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Transit Is Not an Option: It’s a Necessity

Transit equity means our transit system works for everyone – people of all ages and abilities can get where they need to go in a reasonable amount of time, at an affordable cost.  Transit should provide access to life’s key needs including jobs, healthcare, food, and recreation.  COVID-19 has shown us how transit underlies the ability of the Chicago region to function.  Everyone depends on essential workers, the same workers who depend on transit to get them to their jobs.  In one way or another we all rely on transit.

Transit Equity Day has been organized for the past four years on February 4 by a network of transit rider unions, community organizations, environmental groups and labor unions.  This national day of action commemorates the birthday of Rosa Parks by declaring that public transit is a civil right. Rosa Parks is an iconic figure of the Civil Rights era who bravely chose the tactic of refusing to give up her seat on the bus to demand an end to segregation in the Montgomery, Alabama, transit system. Transit Equity Day highlights Rosa Parks’ act of resistance, and connects it to the right of all people and communities today to have high-quality public transportation, run on clean, renewable energy.

Image courtesy Labor Network for Sustainability

With the second largest transit system in the country, Chicago advocates knew we needed to get involved.  Through a partnership between the Active Transportation Alliance, Metropolitan Planning Council and Chicago Jobs with Justice, we hosted our first Chicago-based  Transit Equity Day virtual event featuring U.S. Representatives Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Robin Kelly, as well as labor represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241 President Keith Hill, and community leaders including Roseland Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Andrea Reed and Belmont- Craigin Youth Leadership Council member from the Northwest Side Housing Center Zair Menjivar.  Active Transportation Alliance Advocacy Manager Lynda Lopez moderated the session.

Robin Kelly highlighted the basic right to transportation, “We need reliable transit service….freedom of movement is a birthright.”   Menjivar noted the importance of reliable transit for Chicago’s youth, “In a pre-pandemic world, I have depended on buses to go to and from school every day, and I go to school across the entire city.  There have been many moments when I would show up to my first-period class late and there have been many moments when I would show up to work after school late.”

Andrea Reed highlighted how lack of transportation can affect the health of an entire community.  “It is inexcusable that in a major metropolitan city like Chicago, that certain geographical areas of our population have been cut off, or have limited access to equitable, accessible, affordable and seamless transportation,” said Reed. In Roseland, for example, you have the number 34 bus that if someone misses that bus they’ll miss their connection to the rapid transit line on 95th.  That’s why we have fought so hard through the Coalition for a Modern Metra electric, and we are so happy that Toni Preckwinkle has ignited the pilot that we pushed for, and for this three year pilot program. Metra is an underutilized asset in our community.”  The pilot which started in January, reduces Metra fares on the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines and extends service on Pace’s 352 Halsted route.

As we emerge from the COVID crisis, we will need to work hard not to just save our transit system, which has seen sharp ridership drops while many people work from home, but to continue to reinvent transit so it does the best job of meeting people’s needs.  Any future service modifications must be done in a way to do the most benefit and least harm to Black/Brown communities. Equity must be a guiding principle.

Funding Inequities

A core problem is that transit has always been underfunded. Our current funding models do not acknowledge that access to public transit is a human right.  As Keith Hill noted, “Everybody supports transit. Everybody wants transit, but they don’t invest in transit, and that is the biggest downfall to transit. That’s why we have transit gaps in service.”

A highlight of the event was U.S. Representative Chuy Garcia’s remarks about the critical need for transit: “transit is not an option, it’s a necessity.”  Garcia established the Future of Transportation Caucus, and has introduced the Transit Parity Resolution, which calls for a 50/50 split for federal and highway funding.  Currently, 80 percent of federal revenue goes to highways and 20 percent to transit, despite transit being a critical solution for transportation equity, climate change, and public health and the fact that approximately 30 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t drive.   Our transportation funding formulas need to shift to reflect our current policy priorities.

At the national level, Transit Equity Day was celebrated via two days of public hearings where people shared testimony about the importance of transit to their communities. MPC staffer Audrey Wennink’s testimony during the national hearings on transit equity highlighted these important transit benefits and can be seen at 3:17 in the Day 1 recording linked below.

Day 1 National Transit Equity Day Testimony
English, Spanish
Day 2 National Transit Equity Day Testimony
English, Spanish
Mobility Justice

Communities struggle to thrive without quality public transit in just the same way they would struggle to thrive without electricity or water. Public transit is a lifeline.  More than a quarter of all Chicago households and more than half of Chicago households below the poverty line do not have a vehicle. That’s no surprise because having a car is a major household cost, estimated by AAA at $9,282 per year, which many lower-income households cannot afford.  Providing high-quality transit service is needed to improve equitable mobility in our communities.  Public transportation services play an important role in meeting the daily needs of the large share of our population who is unable to drive, including those without access to personal vehicles, children, individuals with disabilities, and older adults. Equity must be a guiding principle in transit planning. 

Public Health

The Centers for Disease Control has established a Health Impact in 5 Years (HI-5) initiative that highlights non-clinical, community-wide approaches that have evidence showing 1) positive health impacts, 2) results within five years, and 3) cost-effectiveness and/or cost savings over the lifetime of the population or earlier.  The study concludes that Public Transportation systems are a top public health solution because transit helps ensure that people can safely and reliably reach everyday destinations, such as jobs, schools, healthy food outlets, and healthcare facilities, safely and reliably. 

Public transportation systems are associated with reductions in several health risk factors such as motor vehicle crashes, air pollution, and physical inactivity.   Indeed, studies show that use of public transport was associated with an additional 8 to 33 minutes of walking per day.  We all know only too well that people of color have a higher prevalence of underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 and that we need to proactively build healthier communities with healthier transportation options to combat this health inequity.

Climate Change

Transportation is the primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and transit is a primary strategy to combat climate change. Expanding public transportation powered without fossil fuels is a foundation to achieving a transition to clean energy. It is important to recognize that auto electrification alone is not enough; we need to shift people away from driving to use sustainable modes of transportation like transit, biking and walking.

The bottom line is that we need to fund transit like we mean it.  The Chicago region and its residents cannot function without a robust transit system.  We all need to actively support a healthy and equitable transit recovery as we emerge from the COVID crisis.   

Watch the live event recording here