Today, transportation advocates across the country “Speak Up For Transportation,” with the message that our nation’s transportation infrastructure is crumbling before our eyes, and that we need 21st century transportation systems that work for all of us—especially the most disconnected from these systems. At Center for Social Inclusion, we believe that any discussion about improving transportation infrastructure must include discussions around structural racial equity.
Transportation benefits us all—connecting our communities to jobs, health care, and educational opportunities. Public transit, in particular, is vital to people with low incomes and people of color who own fewer cars and tend to live further away from living-wage jobs than their White peers. We know, for instance, that Black people are six times more likely and Latinos three times more likely than White people to rely on public transit. And to compound matters, in the last decade, the proximity of job centers to high-poverty communities has declined by 61 percent, which means that people of color are increasingly disconnected from their jobs.
We all have stake in the economic and social outcomes produced by public transit systems. Not only is public transit better for the environment, but it can act as a catalyst for a stronger American economy— creating and connecting people to jobs. Local communities and governments must align strategies to create public transit systems that work for us all.
Here are some ways we can achieve this:
As the May 31st expiration date for federal transportation funding approaches, national leaders should move toward passage of a transportation bill that equitably invests in transportation infrastructure and public transit. Historically, roads, highways, and bridges get 80% of federal dollars while public transit only receives 20%. This equation needs to change so that public transit systems get a fairer share of dollars. We also need more equitable investments to be tied specifically to reducing racial inequities; evaluative metrics for these investments could include comparing public transit facilities, commute times, and safety.
Locally, public transit authorities should work with communities in a participatory process to identify policies that serve those who rely on their services the most—not just a privileged few. Implementing equity metrics for new public transit projects would ensure that equity, particularly racial equity, is achieved. We have seen examples of successful collaboration between communities and local government to improve access to public transit. For instance, in Seattle, equity advocates’ successful engagement of King County Metro has led to lower fares based on commuter income, which the agency began implementing last month. Seattle’s effort can provide a model for cities across the country—like New York City, where public transit authorities have frequently increased the cost of fares in attempts to the balance large budget deficits.
Instead of targeted, strategic investments in public transit, cities across the country are instead relying on fare increases for public transit and they are hurting our communities—particularly people of color who are more likely to be transit-reliant. These increases are coming at a time when people’s ability to meet basic needs (e.g., affordable housing) is becoming increasingly limited. As Shefali Ranganathan, Director of Programs at Transportation Choices Coalition says, “You’re not going to close the deficit with a fare increase. What you are going to do is put a burden on folks who are transit-dependent.”
It’s time to put our public resources in the communities that need them most, and to ensure that they are accessible to the people in those communities. We cannot continue to kick the can down the road when the road is crumbling. We cannot repeatedly raise public transit fares when our communities cannot afford to pay the fare. By listening to the voices of leaders on the ground, we can identify sustainable solutions that work for all.