The COVID-19 pandemic has offered global societies a chance to reimagine our public spaces. Open streets became all the rage in the spring and summer of 2020 with cities like New York and Oakland limiting car traffic to encourage people to spend time outdoors safely. Paris gave us a glimpse of the post-COVID city by establishing special cycleways for bicyclists to safely commute to work. Amid all this transformation and hope, however, came a sobering dose of reality: Money (still) runs the world.
With people staying home, spending less, and avoiding trains or buses, many public transit agencies in the U.S. have suffered. In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) largely relies on commuters to feed its budget. How can we shift away from a car-dependent world to address the transportation sector’s greenhouse gas problem without expanding our public transit systems and building more walkable cities? Well, we can’t. The real question is: How do we invest in public transit while centering equity and accessibility?
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re looking to the future. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. With new President Joe Biden in the White House, I thought it might be a great time for Futures Week: a special themed week (remember those) where I’ll assess what our futures should look like in a decarbonized world and the changes we need to see in our communities to make them a reality. For the first time in, well, four years, the future’s looking bright—even for the transit sector. Let’s get into it, baby.
One of the most powerful utopian visions is the fictional country of Wakanda. This is where Marvel’s Black Panther takes place. As several writers have highlighted in previous stories, Wakanda’s streets are devoid of personal vehicles. Instead, slow-moving street cars roll through pedestrian-dotted corridors. This superhero-clad African nation has evolved past the polluted traffic jams we in the U.S. know too well. Wakandans have embraced alternative transit and streetscapes that put people first—not vehicles.
Turns out that the big barrier to building this world is money. A lack of political will drives that.
“Funding transit operations is probably the fastest way that we can add a lot more service and make transit more appealing to more people,” says Ben Fried, communications director for the Transit Center. “At the end of the day, it is important to build new rail lines and expand capacity, but the need is much more greater to just expand services of all kinds and be able to expand bus networks and hire bus drivers so we can run service that comes frequently all day long in most parts of most cities. That can really only happen with a big expansion of operating budgets.”
One component of Biden’s celebrated climate plan is public transportation. He’s appointed former Mayor Pete Buttigieg as secretary of transportation and promised to provide every American city with at least 100,000 residents with “high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options” through federal investments. That’s a big promise. It’s also a necessary one: Transportation is the largest greenhouse gas contributor in the U.S.
“If you look at the transportation world now, the reality is that there aren’t enough folks who look like me in positions of power. There aren’t enough Indigenous folks. There aren’t enough folks with disabilities.”
The Urban Institute has estimated that such a transformation would require an additional $2 billion annual investment at minimum. The price tag goes up with the level of ambition, per the Urban Institute, but making a New York City-level of public transit available across the U.S. would still cost less than what the federal government spends on highways: $48 billion.
While the future looks bright under Biden, there is some uncertainty given the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact. The MTA wasn’t alone in its financial woes; the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and Washington D.C. Metro were right there with New York. The agencies will likely face a slow start regardless of what money comes their way, in part, because of all the workers they lost during this period. At least some 237 public transit workers in the U.S. have died from the virus, according to a September story from the American Prospect, and those numbers may be higher now. Then, there are the workers who quit out of health concerns or were laid off due to financial issues. These employees aren’t easy to replace, says Christof Spieler, the director of architectural engineering company Huitt-Zollars.
In turn, you wind up with service that’s “less attractive,” Spieler says. Then, people start buying cars. This worst-case scenario is totally avoidable. Elected officials decide where our public dollars go—and they can direct it toward smoother sidewalks, elevators, accessible crosswalks, public transit, bike lanes, bus lanes, and pedestrian corridors. Otherwise, we’ll never abandon our private vehicles. And, no, electric vehicles won’t be enough.
“If you care about us being a world with a lower carbon footprint, you should care about building less car infrastructure,” Spieler says. “It would lead to that money being used to better transit. Plus, it would encourage people to drive less… We’re building the infrastructure that is basically locking people into driving.”
Tamika Butler, the principal of her own consulting firm on equity and anti-racism related to the transportation sector, knows the industry has a lot of work to do. That’s true both externally and internally. That funding aspect—and whether our dollars go toward buses or highways—is one piece, sure. For her, agencies need to evolve from the inside out. If agency officials don’t reflect the riders they are supporting, how are they supposed to know what to do? A lack of diversity in this sector contributes to the continued failure of American public transportation.
“If you look at the transportation world now, the reality is that there aren’t enough folks who look like me in positions of power,” says Butler, who identifies as a gender nonconforming, Black queer woman. “There aren’t enough Indigenous folks. There aren’t enough folks with disabilities.”
Accessibility has long been insufficient. How many train stations or buses do you see with the technology to accommodate someone in a wheelchair? Or someone who is visually impaired? The New York City subway system fails this community at 75 percent of its stations. These are the types of questions city planners need to ask themselves while also centering equity, says Jordana Maisel, the director of research at the University at Buffalo’s IDEA Center. That means going deeper and finding solutions for those with disabilities who also might be living in poverty, so they don’t have a smartphone to find accessible stations. Or perhaps they’re undocumented and don’t have a formal banking account to link to their payment method.
“Are we addressing all these unique concerns that different populations have?” Maisel asks.
We’ve seen gentrification, displacement, and resentment follow when equity is missing from the equation. Sometimes, developers build luxury units near train stations that have long existed and push out families who’ve been there for generations as rents skyrocket as a result. Other times, new stations encourage such development. Just look at California where cities like San Diego and Los Angeles have experienced it firsthand.
The key ingredient to avoiding these situations in the future and building a true utopian world of transit is a shift in power, Butler says. Diversity for diversity’s sake won’t work. It rarely does. Once that happens, the money should follow. Then, maybe, just maybe, we can all breathe a little easier as fewer cars idle outside our windows. Your neighbor who uses a wheelchair for mobility can finally take spontaneous trips to the nearby park as bus technologies upgrade to make them accessible. That young fast-food worker can safely get home from her overnight shift without worrying about sitting in a dark station where no train appears in sight.
These realities aren’t yet possible for many of us. If we can build the courage to demand the world we want—the world we deserve—perhaps our leaders will finally listen.
Update, January 27, 2020, 1:45 pm ET: This story has been updated to clarify Ben Fried’s quote. The quote previously read “bus suites” instead of “bus networks,” but Fried meant to say the latter.