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How Can Transit Deliver Urban Equity and Sustainability?

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the essential yet complex role public transit plays in the lives of citizens. Experts say this is the moment to make it physically and financially more accessible to everyone.

Riders board a public bus at a transit station
David Kidd/Government Technology
When the COVID-19 pandemic seized life in Los Angeles and other cities some 18 months ago, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) eliminated fares on its buses, parked some vehicles serving long-haul commuter routes because workers had no use for them and added buses to other routes that still had ridership to ensure proper physical distancing.

These moves — and others — were taken by many transit agencies across the country in a rapid pivot to respond to the pandemic’s many needs and ensure the continued operation of public transportation.

“There’s a lot of takeaways there about the value of mobility, and the power of the public sector to continue to provide those services, even in light of tremendous challenges,” reflected Seleta Reynolds, general manager for LADOT, speaking on a panel with other public transit officials at the CoMotion MIAMI conference in June.

The pandemic has surfaced big-picture conversations around the future of transit and its larger role in urban life as a mechanism for delivering greater equity, economic vitality and sustainability, given transit’s role as a stopgap against the worst effects of climate change.

Reynolds, for her part, has called for “universal basic mobility,” a largely philosophical position that aims to widen access to all forms of transportation. LADOT buses — which operate under a separate transit system from the much larger L.A. Metro — were still free to ride, long after Los Angeles had reopened from its pandemic lockdown. And Reynolds intends to keep it that way.

In May, the L.A. Metro Board of Directors moved forward with a plan to allow students and low-income residents to ride its system for free. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who chairs the Metro board, called the move “the single most important thing we can do to improve equity and mobility in this county.”
Transit systems, like Houston’s METRORail, should play a much bigger role in all areas of urban planning, including housing policy and climate change strategy, according to Simon Berrebi of Georgia Tech.
David Kidd/Government Technology

But free rides are not the only component of reimagined transit in a post-pandemic world. Expect to see more partnerships formed with the private sector as transit operators begin to see themselves more as mobility providers than simply a bus system. Transit agencies like LADOT have formed partnerships with electric car-sharing operations, as well as micromobility modes like rentable bikes and scooters. Elsewhere, bus networks have been redesigned to better serve travel needs during nights, weekends and other periods as the workday shape-shifts from 9 to 5 to all the time. Transit’s speed and reliability has been another focus area as agencies see the service as an antidote to traffic congestion. Features like bus rapid transit lanes are being explored in cities from Miami to Los Angeles.

As transit imagines how it wants to better serve communities, which will ensure its continued relevance, funding will surely guide its trajectory. In the wake of the pandemic, the sector received some $70 billion in federal aid, money seen as an essential lifeline as transit systems encountered unprecedented declines in ridership and fare collections, while other support like local tax collections was significantly scaled back. A bipartisan infrastructure agreement between the White House and Congress would allocate $49 billion for public transit and $66 billion for rail. At this writing, it’s unclear when the $1.2 trillion bill will complete its winding course through Congress, or precisely what form it will take.

However, by the end of the first quarter this year, transit ridership across the nation was still down 57.3 percent compared to the same period in 2020, according to the American Public Transportation Association, underscoring lingering headwinds, particularly for those agencies relying heavily on the farebox for funding.

In the public sector, funding is often discussed as a limitation. As public transit and transportation begin to position these sectors on stronger foundations for resiliency in the modern era, flexibility around how money is spent and where it comes from should be explored, said Reynolds. Adding more flexibility in how public funding can be spent can lead to more creative relationships with the private sector, including startup companies focused on transportation.

“If I’m going to invest some dollars, and those can maybe be in the form of infrastructure, or actual hard dollars, then I get something in return, which is that equitable service,” she added.

“I think on the government side, there’s this misperception that somehow startups are just like … diving into mountains of gold coins and cash; and then on the private-sector side, there’s this sense that government is not competent, government doesn’t have any money, government is slow. And if we could let go of those two misperceptions, we might be able to open up a very different conversation,” said Reynolds.

It’s not just in areas of transportation equity that transit should be flexing its authority, say experts. Public transit should play a more starring role in planning and decision-making when considering policies around housing, land use and climate change, said Simon Berrebi, a transit researcher at Georgia Tech.

“We can’t really plan an effective transportation system in isolation,” Berrebi told Government Technology. “When we’re thinking about infrastructure in a broad sense, now is the time to think of all of the pieces of the transportation system.”

This is why housing policy is transportation policy, he added, “in order to ensure that affordable housing is not just affordable from the standpoint of housing affordability, but also doesn’t require the ownership of a vehicle, which sometimes can make affordable housing unaffordable.”

Echoing this sentiment, Reynolds said that transit is not only in the mobility business.

“We’re in the public health business. We’re in the climate change business. We’re in the economic mobility business. We’re in the correcting racial inequities business. That’s what we do,” she remarked. “Those are the things we deliver. But we’ve never been able to talk about them in that way, in the same way we talk about how many jobs you can reach by car.

“That’s a really key path forward for communicating the right role of the public and private sectors,” she added.

Public transit can play a role in solving some of the “existential” urban challenges, said Berrebi.

“We know that public transportation is the solution. So there needs to be a commitment at the federal level, not just in terms of funding, but also integrating public transportation deeper into the fabric of society, through land use policy and through other transportation access policies — the sidewalk and bike lane piece — with the data and payment apps as well,” said Berrebi.

And consequently, any conversation around transportation and transit policies relates to climate change, since the transportation sector is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we want to address this global and systemic and existential threat that we are facing now, cities need to transition away from the current model of urban planning that centers on cars by building transportation and land use on a human scale,” Berrebi added.
Interior of a Capitol Metro bus in Austin, Texas
To better understand metrics like on-time performance, Capitol Metro in Austin, Texas, equipped its buses with tablets running the Swiftly app.
As transit understands its expanded role as a change agent in not only urban mobility, but also environmental sustainability and societal equity, transportation technology firms have stressed a need for more data-based decision-making as agencies explore service changes, partnerships with other mobility providers and other measures to both work more efficiently and serve a larger mission.

“As those agencies weigh how and when to resume service, I’d urge them to re-evaluate their transit ecosystem with the help of data,” Catie King, director of product at TransLoc, a transportation software company owned by Ford Mobility, told Government Technology.

“Those metrics, it’s not just for your health. It’s so that you can have this funding conversation, and be informed,” said King in her comments at the CoMotion conference.

“How do you do more with less, which is on everyone’s mind right now,” she added. “Funding isn’t going up, need is. How do we apply our resources in a way to get that ROI [return on investment]?”

“Are you spending your money on the routes, services or partnerships that will improve lives for your riders?” King reiterated in follow-up comments with GovTech. “Many agencies are looking at their data and realizing that they don’t have adequate insight into whether their services, or changes to their services, are driving the desired outcomes.”

Data collection and analysis can be accessed via on-vehicle hardware and other technology, to provide insight into fixed-route service, on-demand options, as well as smoothing interoperability among various transportation modes.

“I think there’s a lot more data out there than what we’ve looked at,” said Alice Bravo, recently named Florida district leader for WSP USA, a transportation engineering firm, and the former director of transportation and public works in Miami-Dade County.

The pandemic forced a number of transit agencies to take a serious look at how to use data and technology to provide service in a rapidly changing world. Capital Metro in Austin, Texas, turned to installing the Swiftly app on tablets placed in its buses to better understand metrics like on-time performance.

The city of Arlington, Texas, which uses the on-demand private-sector mobility provider Via for all of its transit needs, launched an autonomous shuttle service, allowing riders to book rides for any destination within the service area.

“Transit agencies were under an incredible amount of pressure, because on one hand they needed to provide service for essential workers, who kept society running, while on the other hand facing constrained capacity … And in the face of these challenges, used data and their own knowledge of the system to provide lifeline service,” Berrebi said.

TransLoc launched a program known as Fixed to Flex, which allowed agencies to introduce a microtransit system in place of a fixed route, “and do it really quickly, with our experts helping them to simulate what that’s going to look like before a single vehicle starts driving,” said King.

The simulation gives transit agencies a window into variables like number of vehicles needed, capacity levels and more.

“We saw agencies take the leap into microtransit that maybe had been hesitant before,” King added.

Transit should also gravitate toward simpler technology arrangements that do not involve a number of vendors that may not enable the sort of data sharing and analysis needed for a transit system that’s nimble, responsive and dynamic.

“The result for agencies is that, rather than working with eight different vendors, they can work with one, pay less, simplify relationships and see better results,” said King.

The challenges of the last 18 months — which Reynolds quipped felt like seven years — have served as a spotlight on the areas where transit has perhaps not kept up with the quickening pace of mobility, but also its ability to adjust, be innovative and serve larger societal goals.

“There is no tolerance for failure on the part of the public sector,” Reynolds reflected. “So the stakes are very high for us. But what we see is a pathway for a different kind of transit agency that does work with the private sector in a variety of ways, but that is always really, really clear about our values and our outcomes, and has the tools available to enable innovation.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.