I grew up in Selma, Alabama, which is a small town in the deep south, where the options for public transportation were walking and taking a cab. While people rode bikes, they weren’t used to commute but more for little kids to visit their friends around the neighborhood. Growing up I considered having a car as a luxury item that was far beyond the reach of my household. I reflect now, as an adult, and realize the immense impact that growing up without a car in my household had on the opportunities that I could pursue.
For background, my grandmother raised a lot of her grandchildren and we were always dependent on another family member or friend to take us to places such as church, the grocery story, or special occasions. We all walked to school. I walked to my elementary, middle, and high school. All of these were nearly a mile or more away through a variety of neighborhoods. I can vividly recall during my elementary and middle school years jumping across or walking under trains when they obstructed our path home. Dangerous, right? But in our naivety we didn’t want to wait thirty or more minutes for the train to move.
Our lack of viable transportation options impacted all of our decisions. In third grade, I scored highly on an achievement test and was labeled as gifted. I was presented the opportunity to be a part of the gifted program, but there was one immediate challenge, the school that hosted the gifted program was a few miles away and I didn’t have a way to get there. As great as the opportunity was, we had to say no. I’ll never know what other opportunities this might have led to.
Other times, I felt the impacts of a lack of transportation. Around the age of 10, I started piano lessons ; however, I soon had to quit because paying cab fees or gas money for someone to take me combined with the costs of the lesson became too much for my grandmother to bear. In high school, I got my first job at a local restaurant. I took a cab to and from work every day but when I realized that the hours that I was assigned barely compensated for the cab fare, I quit the job. Anything that I had to do solo was a burden because my transportation options were so limited.
Not until high school did I start overloading my schedule with extracurricular activities because I could finagle a ride from classmates who had cars or those who had parents who were gracious enough to give me a ride. Of course by that time, there were other things that I could not participate in because the foundation had not been set at an early age such as dance, band, and some sports.
Unfortunately, Selma has not changed regarding transportation access. It makes me think of all of the young kids who do not participate simply because they don’t have a ride to tee-ball, softball, football, band practice, or whatever their hearts desire. This lack of transportation leads to new generations of missed opportunities and access to programs that could lead them to a different future. In a place where the high school dropout and crime rate is high, I wonder if access to transportation could be one factor in changing that paradigm.
At Nspiregreen, I’m the environmental principal, but this is what I love about the work we do. We help build and expand transportation systems to improve access and mobility for all people. Through our work, I want to make sure that no one misses an opportunity simply because they did not have a ride.
Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.