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Public Transit Pivots Toward Equity, Accessibility in 2021

As America moved forward from the pandemic's initial throes, transportation experts examined their role in social equity as they considered eliminating fares, expanding transit lines and starting a "mobility revolution."

passenger putting a bike on the front of a city bus in Kansas City
Kansas City/Ride KC
As the nation’s transportation systems emerged from the COVID-19-imposed lockdowns, it became clear that a certain Rubicon had been crossed, a deeper understanding of transportation’s place in society had been reached, and a vision for the future had been glimpsed.

“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,” was how Seleta Reynolds, general manager for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, summed up the work of public transit and transportation at the CoMotion MIAMI conference in June.

What Reynolds and so many other public transit officials have been repeating in various forms over the last year is this larger societal role that transit and transportation have been called to serve as they embark on their next chapter. For decades transportation has been the business of building roads, bridges and rail lines to serve cars, buses and trains. But in the last several months the conversation — and the business of transportation — has taken a noticeable turn. It has become a conversation dominated by debates around equity, sustainability and the essential role of transit and transportation in society.

“We’re having a conversation about strategic investment, which I really appreciate,” reflected Danielle Harris, director of mobility innovation at Elemental Excelerator, a funder of startups.

“What is the best way to get the economy back and going? What is the best way to help people get back to work? And what’s the best way to put that funding in place? I think we’re questioning all things, today. And that’s what gives me a lot of hope,” said Harris on a panel discussion in July.

When transit ridership plummeted in 2020 — which meant fare revenue also took a nosedive — fresh debate began to emerge around fares, and how they impact the most vulnerable riders and can make for an unstable funding stream. Major systems like L.A. Metro are taking steps to eliminate fares for students and other residents living on the economic edge. It’s part of a larger mission toward “universal basic mobility,” which is itself a declaration to improve equity across the entire transportation ecosystem.

“We really think it’s made a difference,” remarked Robbie Makinen, CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority in Kansas City, Mo., on the move to eliminate fares altogether. “We really think we designed our system around the people that need us the most.”

“The return on investment for compassion, for empathy, for social equity … far outweighs the return on investment in concrete and asphalt. What do you want to invest in?” Makinen said in July.

And of course, humming in the background of all these conversations is the federal infrastructure bill, approved by both the U.S. Senate and the House as of early November. The measure will send about $39 billion to public transit, and about $66 billion to commuter rail, Amtrak and other passenger rail services. A centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, the legislation represents a major source of investment in innovation across all transportation sectors.

It’s in this vein that cities are moving forward with rethinking the public right of way, following many pandemic-inspired “slow streets” projects, which prioritized pedestrians, cyclists and even diners above parking and travel lanes. These hastily assembled configurations served as de facto proving grounds for what is possible on tomorrow’s city streets.

John Rossant, a leading urbanist and CEO and founder of the mobility-focused think tank CoMotion, referred to this period of transition as “a historic, unprecedented sea-change in how we approach equity and inclusiveness.”

“We’re only at the beginning of this historic mobility revolution,” Rossant said.
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 Sacramento.
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