities Matter of Plainfield.
The paradox is people living in affordable housing don’t have cars, he said, adding a car is considered an asset, meaning they wouldn’t qualify for housing.

“This whole movement is a long time overdue and I hope it will be successful,” Gore said. “The legislation is a good place to start, but it won’t service all the things we need.”

Daisy Rodríguez of Elizabeth said she takes a train and a bus to commute to Long Branch for one of her two jobs as an essential worker.
“Many of us can’t afford cars. I’ve been left for hours at a bus stop with groceries, waiting for the bus. They cut it when we needed transit the most,” she said. “Problems include unreliable trains and buses and the air pollution we breath in while waiting for the bus and train.”
Temporary service cuts were implemented when COVID-19 was at its peak and travel restrictions were in place for non-essential workers. The cuts were rescinded last summer by NJ Transit. But some private bus carriers have yet to return to full service as NJ Transit has.
Deployment of electric vehicles to meet goals set by Gov. Phil Murphy to reduce greenhouse gases means NJ Transit and unions should work together to train workers to maintain them and install charging infrastructure, said Corey Gallman, Amalgamated Transit Union recording secretary.

The event was recorded and will be shared with NJ Transit, said Janna Chernetz, Tri-State Transportation Campaign deputy director.

“We hope to continue the dialogue with them and address the issues raised by riders and advocates,” she said. “We hope this is the launching point for meaningful change.”