The Right to Ride

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are considered rights in the U.S., but what about public transit? Residents living in and around cities rely on buses, subways, and other modes of public transportation to get around. For many, it functions as a lifeline. 

“There remains a desperate need not only to think about transit in rights terms, but to think critically about the types of rights at issue,” writes Professor Kafui Ablode Attoh (School of Labor and Urban Studies, School of Professional Studies, The Graduate Center, CUNY). His new book Rights in Transit: Public Transportation and the Right to the City in California’s East Bay frames transit services in that light.

But what makes it a right? Critics ranging from transit board members to transportation equity scholars have raised that very question. For some, it’s a matter of practicality: “How will it be enforced?” For others, it’s a shortsighted claim: “Any political strategy reliant on rights is destined to come up short.”

Professor Kafui Attoh
Professor Kafui Attoh, photo by Aaron Lenchner

Drawing upon the theorist Henri Lefebvre, Attoh claims that people have a “right to transportation” because they have a “right to the city.” As the pace of urbanization accelerates, it has brought about “gentrification, displacement, homelessness, lack of affordable housing, and a generalized sense that cities are abandoning their poorest residents in pursuit of global capital.” As a right or “moral minimum,” public transportation — that is, reliable public transportation — helps alleviate the changes taking place to cities under neoliberal capitalism.

Attoh turns to several case studies in California’s East Bay to defend his position. His chapters move through “four primary vantage points,” each of which depicts a specific way the East Bay has struggled with the question of public transportation. They include the courts, the local transportation justice movement, transit labor, and transit planners.

In concentrating on those areas, Attoh aims to shift the understanding of public transit. As he states, “Those who share a progressive vision for urban public transportation would do well to invoke transportation’s role in securing not only our civil rights but also our right to the city.”