Documentary Raises Questions About Transit's Civil Rights Impact

Is a community obligated to provide public transportation options? And if it doesn’t, is that a civil rights issue? Those are some of the questions at the core of “Free to Ride” a new documentary  produced by the Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.  

The film premieres at the D.C. Independent Film Festival on Feb. 17. It follows the controversy around a proposal from the regional transit agency in Dayton, Ohio, to build new bus stops in the nearby suburb of Beavercreek. 

The population of Dayton is nearly 40 percent black compared with about 3 percent in Beavercreek. So when the City of Beavercreek denied the transit agency’s request to add several bus stops near its mall and a medical center, a Dayton-based church organization filed a discrimination complaint with the Department of Transportation. The group said the decision violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars federally-funded agencies from discriminating against minorities.

transit bus

The three-tear long legal battle ended in 2013 when the DOT agreed that Beavercreek violated the Civil Rights Act and threatened to withhold funding until the city reversed its decision. 

“Free to Ride” includes interviews with several people involved in the case, including Ellis Jacobs, the president of Ohio Citizen Action. Wade Henderson, the CEO of the Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the film highlights why transportation equity is a critical civil and human rights issue in the U.S. 

“For decades, metropolitan areas have been expanding outward, and jobs have been moving farther away from low-income people and people of color who disproportionately remain in urban cores,” he said in a statement. “For many of these people, inadequate or unaffordable transportation is a significant barrier to employment.” 

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion that will feature speakers from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the non-profit group PolicyLink, and the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority, among others.  

The DOT decision on the Dayton case came down just as former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx took over the agency. Foxx spent much of his time in that position advocating for transportation agencies to do more to create equality by including all communities in the transportation project planning process. In 2015, he helped launch the LadderSTEP technical assistance program to encourage cities to develop transportation plans that would connect disenfranchised neighborhoods to affordable transportation options.  

A link to a film trailer is available here.