Opinion: Transit Has Always Been an Essential Service

Ridership is the wrong way to think about the importance of public transit.

2 minute read

April 13, 2020, 6:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority

Sign of the times in San Jose, California. | Shutterstock

Workers keeping the nation's essential industries and services going are still using transit, but there isn't much good news or positive thinking regarding public transit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Transit ridership is in free-fall, plunging transit agencies all over the country into an unprecedented fiscal crisis. The CARES Act federal stimulus offered some relief for the fiscal situation facing transit agencies, but the long-term prognosis is completely uncertain. In New York City, the coronavirus has had tragic consequences for transit operators.

This tweet by Richard Florida sums up what most people are probably assuming about the prospects of maintaining public support for transit during and after the pandemic.

So, what can be said in defense of the operation and use of public transit in a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic? According to Jarret Walker, a transit planning consultant involved in some of the most innovative bus redesign projects in the United States during the past decade, transit is not just essential in these uncertain times, it's more important than ever.

"The goal of transit, right now, is neither competing for riders nor providing a social service for those in need. It is helping prevent the collapse of civilization," writes Walker for CityLab.

The catch, according to Walker, is that public transit has always been playing that critical role.

Those “essential service” workers, who are overwhelmingly low-income, have always been there, moving around quietly in our transit systems, keeping our cities functioning. Too often, we have patronized them by calling them needy or dependent when in fact everything would collapse if they couldn’t get to work.

Walker's purpose in writing this article is not to look at the crisis with rose-colored glasses, or diminish assessments of the long road back to recovery for transit agencies. Walker doesn't even suggest that sentiments like those expressed above by Richard Florida are wrong. Walker does suggest its time for everyone, first and foremost journalists, to reframe the discussion away from questions about ridership, and toward a better understanding of the essential service provided by transit agencies.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020 in CityLab

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