Transportation access is the No. 1 factor in lifting adults out of poverty, an often overlooked finding from the last several years’ wave of big data research into economic mobility, or the lack thereof, in this country.
Transit is a crucial component in creating healthy neighborhoods, equity, and economic justice. But just as gentrification debates suck up a lot of the air in housing conversations, certain parts of the transportation conversation hog of the air time. Expanding rail lines, and the emerging world of bike shares and scooters are things that interest young urban professionals—and concern those who fear the affordability and cultural changes that tend to follow those professionals—and so a lot of time and ink is spent on them. They are still important, of course. We absolutely need far more and better rail service and multi-modal transportation options to get to where we can meaningfully reduce our car dependence.
But until the vast demand for walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods is actually met, we need to intentionally mitigate the rising unaffordability that comes with those neighborhoods.
But it would nonetheless be a mistake to let those conversations define all of what transit activism or advocacy can be. Improvements in existing transit—usually buses—can make a huge difference in the lives of low-income households, without being as likely as a new train station to spark real estate speculation.
What sorts of improvements? Here’s a quick, non-exhaustive list of examples:
- Rationalizing bus routes. Many places have bus systems that were developed a long time ago. They are inefficiently serving old population and job centers, while not serving new ones at all. A detailed overhaul of bus routes and stops can often be a cost-neutral way to serve many more people, and serve them better. Of course such an overhaul will not be without losses of service to some folks, and must be done with equity outcomes firmly in mind. “Frustrating and obsolete transit networks seem eternal, unchangeable, until one night they change,” writes transit consultant Jarrett Walker about the day in 2015 when Houston launched a cost-neutral redesigned bus system that more than doubled the number of people it was able to reach, and increased its frequency dramatically. This is something that needs to be undertaken by a transit agency, but community-specific support is crucial to get the ball (bus?) rolling and inform the process with local knowledge about transit experiences and needs.
- Seeking partners to expand ridership. As part of a successful larger bid to increase ridership, Richmond, Virginia, created a deal with Virginia Commonwealth University to let its employees and students ride for free, including employees of the university’s affiliated hospital, a major employer. The county government also chipped in to expand service out to a suburban mall that had become a job center.
- Adding frequency or service where it’s needed. As a complement or precedent to route rationalizing, adding frequency and/or extending service hours on existing routes serving low-income areas dramatically increases mobility equity, helping people reliably get where they need to go and spend less time doing it. These are campaigns that can sometimes be folded into a larger rerouting when it comes along as happened with AVillage, in Albany, N.Y. The community organization worked in the city’s South End, a neighborhood at the bottom of a steep hill. Most of the city’s health care facilities were concentrated around two major hospitals at the top of the hill, but no bus ran between them. Thanks to organizing from AVillage, a new loop route was added in 2011 that made it much easier for the neighborhood’s residents to access the healthcare they needed—plus jobs at the medical centers. Indianapolis also recently organized to increase bus frequency, focusing on stories like parents who had hours-long commutes that kept them from their children
- Making Fares Accessible. A low-income fare discount can bring a measure of equity to a transportation system, especially given the benefits regular users of transit provide to a region. More ambitiously, better funding from other sources for transit could lower fares across the board, which helps low-income riders, doesn’t cause a “cliff effect” when rising income makes the discount suddenly go away, and encourages more ridership. Many cities around the world have moved to make some or all of their transit system free. Fareless systems can increase mobility and accessibility and ridership, but from an equity standpoint, beware of partially free systems that benefit those who need it least, like free fares only on a downtown circulator shuttle or airport connection, especially if those rides are subsidized by riders on other routes.
- Improving Pedestrian Infrastructure. Crosswalks, lights, walking bridges, and other pedestrian safety infrastructure around bus stops, especially ones that are on highways or near suburban job centers, are crucial to making transit use safe for those who rely on it (plus more appealing to those who don’t). It’s startling just how many bus stops exist on the side of a multi-lane road with neither sidewalks nor crosswalks in easy reach. People in low-income areas, and people of color, are more likely to be killed by vehicles while walking. Lack of infrastructure could be part of the reason.
- Creating Bus-Friendly Roads. When roads are being redesigned, advocate for designs that are bus (and pedestrian) friendly. This isn’t always obvious. Beth Osborne of Transportation for America told me that people often think, for example, that places for buses to pull over on busy roads is a transit-friendly design. But actually that only benefits the cars that are not stopping behind the buses—pulling out of the travel lane to stop makes bus service slower and less reliable because it requires buses to merge back into traffic after each stop.
- Make buses go faster. Bus rapid transit (BRT), which involves dedicated lanes and pre-payment of fares, is extremely rare in the United States, but it could be gaining steam. It was a key part of Richmond’s turnaround. While it is unfortunate that things that don’t rise to the standards of full BRT frequently get called BRT in the hunt for funding, that doesn’t mean the baby steps on the way aren’t important. Such steps include bus-only lanes, even just in certain congested areas, bus control of traffic lights, and express routes.
So the next time you hear “transit,” don’t necessarily limit your thoughts to light rail and transit-oriented development. Community-based organizations can either spearhead or support efforts to build a better bus.