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By Nicole Wong, Campaign Manager


The COVID-19 pandemic has paved a troubling road ahead for our public transportation system. Since the pandemic hit, ridership has fallen steeply—for some by nearly 90 percent. With more people staying home and telecommuting, sales tax and fare revenues have also declined dramatically, leaving transit agencies with difficult choices as they face alarming budget shortfalls in the tens of billions

As transportation leaders illuminated in our recent Transit Equity Town Hall, a safe, reliable, and affordable transit system has always been essential. The pandemic has crystallized this. A healthy transit system is crucial for ensuring not only healthy communities, but also a healthy economy and planet. While some workers have had the privilege to work from home, 2.8 million essential workers have continued to rely on public transit to reach essential jobs, healthcare, grocery stores, and other critical services. 

In addition to economic equity, transit is also a racial and environmental equity issue. The majority of essential workers who use transit are people of color. Due to a history of systemic racism in transportation planning and disinvestment, Black and brown communities have faced the greatest barriers to accessing quality mobility options and are most heavily impacted by pollution from our transportation system. These same communities have been hit worst by the COVID-19 virus. Additionally, as an important lower carbon mobility option, public transit is essential to our fight against climate change because our transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

The future, if we’re going to recover, has got to be with reliable transit. We just all can’t get into autos. We don’t have the space. Our lungs can’t handle it. Transit’s gotta be a critical piece.

Sandra Padilla, Transportation Planner with San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

Multiple hurdles stand in the way of transforming our transportation system. One key challenge will be addressing public perceptions around safety on transit. For instance, a survey in May conducted by the Regional Transportation District in Denver, Colorado of 2,700 users found that riders are more concerned about their safety when riding public transit than going to the grocery store. According to another survey that Tri-State Transportation Campaign conducted of over 1,000 transit riders in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, riders want to see increased cleaning, mask requirements, and increased service frequency amongst other measures in order to feel safer on transit. Encouragingly, 92 percent of riders indicated they will return to public transit after COVID-19.

As transit agencies work to build trust with returning riders, initial evidence from other countries cautiously indicates that the risk of COVID-19 transmission on public transit vehicles may be lower than people fear. Early studies in both Paris and Austria have failed to trace coronavirus case clusters back to transit. Additionally, no major COVID-19 outbreaks have been associated with transit in places where ridership levels are reviving. For instance, populous cities with robust transit networks like Tokyo and Hong Kong saw comparatively lower COVID-19 caseloads than the U.S. A key public health measure to promote safety on transit seems to be compliance with mask wearing while on board.

Transit agencies across the country declared the need for 32 to 36 billion dollars to continue operating through 2021

Adequate funding is another roadblock to keeping public transit running. In July, transit agencies across the country declared the need for 32 to 36 billion dollars to continue operating through 2021. The consequences of that money failing to come through would be profound and compounding. Transit agencies may need to increase fares at a time when unemployment is high and low income riders already face challenges affording existing fares. Service may become even more infrequent when transit riders already face long commute times and unreliable bus schedules. Some transit agencies, like the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, will be forced to cut bus lines altogether.

Congress will make final decisions about federal transit funding in the next few weeks, but with zero money included in the recent Senate Republican stimulus proposal for public transit, the outlook is concerning.

Make your voice heard

There are many ways to make your voice heard in the last stages of this fight. Encourage your Senator to stand up for transit funding or attend a CA emergency discussion on Friday 8/7 to find out more ways to help #SavePublicTransit.

Regardless of how much funding comes through, our town hall panelists offered key insights regarding the way forward for transit. Two messages are clear:

1. We must get serious about transit equity

As transit agencies decide how to allocate strained resources, it is imperative that they apply a transit equity lens. Town hall panelists identified important aspects that guide their thinking around transit equity:

  • Lateefah Simon, President of Akonadi Foundation and the BART Board of Directors, defined transit equity as “accessibility by any means necessary, affordability by any means necessary, and accountability by any means necessary.” 
  • Joshua Malloy, Community Organizer with Pittsburghers for Public Transit, added that “transit equity … means building transit for the people who depend on it” with a focus on Black, brown, and low income communities and communities with disabilities. He said it means giving communities an active voice in shaping the planning process.
  • Another layer to transit equity is “access to destination.” As Samuel Jordan, President of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition described, “You can have a bus stop right in front of your house and still be a mile from your job when you take that bus…There’s an access to destination issue that’s just as important to access to transit itself.”

Transit equity then is not just about who is being served but also how – is a transit system adequately meeting the needs of the most vulnerable riders? Transit agencies like LA Metro and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency have applied an equity strategy toward service allocation and COVID-19 recovery, and other transit agencies must also incorporate equity into their planning as we come out of this pandemic

2. We must emerge from this pandemic with a transit system that is better than before

In addition to ensuring our transit system is affordable, reliable, and equitable, seeding a better transportation future starts with transforming how people value public transit and its role in our society.

  • At a time when elected leaders may cite low ridership as a reason to direct funding away from transit and toward roads and highways, which could exacerbate existing inequities in our transportation system, we must emphasize public transit’s powerful role in COVID-19 and economic recovery. As Samuel Jordan, President of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, pointed out, this requires counteracting harmful stigmas associated with public transit, such as assumptions that “Black crime” and COVID-19 make public transit unsafe. Plus, we must center the invaluable contributions of transit workers and core needs of transit riders within larger narratives about public transit.
  • Lateefah Simon, President of the Akonadi Foundation and BART Board of Directors, explained it this way: “It is important for agencies and activists to understand we’re in trouble and mobility is a human right, period…some folks don’t have a choice and they absolutely need to get to dialysis…to clock into work to make sure we all have groceries…to know that when the bus says it’s going to be there at 9:30 it’s going to be there at 9:30.”
  • Another key to improving public transit is creating more inclusive and democratic decision-making models for public transit. Directly elected transit agency boards and regional transportation authorities are just two examples of bodies that can create more accountability for riders and communities in how transportation decisions get made.

In sum, COVID-19 has served as a prism, showing us how transit is essential to keeping our society running and to solving issues around economic, racial, and environmental justice in the future. As the fight for federal transit funding and transit equity continues, we must keep in mind some of the lessons learned during this time and innovative strategies that we can apply toward the building of a better transportation system for all.