The so-called “choices” that people make about movement– how they get to where they’re going, and whether they bike, walk, ride, or drive there– are never merely individual decisions. Rather, these decisions are often the result of how the cities we live in have been mapped and planned over time. Los Angeles, for example, is portrayed as having one of the worst public transit systems for its size and density in the United States. According to national rankings, however, while LA comes in at number 8 (yes, 8!), San Diego dredges along as number 22.
The California High Speed Rail Authority has aggregated thoughts about transforming California’s public transit system with its California High Speed Rail project. While the line, meant to connect San Diego to San Francisco with a high-speed, high-passenger system of bullet trains, is currently facing a new set of hurdles in Congress, the Authority’s vision was championed by the Governator and backed with federal dollars by President Obama.
Seen as an overtly “green” transit system, High Speed Rail has been a global rallying point for environmentalists and urban planners.
Friends of Rose Canyon Park
In San Diego, however, the Friends of Rose Canyon (FORC) activist group stood out from the din— vehemently protesting the proposed route of the high speed track— because it would threaten the previously preserved area of federally recognized Open Space that includes Rose Canyon Park.
Interestingly enough, the demographics of FORC are telling. As the majority of its members are white and upper-middle class, it’s hard not to see the organization’s calls to defend and protect the environmentally pure space of Rose Canyon as tied up with historical patterns of racial and class-based discrimination— it is a colonial-imperial mindset that portrays terrain as “empty land” waiting to be conquered, exploited, and traversed. But who, in the case of Rose Canyon, is speaking for the park’s protection?
I asked Susan Levie,* a volunteer with Friends of Rose Canyon, if she was aware of the history of Rose Canyon. I also asked what she felt the relationship was between current activists seeking to preserve the park and indigenous groups (like the Kumeyaay) who originally lived in the space. After she said, “I don’t know that much about it. I know it’s named after somebody named Rose…And I know that there’s Kumeyaay things but I don’t know…” I explained to her that Rose Canyon Park is built on Kumeyaay land. She then told me how she crafted a “scary story” about the Kumeyaay to tell her son during his childhood:
Levie’s story, while seemingly harmless, nonetheless reinforces the notion that indigenous peoples are actually gone from our communities, that they no longer exist. The indigenous Americans I know would be more than a bit disturbed by this idea. Levie’s act of telling this “scary story” is violent because it replicates the Disney-esque portrayal of indigenous peoples as inherently violent and thus deserving of violence (see Peter Pan if you’re not sure what I’m referring to). Indigenous scholar Eve Tuck writes:
As writer Avery Gordon has said, “Slavery [or in this case, de jure racial discrimination] has ended, but something of it continues to live on, in the geographies of where peoples reside…propelling, as it always has, a something to be done” (139).
Unfortunately, the High Speed Rail is not adequately addressing this something to be done. While the FORC group is protesting the rail line because they see themselves as the defenders of an environmental Open Space, their claims still leave the needs of low-income communities and people of color in San Diego entirely unaddressed.
License to Freedom, San Diego, CA
The License to Freedom Center (LTF), based in San Diego, helps women who have migrated to the US from countries including Eritrea, Somalia, Palestine, and Iraq get access to driver’s licenses so that they can lead more independent lives. These women are often survivors of domestic abuse, and reside in the mostly low-income area of southeast San Diego.
I interviewed the Director of the Center, Samera Barakat,* who started the program on her own after receiving political asylum from the government of Iraq in 2001.
She said, “In the beginning when I came, I thought that in the United States there would be no abuse.”
Later on, she explained to me that she found a very different reality here. That awareness led her to create License to Freedom, so that women would have a space to empower one another through discussion and community activities. According to their website:
When I asked the LTF Director about the California High Speed Rail and its potential impacts on her community, she said:
As a privileged white female accustomed to having used public transit to get from my home in La Jolla to the University of California, San Diego where I once attended classes, I had overlooked the fact that for some, transit outside of the community is not a conceivable option. In fact, for communities of color who have been rendered invisible by allegedly “public” transit projects, commuting with a car becomes more affordable than traveling via bus or light rail.
For those who don’t have vehicles, License to Freedom helps individuals organize group loans:
I am not arguing that License to Freedom is free from racism or unfairness.
What I am pointing out, however, is that LTF, unlike the California High Speed Rail project and privileged environmentalist organizations like Friends of Rose Canyon, addresses the needs of low-income communities by focusing on collective well-being, group empowerment, and women’s and migrant’s rights.
The License to Freedom program, unlike the California High Speed Rail project, prioritizes collective well-being and group empowerment.
Rather than emphasizing the survival of women of color who have experienced domestic violence, programs like LTF must emphasize their survivance. As American Book Award winning novel Gerald Vizenor writes,
The California High Speed Rail’s geographic mapping reveals a route that circumvents, rather than serves, the regions of San Diego where organizations License to Freedom operate. These are also the areas of San Diego most in need of improved public transit.
According to SANDAG, San Diego’s regional planning agency, the highest percentages of commuters that use public transit are concentrated within the core of San Diego, with the majority living in the southeast region (where LTF is located).
SANDAG, San Diego’s Regional Planning Agency, mapped poverty in San Diego. The darkest areas correspond to communities with the lowest income levels:
If you look at the center (downtown) area of San Diego, it is clear that the highest percentage of individuals in poverty by census tract live inland (not along the coast, where the rail is planned to be built).
My interview with volunteer Levie is telling on this point as well:
SANDAG also displays areas where people use public transit the most (darker regions mean a larger number of people using public transportation):
Again, if one takes a look at central San Diego, the highest percentage of public transit ridership are inland, near downtown, not along the coast, where the High Speed Rail Authority has planned its route.
Despite the California High Speed Rail’s claims to be the most “sustainable” solution to California’s transit problem, it lacks one important thing — a foundation rooted in community. We all know that more sustainable places allow people to remain within the space of the community by increasing alternative methods of transit (ie: walking or bicycling) and reducing trips outside of the city via automobile, airplane, etc. The “community” that projects like the High Speed Rail seeks to serve is unbounded and ungrounded– unbounded by city lines because of its state-funded privilege to fuel the first mass transit form of “inter-city” (as opposed to inner-city) travel– and ungrounded by its theoretical distancing from any awareness about communities in need of improved transit, access, and mobility. Privilege (one that is racialized, classed, and gendered), not sustainability, characterizes the Authority’s definition of “green transit” as traversing, rather than connecting, communities.
What is defined as ‘efficient’ transportation brings a discussion of mobility and the California High Speed Rail into the discussion by interrogating the concept of sustainability– what is “sustainable” for aggrieved populations of color, I would argue, is different from that which is “sustainable” for privileged communities. What is sustainable for marginalized communities is also affordable, accessible, and involves a level of collective consciousness that is necessary when privilege is not present to cushion communities from the reality that resources are finite.
*name has been changed