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The Fight for Transit Rights

Head shot photo of Graduate Center Professor Kafui Attoh
Kafui Attoh. Photo by Aaron Lechner.

In the ongoing fight to maintain functional and efficient public transit, the question of rights might seem a tad hyperbolic. After all, is it really anyone’s right to ride the bus? Yes, argues Professor Kafui Attoh (GC/CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies; Earth and Environmental Sciences/Urban Studies).
cover of Graduate Center Professor Kafui Attoh's book, Rights in TransitHis new book, Rights in Transit: Public Transportation and the Right to the City in California’s East Bay, presents public transportation as a rights issue, namely because it gives people a “right to the city.” As gentrification continues to push longtime residents towards the margins — making it harder for them to access jobs, health care, and even education — the right to public transportation becomes a central issue for any metropolis.
“I’ve always been interested in questions of justice, and justice in cities, and rights are one way to talk about that,” Attoh says. “You are tapping into your moral sensibilities — what is right, what is wrong; what is fair, what is just — so I focused on rights in the context of public policy.”
While previous transit scholarship has addressed the issue of rights, Attoh explains that it hasn’t discussed access to the city. “I think oftentimes the focus has been on questions of civil rights and the rights of particular minorities or people with disabilities,” he explains. That’s important, he says, but he’s interested in “adding on” to that conversation.
Attoh turned to theorist Henri Lefebvre, drawing on his concept about a “right to the city.” If poor public transportation limits who gains access to a city then it creates innumerable problems. “Part of the book is thinking about how you talk about transportation in terms that focus on the alienation and isolation that falls on people that don’t have access to public transportation,” he says. It also focuses on “the types of cities we live in when transit is not provided.”
If it seems like there’s a hierarchy of rights, Attoh instead hopes readers can see how many function in tandem. “I wouldn’t put a right to transportation above or below anything, but as part of a bundle of rights that all citizens should be entitled to for the type of city that I think most people would agree is a just one,” he says. “Your right to transportation is so central because it involves how to get to the hospital, to the doctors, to the school, to a place of employment.”
Attoh’s book focuses on San Francisco’s East Bay because of myriad issues its three main transit authorities faced while he served as a research assistant out West beginning in 2010. That experience led him to see public transportation as “a justice issue.” “It raises some very important questions for the contemporary city to deal with — the lack of access to the democratic public life of the city, questions of who governs the city, whose interests are championed, whose interests are put to the side, and especially in the context of very unequal cities, dealing with big questions of gentrification and displacement,” he says. “It means talking about a lot of the things that get subsumed under ‘the right to the city’ framework.”

Submitted on: APR 12, 2019

Category: Diversity | Earth and Environmental Sciences | Faculty | General GC News