Public transit is a public good. A greener alternative to fossil-fuel cars, public transit has climate benefits and makes cities more accessible. Yet, as COVID has drastically changed Americans’ use of public transportation, there is vastly unequal access to public transit across American cities and infrastructure urgently needs updating.
About 45 percent of Americans have no access to public transit. Black households are three times as likely as white households to have no access to a vehicle. When transit is accessible only for some, there are negative consequences to lack of access for all.
In an effort to reduce inequality in access, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu recently secured funding for fare-free transit on three bus routes in the city and hopes to make fare-free travel a reality for all. Similarly, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority is pilot-testing a fare-free travel plan on some buses to reduce inequality in access to transit.
In 2019, the last pre-COVID year for public transit use, Americans took more than 9.9 billion trips on buses and trains. That same year, almost 8 million people used public transit to travel to work. However, the average one-way bus commute is almost 47 minutes, perhaps discouraging more workers from using public transit. Additionally, the United States historically has invested in highways, rather than public transit, meaning many workers cannot commute without access to a vehicle.
During the pandemic, many people have worked remotely all or part of the time and have minimized trips on public transit to reduce their risk of contracting the virus, leading to declines in ridership numbers. Many of those who must go out have relied more heavily on cars to remain socially distanced from others. At the same time, automobile deaths rose sharply during the first half of last year.
This is happening as the United States faces an infrastructure crisis. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a grade of C- on their 2021 Infrastructure Report Card. In November, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was signed into law, providing in part investments for more climate-friendly car and bus infrastructure.
Federal investments in better transit infrastructure would allow more cities to offer fare-free travel. Los Angeles, unlike most cities, does not rely on fares to operate its public transit system. The city offered fare-free travel during the pandemic as a safety mechanism. However, estimates show that there were unintended climate and equity benefits to the fare-free program in Los Angeles. Research has shown globally that more accessible cities with integrated transit networks increase equity and climate benefits for all.
The Chicago Transit Authority received $912 million from the American Rescue Plan to help recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. This money will support jobs and help the agency enhance its low-carbon transportation services.
There are tremendous positive impacts of public transit. Every $1 invested in transit generates $5 in economic returns. Traveling by public transit is 10 times safer per mile than traveling by automobile. New evidence suggests younger generations are more frequent users and supporters of public transit.
Public transportation is a greener alternative. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, transportation makes up 29 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and 41 percent of these emissions come from cars.
Some states provide excellent public transit in their cities and have bills pending in their state legislatures to expand and protect public transit.
In Washington state, the legislature is hearing bills about enhanced public transit zones and supplemental transit appropriations. Advocates have authored a “Transportation Bill of Rights” and are arguing for “just transportation.” This framework is designed to take concrete steps to stop the extractive and unjust systems that can contribute to the climate crisis and systemic racism.
In Utah, House Bill 322 would allow the Utah Department of Transportation to undertake the projects of expanding light rail and rapid transit bus lines. Utah House Majority Leader Mike Schultz said, “It needs to be done, honestly. We need to think regionally, being the fastest growing state in the nation. We need to think 10, 20, 30 years out.”
However, not all states are supporting and advocating for public transit.
In Indiana, Senate Republicans recently introduced a bill that would stymie transit development in Indianapolis. In 2016, Indianapolis voters passed a referendum to raise taxes to pay for new rapid transit bus lines, a referendum still supported by 87 percent of registered voters in 2021. Despite wide support, Indiana representatives continue to introduce legislation to effectively end them. The latest is Senate Bill 369, trying to stop the development of the Blue Line rapid transit bus line that will connect downtown and East Indianapolis to the airport. Since 2014, Indianapolis has been banned from building light rail in the city.
To be sure, not everyone supports or uses public transit, and it is expensive to adequately fund. On a per-mile basis, the United States has some of the most expensive transit in the world. Opponents sometimes argue that public transit development would disrupt traffic and local businesses along the route. However, despite the big price tag for well-constructed and adequately funded transit, benefits are widespread.
A 2021 report by the Brookings Institution argues for purposeful investment from the federal government in transit infrastructure because there are economic costs if we fail to modernize our public transit. Federal investment in public transit and federal-state partnerships to ensure quality transit for all can address these needs. Going forward, policymakers need to invest mightily in public transit. It’s time to make public transit a guaranteed public good for all.
Ana María Ferreira, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Spanish and Latin American literature and culture at the University of Indianapolis. Colleen E. Wynn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology and co-director of the Community Research Center at the University of Indianapolis. Both are Public Voices Fellows through The OpEd Project.