Transit passengers and workers are invisible heroes and pioneers

February 4, 2022

What if I told you that the people who ride and operate our trolleys, trains and buses are heroes? What if I told you that people who don’t own cars, vans or SUVs are the transportation pioneers of tomorrow? Does it challenge your way of thinking?

Many believe that personal vehicles are a necessity. And that’s understandable, given how our nation has relied on the automobile and severely underinvested in public transportation. We don’t have buses running when we need them or the nearest bus stop may be over a mile from where you live, shop, learn, play, love or work. But this has not always been the case.

People walked or cycled short distances before the personal car became the norm. And they traveled greater distances on publicly available transit. When everyone uses it, it’s easy to make public transit highly accessible, affordable and convenient.

February 4 is Transit Fairness Day, a date chosen because it is Rosa Parks’ birthday. Parks was, and continues to be, a civil rights icon who chose to use access to a bus seat as a lightning rod to organize a movement and bring inequality to light. This day is important to recognize the challenges faced by people who use public transportation in the United States

A poor public transit system, like we have in most parts of San Diego County and most parts of the country, means long commute times, long wait times between buses or trains , no night service and complete shortcomings in how you can use public transit to get to where you need to go.

It is critical that we work to improve and expand public transit, increase rider mobility, and ensure the safety and convenience for people to use public transit for their transportation needs. Funding public transit is a matter of racial, economic and climate justice.

So why are transit riders and transit workers heroes and trailblazers?

We are in the middle of a very dangerous climate crisis. Most people assume that switching to electric cars, SUVs and pickup trucks will be the obvious solution, and the governor of California, the president of the United States and automakers agree. We will need electric vehicles to reduce emissions at the rate required by the climate crisis. But plugging into EVs is not enough. We need to use multiple levers of change to rapidly reduce climate and air pollution while making it easier for people to access jobs, schools and health care. We need to reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles on the roads, ensuring public transit is reliable and our city streets are safe for people to walk, ride and bike. Those who take the train, tram and bus, because they travel in greater numbers, have the lowest impact on emissions, and will be even lower, as we electrify all public transport.

The planners who are actually responsible for doing the calculation of carbon emissions for transport understand that electric trains and trolleys are the the most efficient way to move people over long distances, and coupled with e-bikes, we arrive at the least polluting way to move people. In fact, it may be the only sustainable way we currently know of to continue to have mobility under deep decarbonization.

As I write this, I am listening to the Executive Director of SANDAG at a meeting called Investing in sustainable mobility talk about the challenges of mode switching for people who don’t use their cars and community members who are “transit dependent”, meaning they have no choice but to take public transport. But on Transit Equity Day, I’d like to work to remove the phrase “transit dependent.” I’d like to start the discussion on ‘enabled transit’ and ‘climate-sustainable transit’ because that better describes transit users and the trains and buses they ride, as essential to our future.

Let’s celebrate today’s transit riders and workers who are the heroes and pioneers of tomorrow’s transit-centric travel. Let’s learn from their lived experiences what works and what needs to be improved to make public transit for all our sustainable future.

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