Originally published in the March 1, 2021 issue of Streetsmart News (Vol 33)
In the wake of decreased ridership during COVID, Transportation for America and others have argued for additional public transit funding, noting that transit is more than a transportation choice—it is an essential service for millions of workers. These workers are effectively preventing societal collapse, Jarrett Walker argues. As such, Walker suggests that we stop focusing on ridership numbers as though that were transit’s only goal. Similarly, Tamika Butler notes the transit's import, especially for people of color—although not only for them: “We have to get out of a mindset where there are only certain people who are transit-dependent. Because we are all dependent on the people who are transit-dependent. So, we’re all transit-dependent.”
Transit systems in most US cities follow a hub-and-spoke pattern that directs riders downtown, prioritizing the peak commute of the office worker (historically male and White). COVID has disrupted the peak commute, making it an excellent time to re-evaluate the role of transit in cities. David Zipper echoes Walker’s complaint of ridership as the primary metric by which transit is measured, instead suggesting that access is more appropriate (see our last issue for more discussion on access). Prioritizing ridership and peak hour commuters has led to transit systems that leave out the travel needs of large swaths of the population—suburb-to-suburb commuters, those who work non-traditional hours, and those trying to reach mid-day health care appointments, for example. With the conventional wisdom that peak hour revenues subsidize off-peak service, chasing peak commute fares has seemed like fiscally responsible way to manage transit. However, Zakhary Mallett argues that “peak service is extremely expensive when you consider capital costs. My hypothesis is that peak period travel, after you account for capital costs, is more expensive than off-peak—even after accounting for revenues.”
If this is the case—that the economic justification for privileging peak service is flawed—why not create transit systems that work for everyone? In shorthand, let's call this all-purpose transit after the Transit Center's research on all-purpose riders. With all-purpose transit, we can create truly transit-oriented cities. Not just transit-oriented development, which tends to be focused on development adjacent to rail transit stations, but complete communities with well-developed transit networks accessible within a ten-minute walk of residences. Walkable neighborhoods are a natural complement to transit-oriented cities.
We already know that increased transit access and transit service solve a number of problems—they increase walking and physical activity and reduce vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions. As discussed above, it’s clear transit is a lifeline for many essential workers. It’s also quite likely that increased transit use will reduce air pollution (associated with respiratory and cardiovascular disease) and congestion, particularly if the city is organized in way that takes advantage of transit’s spatial efficiencies.
Creating all-purpose transit and transit-oriented cities won’t be easy. For cities with established transit systems, there are the sunk costs of having invested in peak-oriented transit. For auto-oriented cities, land use patterns don’t readily lend themselves to convenient transit use or efficient transit system design. The federal funding formula for transit is partly tied to ridership numbers (although this could help make the case for fareless transit, which boosts ridership). And in the post-COVID era, some people may be reluctant to take transit.
How do we start? A vision like the Transit Center's transportation Green New Deal centers access to frequent transit and increasing transit funding. Where else should we turn for ideas in creating all-purpose transit and transit-oriented cities? Ask existing riders.
Anna Zivarts argues that we should learn from those who don’t drive; specifically, to those with disabilities. Her Disability Mobility Initiative Program created a storymap that features interviews from people who rely on transit and other non-auto modes for getting where they need to go. In addition, Tamika Butler challenges the transportation profession to listen to Black people, especially Black women, many of whom are dedicated transit riders and are deeply concerned about transportation's impact on people.