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“A remarkable moment in American urban history” 20th Anniversary MTA Transportation Justice Bus Rider's Case

by Tom Rubin and Robert García

In 1994, a team of civil rights attorneys led by the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund (LDF), working with grassroots activists, filed the successful landmark environmental justice class action Labor/ Community Strategy Center v Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The plaintiffs and class alleged that MTA operated separate and unequal bus and rail systems that discriminated against bus riders who were disproportionately low-income people of color. The advocates reached a $2.5 billion agreement with MTA to improve bus transit that served equity, efficiency, and the environment. The twentieth anniversary of the case coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the twentieth anniversary of the President’s Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice and health. Civil rights attorneys continue to apply the lessons of the MTA case under civil rights and environmental justice laws and principles to improve education, parks, and health in Los Angeles and beyond.

The court-ordered settlement agreement in 1996 is a “remarkable moment in American urban history,” according to UCLA Prof. Edward J. Soja in his book Spatial Justice (2010). “It was decided that, for at least the next ten years, past decades of discrimination against transit-depended urban poor, those who could not afford to run a car, would be remedied by making the MTA give their highest budget priority to improving the quality of bus service and guaranteeing equitable access to all forms of public mass transit.” According to Prof. Soja, “it is hard to imagine a stronger team of advocates for the lawsuit that was formally initiated in 1994.”

On September 21, 1994, Judge Terry Hatter held that plaintiffs had presented “more than sufficient evidence” to support their disparate impact claims for preliminary relief and had raised serious questions going to the merits on the claims of intentional discrimination. Judge Hatter, of the Federal Court for the Central District of California, held as follows:

Plaintiffs have presented the Court with more than sufficient evidence to meet their burden of preliminarily showing that MTA’s actions have adversely impacted minorities; that MTA’s actions were not justified by business necessity; and that the MTA has rejected less discriminatory alternatives. . . . Through their evidence, plaintiffs raise serious questions going to the merits of their disparate impact claims under Title VI, as well as their intentional discrimination claim under Title VI . . . .

While LDF led the legal charge, LCSC continued organizing and conducted a massive public relations campaign.

The parties settled the case in 1996 through mediation and a court-ordered Consent Decree. MTA agreed to make investments in the bus system that would total over $2.5 billions, making it the largest civil rights settlement ever. MTA agreed to improve transportation for all the people of Los Angeles by reducing overcrowding on buses, lowering transit fares, and enhancing county-wide mobility.

The civil rights attorneys made extensive use of statistics, the history of transportation, and transit policy and economics, as reported by Prof. Kevin Starr in his book Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge (2004). Professors Marty Wach and Brian Taylor at UCLA provided expert testimony on behalf of the plaintiff class. Donald T. Bliss served as Special Master to monitor compliance with the Consent Decree over the next ten years. Mr. Bliss, a moderate Republican who served as Acting General Counsel in the US Transportation Department, later became US Ambassador on the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization.

MTA victory lunch fee award 1997
LDF attorneys celebrate the MTA victory in 1996 Bill Lann Lee, Connie Rice, Robert García, Richard Larson

What the Riders Got

For three years during the mid-1980s, MTA reduced the bus fare from $0.85 to $0.50. Ridership increased 40% during the period, making that the most successful mass transit experiment in the post-war era. Despite this increase in demand, MTA subsequently raised bus fares and reduced its peak-hour bus fleet from 2,200 to 1,750 buses. After the peak bus ridership of 1985, the last year before the 50¢ fare was discontinued, ridership fell an average of 13.5 million riders a year for ten years, or 27%.

After the Consent Decree went into effect in 1996, the monthly pass – which MTA attempted to totally cancel – was returned at its prior $42 cost. Bus service hours were increased. New, clean, compressed natural gas buses replaced 15-year old diesel buses that were on their last legs. The low riders per bus standard allowed far more people to get a seat, and even allowed them to get on a bus that formerly would have passed them by due to lack of space. Ridership not only stopped going down, but rebounded almost back up to where it was before MTA decided to make building new rail lines a far higher priority than serving its existing bus passengers.  While MTA opened several rail lines during the Consent Decree period from 1996 to 2006, the majority of the added riders were on bus, not rail – and the majority of the rail riders were former bus riders.

What the Taxpayers Got

The subsidy per passenger for the added riders was below the subsidy per bus passenger before the Consent Decree went into effect, and a small fraction of the subsidy per rail rider.

The riders won, and the taxpayers won.  Those companies that rely on transit to get their employees to work and their customers to market, the students who were able to get to school, and all those who could get to their church, doctor, or social event, were all far better off than they were before.

The Lessons of the MTA Victory

Prof. Soja writes: “There is a great deal to learn from the accomplishments of the strategic coalition behind the BRU [Bus Riders’ Union] decision and its continuing struggles. For social movement activists and progressive scholars everywhere, it stands out as an exemplary model of successful urban insurgency in the search for racial, environmental, and spatial justice. With some degree of strategic optimism, one can see the possibility that . . . resurgent coalitions that have been developing in Los Angeles over the past two decades can become effective springboards for a much larger movement seeking to erase injustices wherever they may be found.”

Indeed, civil rights attorneys went on to apply the lessons of the MTA case under civil rights and environmental justice laws and principles through the Green Justice movement in Los Angeles and beyond. Thus, best practice examples for equal access to public resources using the Title VI framework include the following actions.

Los Angeles State Historic Park. The City Project “organized a civil rights challenge that claimed the project was the result of discriminatory land-use policies that had long deprived minority neighborhoods of parks” under Title VI and the President’s Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice and health, as the L.A. Times reported on the front page.

National Park Service National Recreation Area Proposal for the San Gabriels. NPS recognizes there are unfair disparities in access to green space for people of color and low-income people in Los Angeles, that those disparities contribute to unfair health disparities, and that environmental justice requires agencies and recipients of federal funding to address those disparities, citing the environmental justice Executive Order 12898.

Los Angeles River Revitalization. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) draft 2013 study for the revitalization of the Los Angeles River recognizes there are unfair disparities in access to green space for people of color and low-income people in Los Angeles, that those disparities contribute to unfair health disparities, and that environmental justice requires agencies and recipients of federal funding to address those disparities, citing Executive Order 12898.

Baldwin Hills Park and Oil Field. The community has successfully relied on Title VI and environmental laws to enjoy the health and environmental benefits of the Baldwin Hills Park, the largest urban park designed in the U.S. in over a century, and to be free from environmental degradation in the most heavily regulated urban oil field in the nation.

Quality Education including Physical Education. Los Angeles Unified School District adopted a physical education plan under the state education code, and Title VI of the 1964 Act.

Saving Panhe and San Onofre State Beach. Civil rights advocates and Native Americans saved the ancient Acjachemen Sacred Site, burial ground, and village of Panhe and San Onfre State Beach under Title VI working with mainstream environmentalists, and stopped the toll road that would have devastated both.

State park funding. State law allocated park bond funding to park poor, income poor communities of color to measure progress and equity and hold public officials accountable.

Health and Civil Rights. Ethnic and racial health inequities remain persistent and pervasive. Civil rights laws including Title VI and antidiscrimination provisions of the Affordable Care Act are part of the solution to improve health outcomes.

The Legal and Policy Analysis under Title VI

The LDF legal team, with Paul Hoffman and the ACLU of Southern California, documented the ridership disparities in a massive 226-page brief in opposition to MTA’s motion for summary judgment and in support of the Consent Decree. The analysis in that memo remains a best practice for analyzing discriminatory impacts and intentional discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and its regulations. The evidence was largely undisputed and is summarized below.

Racial disparities

While over 80% of MTA’s bus and rail riders were of color, most people of color rode only buses. On the other hand, only 28% of riders on Metrolink – the six-county Southern California commuter rail line subsidized by MTA – were people of color. Thus, the percentage of people of color riding Metrolink varied by 173 standard deviations from the expected 80%. The likelihood that such a substantial departure from the expected value would occur by chance is infinitesimal.

Subsidy disparities

While 94% of MTA’s riders rode buses, MTA customarily spent 60-70% of its budget on rail. Data in 1992 revealed a $1.17 subsidy per boarding for an MTA bus rider. The subsidy for a Metrolink commuter rail rider was 18 times higher, however ($21.02). For a suburban light-rail streetcar passenger, the subsidy was more than nine times higher ($11.34); and for a subway passenger, it was projected to be two-and-a-half times higher ($2.92) – and the actual Red Line subsidy/passenger once service began was far more.

Security disparities

While MTA spent only $0.03 for the security of each bus passenger in fiscal year 1993, it spent 43 times as much ($1.29), for the security of each passenger on the Metrolink commuter rail and the light rail, and 19 times as much ($0.57), for each passenger on the Red Line subway.

Crowding disparities

MTA customarily targeted peak period loads of 145% of seated capacity on its buses and that ‘target’ was very commonly exceeded. In contrast, there was no overcrowding for riders on Metrolink and MTA-operated rail lines, although there were high passenger loads on the Blue Line light rail line. Metrolink was operated to have three passengers for every four seats so that passengers could ride comfortably and use the empty seat for their briefcases or laptop computers.

Title VI and its Regulations

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its implementing regulations prohibit both (1) intentional discrimination based on race, color or national origin, and (2) unjustified discriminatory impacts for which there are less discriminatory alternatives, by recipients of federal funds such as MTA and most transportation agencies across the US. In the MTA case, the plaintiff class alleged both forms of discrimination. (Similarly, California state law now prohibits both intentional discrimination and unjustified discriminatory impacts for which there are less discriminatory alternatives by recipients of state funds under California Government Code § 11135.)

The struggle for equal access to public resources continues . . .

Tom Rubin is a transportation expert who worked with the plaintiffs and the class on the MTA case from the filing of the case in 1994 until the Consent Decree ended in 2006. Robert García was an attorney for the plaintiffs and the class from 1994 until 1996 as an attorney with LDF.


Plaintiffs’ Revised Statement of Contentions of Facts and Law, Labor/Community Strategy Center v Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Case No. CV 94-5936 TJH (Mcx) (Oct. 24, 1996).

Robert García and Thomas A. Rubin, Crossroad blues: the MTA Consent Decree and just transportation, in the book Running on Empty (Karen Lucas, ed., 2004).

Robert García, Walk a Mile in My Shoes: Los Angeles Celebrates Anniversaries of the Civil Rights Movement, in New Frontiers for Title VI, Poverty & Race Research Action Counsel (2014).

Edward W. Soja, Seeking Spatial Justice (2010) at pages vii, ix, x, xii-xiii, xvii-xviii.

Kevin Starr, Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003 at pages 553-54, 710-11 (2004).

Marty Wachs, “The Evolution of Transportation Policy in Los Angeles: Images of Past Policy and Future Prospects,” in Allen J. Scott and Edward Soja, eds., The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century (1996) at pp. 106-159.