The blog of the Urban Institute
January 4, 2021

Four Lessons for Cities to Help Advance Equitable Transportation during the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, access to dependable, affordable public transportation is more important than ever. Many essential workers rely on public transportation to commute to jobs providing critical services, like health care. But they and many others don’t have equal access to affordable transportation. Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC); people with disabilities; the elderly; and people with irregular work schedules often face significant barriers to finding safe and affordable means of transportation to work, and they did long before the pandemic began.

The Urban Institute explored this issue during a recent webinar, when we showcased our new transportation equity data tool and hosted a panel discussion with city and community leaders nationwide. Speakers discussed barriers to transportation equity and solutions cities can use to increase equity in the wake of COVID-19. Four lessons emerged from the conversation.

  1. Policymakers too often prioritize roads and highways at the expense of more-needed infrastructure. These decisions perpetuate structurally racist policies that have decreased access to jobs and services for BIPOC. Throughout US history, policies and systems have impeded opportunities for BIPOC. Black residents, on average, have one-tenth the wealth of non-Hispanic white residents, and Hispanic residents have less than one-fifth. These wealth disparities make it harder to purchase a car, reducing access to jobs, and are one reason a disproportionate number of people of color rely on public transit. According to the Pew Research Center, 34 percent of Black people and 27 percent of Hispanic people report taking public transit daily or weekly, compared with 14 percent of white people.

    Some policies are exacerbating these inequities across the country. Community leaders in Baltimore have highlighted how disinvestment in Baltimore’s Red Line project demonstrates allegiance to Baltimore’s history of segregationist transportation policy by prioritizing highways and roads over public transportation. In Michigan, Governor Whitmer campaigned with a “Fix the Damn Roads” slogan. Although the Michigan government is promoting active transportation options, the focus on roads over other investments may lead to policy that has less benefit for families in need.
  2. During the pandemic, many areas have had to reduce funding for equitable transportation, which hurts the frontline essential workers who need it the most. As cities realign their budgets in the wake of revenue losses caused by the pandemic, some cities have begun to disinvest in public transportation. Washington, DC, for example, is operating on reduced levels of public transportation until at least next spring and has proposed drastically cutting services for fiscal year 2022, including eliminating weekend Metrorail service, closing 19 Metrorail stations, and eliminating 2,400 jobs.

    Across the board, panelists think such divestment is shortsighted. In the short-term, disinvesting in public transportation hurts workers who are still traveling during the pandemic, those who often lack access to a vehicle. Reducing service also causes overcrowding, which could exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus. In the long-term, this disinvestment could leave cities unprepared for when most people resume their commutes, especially disadvantaging residents without alternative transportation options.
  3. Equitable public transit should not only include increasing funding for public transit but also changing how we fund it. Carrie S. Cihak, chief of policy at King County Metro, shared that King County has made its transit system more affordable, which is an important first step. But, she argued, to create a truly equitable system, funding for public transportation cannot rely on taxes disproportionately borne by low-income people.

    Nearly all public transportation systems are funded at least in part through sales taxes, which are regressive because they take a larger share of income from low-income taxpayers than from high-income taxpayers. More progressive taxes, such as income taxes, may be better sources of funding.

    Jurisdiction over transit decisionmaking is also important. Advocates in Baltimore have argued to amend the city charter to create a regional transportation authority, which would shift power from the state to the region. Such changes would give metropolitan areas more autonomy in decisionmaking and fundraising for residents, which would likely result in more equitable outcomes.
  4. Engaging community leaders and residents from the start can create more equitable, better policy outcomes. Time and again, panelists emphasized the importance of engaging the communities most affected by transportation decisions to ensure that proposed policies will work as intended.

    Cihak explained how King County Metro convened a community-based mobility equity cabinet composed of 23 community leaders who represent people with low and no incomes, BIPOC, immigrant and refugee communities, and people working on English proficiency. Through the experience, they learned that “taking time to invest in those relationships has made progress go much faster than it would have if we were working on our own.… We have to go slow to go fast.” Cihak also highlighted the importance of paying people in the community for their help, just as the government would pay consultants.

    Nonprofit organizations expressed similar experiences. Andrés Martinez shared how his organization, Conexión Américas was providing food boxes to immigrants in Nashville via drive-through pick-up services. However, after seeking feedback from their community, they realized many people who did not have access to cars couldn’t get food boxes. After hearing this, Conexión Américas worked with Urban to identify new, walkable food distribution sites, using neighborhood characteristics to identify where the sites would reach as many food-insecure residents as possible.

Equitable transportation can help connect people to jobs, resources, and services and improve access to opportunity. Cities seeking to advance equity should consider these four lessons, which are more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Berks Area Reading Transportation Authority bus with a message displayed reading "No Mask No Ride" drives up Walnut Street to the intersection with 13th Street in Reading, Pennsylvania, on December 16, 2020, during a snow storm. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

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