Please zoom in or out and select the base layer according to your preference to make the map ready for printing, then press the Print button above.

West Harlem and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, USA


In 1988, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MAT) attempted to build a new bus depot in the already heavily burdened neighborhood of West Harlem in Northern Manhattan, New York City. Northern Manhattan is a predominantly African American and Latino part of the city that disproportionately hosts several pollution facilities that harm the health of their residents. Some of the environmental burdens located in Northern Manhattan at that time included: a waste water treatment plant, a marine transfer station, a system of highways surrounding the neighborhood that represent some of the most important routes for transporting goods in and out of Manhattan, and six out of the eight MAT bus depots located in Manhattan. The Northern Manhattan community's asthma mortality and morbidity rates were five to six times higher than the national average. The connections between the environmental burdens and health impacts made spark the controversy.

In 1988, as a result the disproportionate health impacts from environmental threats located in their neighborhood, local communities founded WE ACT for Environmental Justice, the first environmental justice organization in New York City. Since its foundation, the goal of this organization was to fight against the use of this part of Manhattan as the dumping ground of New York City.

In November 2000, WE ACT and several community residents filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation alleging that diesel bus depots were disproportionately located in Manhattan's minority communities. This complaint also aimed to stop the proposal of building low income and seniors' housing over the bus depot. They co-filed the complaint with civil rights attorneys who asserted that the high number of depots in northern Manhattan violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an act barring federal funding for any program that discriminates based on race. To support the complaint, WE ACT did a land use analysis that showed a high proportion of people of color living near the depots. In addition, WE ACT developed a media campaign and youth programs on diesel buses and air quality.

In 2004, in response to WE ACT's Title VI complaint of 2001, the Federal Transportation Authority found that MTA failed to comply with the required federal environmental impact analysis in constructing, rehabilitating and reconstructing of bus depots and other facilities.

After further local campaigns followed by pressure from state and local authorities, MTA started replacing hundreds of diesel fuel buses with alternative and cleaner vehicles, including ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) and compressed natural gas (CNG) buses.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:West Harlem and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, USA
Country:translation missing: en.countries.united_states_of_america
State or province:New York
Location of conflict:New York City
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Infrastructure and Built Environment
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Pollution related to transport (spills, dust, emissions)
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Urban development conflicts

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Six out of seven MTA Manhattan bus depots are located north of 100th Street.

Particulate Matter (PM) represents the most dangerous air pollutant resulting from diesel bus combustion. Other pollutants that have a negative health impact include benzene, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:100,000-200,000
Start of the conflict:1988
Company names or state enterprises:Metropolitan Transportation Authority from United States of America
Relevant government actors:Department of Transportation (local, state, and federal)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:WE ACT for Environmental Justice

Conflict and Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches

Impacts of the project

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Noise pollution, Air pollution
Potential: Global warming
Health ImpactsVisible: Other Health impacts
Potential: Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
Other Health impactsAshtma, Cancer, Cardiovascular diseases and other respiratory problems
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/sense of place, Other socio-economic impacts
Other socio-economic impactsHigh asthma rates in children have negative consequences in their school performance (higher number of school absence, poor academic performance, etc.)


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
The lawsuit was responsible for halting the construction of housing atop the depot.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:The controversy sparked one of the most successful large scale environmental justice social marketing campaigns and the formation of a prominent Environmental Justice Organization. Today, New York's MTA has the largest fleet of hybrid-electric buses, and claims to have one of the cleanest transit fleets, in the United States.
However, since a disproportionate number of bus depots remains in the area, WE ACT and other environmental justice organizations continue their fight to press MTA to ensure a more sustainable depot operation.

Sources and Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Shepard, Peggy. "Breathe at Your Own Risk: Transit Justice in West Harlem." race, poverty & the environment (2005): 51-53.

Shepard, Peggy M. "Issues of community empowerment." Fordham Urb. LJ 21 (1993): 739.

The Greenest Cleanest Depot Possible: Rebuilding Mother Clara Hale Depot

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites


Article on the New York Times "Environmental Group Files Complaint Against M.T.A"

WE ACT's Title VI Complaint Against the MTA

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

WE ACT's Dirty Diesel Campaign

WE ACT's campaign is featured at local news

WE ACT's Campaign "If you live Uptown, breath at your own risk"

Locations of Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) bus depots across New York City's Communities of Color by US Census Tract in 1990. Source: WE ACT

MTA representative Tammy Petzios and Millicent Redick, co-chair of the Mother Clara Hale Task Force, lead a discussion on air quality issues

Other comments:This is one of the top 40 influential environmental justice cases in the United States identified from a national survey of environmental activists, scholars and other leaders by graduate students at the University of Michigan

Meta information

Contributor:Alejandro Colsa Pérez, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update08/07/2015