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Op-ed by Daniel Huynh & Peter Pham | October 25, 2020 | Originally published on San José Spotlight

Weeks into the fall semester, instead of catching the bus or train to campus, we are learning from home.

Both COVID-19 and the recent California wildfires have kept us indoors and amplified the ongoing struggles that our families and communities face. As the smoke fades and our region recovers from COVID-19, returning to “normal” is top of mind for college students in San Jose and across the country.

However, our local transit agency, the Valley Transit Authority (VTA), is considering up to a 30% drop in transit service. Across the country, transit agencies are seeking at least $32 billion in federal relief just to cover operating costs.

Fortunately, the House heard the public outcry and included this amount in the latest proposed HEROES Act, but the fate of this stimulus package is still unknown. Unless our leaders take action to fund and preserve our public transit systems, normal will always feel out of reach.

Hundreds of our fellow students rely on school transit passes to get around. For many — like us — it’s the most affordable option, cutting costly expenses like gas and parking fees.

Public transit has allowed us to reach crucial destinations when our parents are working and unable to offer us a ride. For others — including our peers, younger students, seniors and people with disabilities — public transit is the only option to get around. During COVID-19, public transit is an even greater lifeline, getting nurses and other essential workers to work safely. If we fail to invest in our public transportation system now, we risk leaving the most vulnerable among us excluded from paths to recovery.

In the wake of the worst wildfires in California’s history, which filled the air with toxic smoke, it’s clear that the state must do more to counter climate change if we want a livable future. With transportation making up nearly 40 percent of California’s greenhouse gas pollution, it should be the first place we start.

The majority of greenhouse gas emissions from our transportation system come from personal (light duty) vehicles on the road, whereas public transit is one of the cleanest transportation options. If the VTA implements 30 percent service cuts, wait times might increase to as much as 60 minutes and more people may opt for personal vehicles.

Greater carbon emissions and warmer conditions will only strengthen the intensity of future fires to come, and worsen the air pollution we already breathe from congested roadways.

Yet amidst high unemployment, a global pandemic and our present climate emergency, transit agencies in San Jose and across the country are considering major service changes: 61 percent of transit agencies may cut service, 38 percent may eliminate routes and 17 percent may increase fares. San Jose is no exception, and even before the pandemic, our transit systems were inadequate. In December 2019, the VTA eliminated a primary bus route that we relied on to commute to San Jose State University, leaving little to no options to get to school.

Now more than ever, we need robust public funding to keep buses moving. As students, we need more frequent, affordable service now and after in-person learning returns. We worry about the increased traffic in downtown San Jose, friends who live near fire evacuation zones and planning for our future that politicians seem to push off. As students who are just beginning
our lives and careers, this cannot become the new reality for our generation and those to come.

We must ensure that everyone can access breathable air and essential destinations. The long road to recovery needs a healthy transit system and the voices of youth to get there.

Daniel Huynh is a fourth-year student studying political science at San Jose State University Peter Pham is a third-year student studying public health and molecular environmental biology at UC Berkeley.

*Image from San José Spotlight

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