The Transit Equity Day event in Providence, delayed one week because of a snowstorm, was held in coordination with 40 other events across the the United States and timed to take place on the birthday of civil rights icon Rosa Parks. In Providence, the event was geared around a call for a Rosa Parks commemorative bus shelter, to commend RIPTA and its drivers for getting Rhode Islanders to their destinations during the pandemic, and to urge state leaders to work harder to achieve transportation equity for all residents.

RIPTA (Rhode Island Public Transit Authority) is the public-private entity that oversees Rhode Island’s public transportation system. RIPTA is currently working on implementing the state’s first Transit Master Plan and using that as a guide for improving transit equity.

Two issues not mentioned at the Transit Equity Day event were the plan to make all rides on RIPTA buses free and the plan to get rid of Providence’s central bus hub in Kennedy Plaza in favor of a new central hub on Dorrance Street.

Uprise RI asked RIPTA CEO Scott Avedesian, who attended the Transit Equity Day event, if, given his and RIPTA’s commitment to equity, he would schedule hearings on the downtown Providence bus hub that were in person, not just virtually on computers. After all, many who use the bus do not have access to computers. Avedesian told UpriseRI that the first three meetings, already scheduled, would be held remotely and made a weak commitment to having at least one meeting in person after that, if COVID permits.

Well over 80 people attended the Transit Equity Day event, including members of the Rhode Island Transit Riders AllianceGeorge Wiley Center, the Kennedy Plaza CoalitionNAACP Providence Branch, the BLM RI PAC, the RI Bicycle CoalitionClimate-Justice-Rhode Island, the Providence Streets Coalition, and Grow Smart RI. Around 50 students from Providence’s Charette High School marched across the city to attend.

What is transit equity? Event co-organizer Liza Burkin, a coordinator for the Providence Streets Coalition, defined it as “acknowledging the racist past of transportation planning and fighting every day for a more inclusive and just mobility future.”

In a press release, Harrison Tuttle, executive director of the Black Lives Matter RI PAC, called on elected officials to “continue to prioritize investment in our public transit for communities of color. This will result in more job opportunities and access to future endeavors for generations to come.”

Transit Equity Day is a day to call for action in our everyday lives to promote transit equity,” said Rhode Island Transit Rider Rochelle Lee. “A day to connect the voices of those who endure hardship and the inequities of racial segregation.”

Jim Vincent, President of the NAACP Providence Branch reminded everyone of Rosa Parks and her special place in the history of civil rights and transit equity.

“Rosa Parks was the branch secretary of the Montgomery, Alabama NAACP. It was the NAACP in Alabama that decided that Rosa was going to test the 14th Amendment in terms of equal protection,” said Vincent. “So Rosa Parks who was fired, and had death threats to her dying day in Detroit, where she had to flee to, is an American hero.”

Parks made history by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man.

“A lot of people point to that moment as the start of the civil rights movement,” noted Vincent.

“Rosa Parks fought for the BIPOC community,” said Terri Wright, life-long bus rider and member of Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE). “And this is why we have freedom and rights when we ride.” Wright defined sustainable communities as those that “begin with transit equality, quality housing, and public health.”

“What does climate and energy have to do with transit equity, which is what we’re here to talk about today?” asked Mal Skowron, transportation policy and program coordinator at Green Energy Consumers Alliance. “The fact is that all of the causes of our climate crisis are the same causes of the transit inequity that we have seen for the last 50 or 60 years and continue to see today.”

“Rhode Island has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the inequities that have for decades overburdened communities with harmful air pollution and a lack of mobility options,” said Hank Webster, the Acadia Center’s Rhode Island director. “Policymakers have a clear choice: prioritize transit-oriented development connected to a robust, multimodal, sustainable public transportation network that supports access to good jobs, educational opportunities, and vital healthcare services, or…continue to focus investment on the polluting, inequitable, car-centric status quo.”

“Charette focuses on urban planning and historic preservation,” said Angel Garcia, a senior at Charette High School, “Charette depends on RIPTA. On a monthly basis students are given a WAVE card that helps us to get to school, go to and from school, work, sports, extracurriculars.”

Nick DeCristofaro, president and business agent for the Rhode Island Amalgamated Transit Union, said that transit equity includes fair pay and good contracts for RIPTA workers.

“I’d like to join you in highlighting the need for transit equity and what we can do to achieve the transit services that our residents deserve,” said Representative Carlos Tobon (Democrat, District 58, Pawtucket), who chairs the House Finance subcommittee on transportation and the environment. Tobon noted that represents Pawtucket, “where transportation is highly utilized. I firmly support the efforts to instill transit equity by improving transit.”

Senator Meghan Kallman (Democrat, District 15, Pawtucket) And fellow Pawtucket Representative Leonela Felix (Democrat, District 61, Pawtucket) have bills in the Senate and House to make RIPTA free to all riders. UrpriseRI asked Representative Tobon if he supported these bills given his position on the House Finance Committee and his support or transit equity. Tobon replied that as a “numbers person” he would need assurances that such a plan would be feasible before he supported it.

Greg Nardine, RIPTA’s Chief of Strategic Advancement, spoke of specific programs and plans to make RIPTA more equitable, including the implementation of RIPTA’s Wave Card, new routes, and the full electrification of RIPTA’s R-Line, it’s most used rout.

Patricia Raub of the Rhode Island Transit Riders ended the speaking program by calling for the completion of a new, Rosa Parks commemorative bus shelter on Smith Street in front of the Department of Administration and across the street from the State House, where the event was held.

See video footage of the event and read the full article at Uprise RI here.