I know what it means to be public transit dependent — and to have those systems fail me.
Growing up in Metro Denver, I rode the public bus from my home, which was then in Aurora, to Denver East at the City Park Esplanade where I attended high school, for all four years. Denver East was, and still is, a diverse high school which emphasizes academics and athletics, and also art and culture.
But there was one thing about my public transit journey, on the public buses of Denver’s Regional Transportation District, five days a week, for four years, to Denver East that still causes me to shudder. Route 15 — and Denver East was at the very end of it — felt like the longest ride, on the longest mile, in the whole Mile High City. Because I had to leave so early for school, and because I arrived home so late, I was ALWAYS one fatigued little learner.
Even after I gave birth to my oldest child Jahi, I worked downtown, and the bus was still my primary mode of transportation. I have been an RTD rider for many, many years. So, I can tell you that there really was a time when the public transit system in Denver was reliable, safe, and consistent. And there really was time when existing public transit was an effective solution for Denver residents like me.
But, because I lived in a community of color, where people had fewer opportunities to show up at daytime public meetings and make their needs known, our routes got shortened and shortened again and again. If I was out after a certain time in the evening, or if I was trying to work or do some activity on a Saturday or a Sunday, just getting around became more and more of a challenge. The resources for those of us who depended on public transit diminished.
Now, those resources are practically non-existent.
These days, my family lives in the new Central Park – the neighborhood that was once named “Stapleton” for Benjamin Stapleton, a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Central Park is the largest residential area in the whole city. But, like other parts of the Metro area, it has little in the way of public transportation services for its residents (who are still primarily people of color).
For example, to get to work, my son, who is now a young adult, must walk to the light rail station. There are no sidewalks and there are no streetlights, so his walk is unsafe. Plus, he must walk by the jail every day, which can without a doubt be unsafe for a young Black man in today’s world.
Residents of Central Park tried to get the bus route restored but the powers that be denied our requests. They said there was a long-term lack of ridership. I just know that two generations of my family depended on public bus service.
These days, you never even see a bus in Central Park.
We have lived the realities of “transit inequity” in Denver for a long time but I didn’t actually name it that until Mothers Out Front Denver and the NAACP Colorado State Conference joined virtually this fall – in the midst of the pandemic — to shine a light and give people a shared space to learn and create change.
What I now know is this: I live in the most polluted district in one of the most famously polluted cities in America. I know that increasing public transit ridership would be a good thing; good for the environment, a good way to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions and a good way to improve the air quality for everyone. But the Mothers Out Front/NAACP advocacy for transit equity is about more than checking off boxes so we look green and trendy.
The way we deliver public transportation must be improved in Denver so that parents can get to their jobs, and their children can get to their schools. In addition to my son, I have a 3-year-old daughter, Leila, as well. But Moms shouldn’t have to walk two miles in the dark to get home from the light rail station with groceries and babies in tow. Having our Mothers Out Front transit meetings and town halls have given directly affected people a chance to voice these realities – and have someone listen.
But those who have transportation privilege must also speak out.
If you want to change something, start with women – that’s what I like about this platform. Allow us in, especially Moms, and we will change the world.
Shikima “Kym” Ray is a community organizer, mother of two, and a lifelong resident of Denver, CO