‘The crossroads between climate and equity’: Advocates push for transit justice

Grassroots organizers look to seize the momentum of the infrastructure legislation and heightened awareness of equity issues to improve public transportation access.

Q&A by Dan Zukowski at SmartCitiesDive

With the Black Lives Matter movement heightening awareness of racial and social inequities, and with the recent challenges facing essential workers who rely on public transit, the issue of transit equity has come to the forefront of conversations surrounding pandemic recovery.

But some organizations and individuals have long advocated for accessible, affordable and equitable public transportation. Among those advocates are LeeAnn Hall and Libero Della Piana of Just Strategy, a Seattle-based team of grassroots organizers.

Hall, Just Strategy’s executive director, has been involved in social and racial justice movements for more than 35 years and is a recipient of the Leadership for a Changing World Award from the Ford Foundation. Della Piana, the group’s senior strategist, has been a writer, organizer and educator for social movement organizations for three decades.

In 2020, Just Strategy organized the National Campaign for Transit Justice, based around a network of rider groups, transit advocates, unions and others, to advocate for equitable and environmentally sustainable transit.

Smart Cities Dive spoke with Hall and Della Piana to learn their views on transit equity and what they believe needs to change.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SMART CITIES DIVE: What is the importance of transit equity to cities?

LIBERO DELLA PIANA: It’s all about expanding access to underserved communities and making sure that transit, which is the backbone of many communities and local economies, is accessible to all.

LEEANN HALL: Equity is step one in achieving our overall goals of an economy that works for everybody.

There seems to be an awakening among cities and transit leaders to better serve the needs of transit riders. What are you seeing?

HALL: The Black Lives Matter movement clearly put equity front and center. There’s this shift in thinking about how we service transit-dependent communities and front-line workers and increase the service and frequency to those communities to connect them to the jobs that run the city.

DELLA PIANA: Public transit lies at the crossroads between climate and equity. An investment in public transit is an investment in a sustainable world, and it’s also an investment in communities of color and underserved communities because they ride transit more than anybody else.

What is behind the inequalities of today’s transit systems?

DELLA PIANA: As there has been historic disinvestment in public transit, service decreases. As service decreases, ridership goes down because people can’t depend on it. And as ridership goes down, the fare box [revenue] goes down. Then there’s even less investment. We want to reverse that. We want to say transit is the future. This is the scaffolding to build back better, to have a new economy that’s thriving, equitable and sustainable.
HALL: The other thing that we want to see is people move from their cars onto public transit, and we know that service is what’s required to make that happen. So to have both the climate and the equity goals that we all share met, we need to support an increase in service as well.

How will the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act help?

HALL: It will be a historic investment in transit and public transit. And then we’re on to implementation to make sure that our values and priorities are creating the scaffolding for making those investments. And that it does reconnect communities; it does create safe access for everybody; it does connect brown and Black communities to jobs and opportunities and groceries and health care and school and education; and all the services that everybody in our society deserves.

What more needs to be done?

DELLA PIANA: This is a really important legislative victory in infrastructure, but it’s just the beginning. We think that putting more buses on the street increases frequency [of service]. That’s going to create more access to underserved communities than some fancy light rail system.
HALL: There needs to be a lot of work done to implement those programs in ways that actually change the quality of experience that riders have.

What other issues are you working on?

HALL: One of the things that’s really important is money for operations. We need to have more buses, put in safe [bus] shelters and make sure there are sidewalks to walk to and from transit. But we also need to make sure that there is dependable and frequent service.

DELLA PIANA: Regional transit doesn’t connect with public transit. There’s no coordination. So you have to walk through a ditch and across a busy highway to get to the bus stop, and things like that. It’s about safe streets and having really interconnected transit systems.

Are you concerned that the current attention on equity could be short-lived?

DELLA PIANA: The energy about this could fade, but I think the focus on equity is with us for the long haul. There’s been a transformation in the way we think about public policy and think about these issues. And as long as communities are involved, they’re passionate about it. But we have to keep raising their voices.

HALL: There’s a lot of appetite for investing in public transit as an infrastructure. Small businesses and large businesses understand that transit is an essential driver of business and the economy, whether it’s getting people to jobs [or] bringing consumers to stores. A good, strong, robust public transit system is part of the economic recovery.

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