By Laura Chu Wiens, Caroline Slama, and Yasha Zarrinkelk
Transit systems nationwide are bracing for the worst, but for many public transit riders in Pennsylvanias cities, towns, and rural regions, the worst-case scenario has already been here for months.
There has been much discussion nationally about how transit’s death spiral will continue unless Congress passes a stimulus to send public transit systems an additional $39.3 billion to get through 2023.
However, while federal legislators have been responsive to the call for transit funding, relief has yet to reach many transit riders.
During this pandemic, transit agencies across Pennsylvania have implemented emergency service cuts and enforced full fares, causing huge ramifications on the lives of public transit’s core riders – who are overwhelmingly women, low-income, and/or people of color.
When your job depends on being able to take the bus to work, service cuts mean an inability to support yourself and your family.
Transit funding is in crisis. But the remedy cannot be to cut service for those who need it most, nor to extract fare revenue off the backs of those who can least afford to pay.
We need Congress to allocate substantial resources to resuscitate transit agencies, and for Gov. Tom Wolf and local agencies to use that funding to restore full transit access for low-income riders. Access to quality public transportation is not an amenity people can do without.
It is a public utility that is just as essential as access to electricity, water, and food. Just as we cannot eat to retroactively satiate ourselves after months of hunger, nor easily address the consequences of an eviction after months of being homeless, the impact of making transit inaccessible to low-income or no income riders is irreversible.
A key issue is that, unlike many utility companies, public transit agencies do not have a monopoly on service or a “captive” consumer base.
Too often, public transit’s core riders are viewed as “dependent,” in contrast to more affluent “choice” riders with various other transportation options. Not only is this dichotomy deeply discriminatory, it is also false.
When service is expensive and bad, or when gentrification displaces transit riders beyond the system’s reach, riders stop taking public transit.
It implicitly justifies transit planning that takes low-income riders and riders of color for granted because they imagine those riders have nowhere else to go. If core ridership doesn’t make it through this pandemic, there will be no one left to come back if service is restored.
Most transit cuts made by agencies across the country in response to COVID-19 have disproportionately harmed vulnerable communities.
Many service reductions have not yet been restored, despite the influx of federal support. These cuts have led to overcrowded buses passing up riders and long waits for buses that never arrive. At the same time, some rail and bus routes in more affluent areas continue to operate far below capacity because of legacy discriminatory pricing practices.
Just as a public utility’s services are delivered when and where customers need them, Pennsylvania’s transit agencies must provision service and prioritize access in a way that matches riders’ needs.
Agencies should follow the lead of Allegheny County’s Port Authority, and increase service on the busiest routes– those that serve low-income communities and communities of color – even if it means decreasing the number of buses running on routes with less demand.
This also means increasing service at off-peak times, to ensure that riders working in service industries or healthcare, and those riding transit for purposes other than going to work are not left stranded on evenings and weekends.
Long before the pandemic, lack of affordable, quality public transportation has placed a major financial burden on low-income households.
This burden has only become greater in our current economic emergency. While some agencies suspended fare collection at the start of the pandemic, many have reinstated full fares for all riders regardless of the fact that the pandemic rages on – adding yet another insurmountable barrier to mobility.
Similar to an eviction moratorium and just as consequential, transit agencies must put a moratorium on “shutting off” transit access and preserve access to public transit during this emergency, regardless of riders’ ability to pay.
Allowing those eligible for SNAP benefits to show their Access Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to board buses for free would stimulate transit ridership numbers and would have cascading public health and economic benefits, for a very low upfront cost.
The moral imperative of ensuring the survival of low-income communities and communities of color should be reason enough to ensure they are able to travel to work, the grocery store, and healthcare providers.
But no matter where we live or how we commute, we all benefit from robust and accessible public transit systems. If essential workers cannot get to work because transit service has been slashed, there will be no economic recovery.
Fare relief for all low-income transit riders across Pennsylvania for one year could be implemented with a modest amount of the over $7 billion that Pennsylvania will receive in the latest federal COVID-19 stimulus, and would go a long way towards ensuring that all Pennsylvanians can get back to work.
We cannot wait to address barriers around service and fares. The impacts of inadequate and costly service imperil riders’ access to critical amenities now; they also inhibit our state’s recovery effort.
The national call for emergency federal transit funding is less about preserving the “system” of public transit than the lives of those who ride it.
Those with the most at stake should have the biggest voice in determining how resources are allocated – especially in times of crisis. Equity is not merely an afterthought, buzzword, or consideration only for prosperous times, but a moral imperative and a requirement for a thriving public transit system.
Laura Chu Wiens is the executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit. Caroline Slama, Coordinating Committee Member of the Philly Transit Riders Union, and Yasha Zarrinkelk, Coalition Organizer of Transit Forward Philadelphia are collaborating to organize transit riders, transit workers and allied organizations around equitable, expanded and sustainable transit statewide.