The U.S. transportation system has long been rife with inequality, making it more difficult for low-income people, people of color, and people with disabilities to get where they need to go. When Covid19 hit, ticket revenues shrank, workers got sick, and services were cut, even as low-income “essential workers” disproportionately depended on public transit to get to work as other Americans did, to get to grocery stores, food pantries and health services. In rural communities where public transit was already sparse and unreliable, owning a car literally became a matter of life and death. In this episode, Laura considers the history; a century ago, fears of a communicable disease helped turn the tide against public transportation for decades. Today the climate crisis requires that we not brand public transport unsafe for another generation. What alternatives exist? And what if we consider not just new ‘modes’ of transport and new infrastructure, but the principle of “mobility”. Could new technology and better information sharing solve our transportation challenges? Laura looks at existing models.
- Sajaa Ahmed, Director, Ulster County, NY Department of Transportation UCAT
- Román Partida-López, Environmental Equity Legal Counsel, The Greenlining Institute
- Lateefah Simon, President, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Board of Directors
- Darryl Young, Director, Summit Foundation‘s Sustainable Cities Program
- John Conway, Sullivan County, NY Historian
- Tim Wright, Train Conductor, The Stourbridge Line, Honesdale, Pennsylvania
- Peggy Wright, Train Conductor, The Stourbridge Line, Honesdale, Pennsylvania
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“To eradicate systemic and institutional racism, we must stop perpetuating harm with decisions that disregard the needs of people of color, and proactively reinvest financial resources into solutions that increase opportunity, like clean and equitable public transportation.”
~ Michelle Romero, National Director of Green For All
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– Transporation it is essential. It’s essential to rural life. It’s essential to urban life. Cross-class, cross-race, we need to prioritize an equity agenda.
– The inequities that were revealed by the pandemic were always there.
– Our low-income communities of color, continue to face the brunt, a lot of these issues we need to find solutions that benefit them but that are rooted in community.
– We can change the urban form, the places where we live to give more room for people.
– Still coming up on the Laura Flanders show the place of the people who say it can’t be done to take a back seat to the people who are doing it.
– U.S transportation system is rife with inequality making it harder for low-income people, people with disabilities and people of color to get where they need to go in a safe way. When the COVID 19 pandemic hit, all those inequalities just got worse. As revenues shrank and services got cut just when the very population people were depending on, those low income essential workers, were the ones who depended on public transportation most, as did other people to get to medical services and food pantries and the grocery store. So where do we go from here? If history is any guide, the attitudes that get set in place in a moment like this, could last a generation. Last time around, we decided to spend more on infrastructure and private transportation systems, but our climate crisis requires that we don’t repeat that mistake. What if we considered mobility and transportation as a basic human right, what would we do then? Traveling back in time can sometimes provide insight into the future. So I set off on one of the few remaining stretches of railway, on the New York Pennsylvania border, now run for tourists and train enthusiasts. At the turn of the last century trains like these, were having their heyday , moving people and products through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and beyond. It’s a history the conductors know well.
– My name is Peggy Wright and I am a volunteer conductor here on the Stourbridge line and I’ve been here since 1991.
– My name is Tim Wright. I’m the excursion manager for the Stourbridge line and I’ve also been here since 1991.
– And you have a relationship.
– Yeah, that’s my mom.
– What is so important about this line and these trains?
– So our railroad here’s located at Homestead Pennsylvania. It’s kind of like we’re living time capsule that we’re stepping back into the heyday of railroading, before cars from the 1920s the 1940s, the 1950s, they still see railroading as the prime railroading it was going up to the 50s and early 60s.
– Why do you think we stopped traveling by trains? When did they stop having passengers on these lines?
– So when the railroads realized they weren’t making money from it. So that was the late 60s, early 70s that the railroads were more interested in hauling freight, because they made more money off the freight than the passengers. And also how the airlines started to becoming bigger, more reliable. Cars were more reliable, interstate highway system is actually what hurt the train a lot too.
– Everything changes. just like today.
– By the end of World War II trains like these were in decline. The Ontario and Western or O and W line that had brought generations of New Yorkers to the breezy Catskill Mountains, was the first major U.S railroad line to be fully abandoned in 1957, a post-war push to sell Americans on private cars and a massive government investment in highways, had a lot to do with the change, but so did concerns about public health. To find out more, I met with historian, John Conway, on an old stretch of railway now repurposed into a public walkway, near Hurleyville New York.
– Virtually every significant historic or economic milestone in our history, has come about because of a major breakthrough in transportation. But when the railroad came through its economic impact on the area was inestimable, in the days before pasteurization and refrigeration, it opened up the New York City market to local farmers to ship their milk there. People are flocking to the hotels here, which grow up around the train station, probably about 200 hotels are operating by the end of the 19th century. Sullivan County had for centuries really had a reputation, as a place where people came for healing, our history as a healing environment dates back to the days of the native Americans the Lenape, thousands of years before. And by the early 1900s, we’ve got 12 or 14 sanitariums in the county treating tuberculosis. By the early 1900s, this notion that tuberculosis can be contracted, has reached the general public. And so healthy people began to fear riding on the railroads, with people who were coughing and spitting, where before that wasn’t a problem. A peak year for passenger travel on the O and W railroad that ran through here, was 1913. After that point we begin to see a decline in passenger travel. The tuberculosis suffers continued to come, but the healthy people began to stay away.
– COVID-19 has unleashed a perfect storm on a politically divided and unprepared United States of America. Public spaces and transportation systems have emptied out and unemployment has soared. Will this herald the peak year of travel on public transit as we continue to come to terms with the cascading effects of the COVID-19 pandemic? We jumped on the information highway to continue the conversation with a group of forward-thinking transportation advocates and public transit workers. To understand more, I talked to Darryl Young, director of the Summit Foundations Sustainable Cities Program.
– Access to mobility is crucial. It was before it’s even more so now. We think that the opportunity to influence the system and to move it forward, to make it less inequitable is the way we need to go
– I mean what I take away from the experience of history here and elsewhere, is that a moment like this can set in place, attitudes and priorities and development patterns, that can last for generations. Can you speak to the choices you think we’re facing today? Not just as a country, but as a globe. It’s not just we in the U.S who are grappling with a pandemic of climate crisis and racism.
– Right. Well, you know, there are examples around the globe of cities that are pivoting from a car-centric culture to one that is more equitable for everyone. Singapore, Bogota, Mexico City which has reformed its parking strategies. Those are all examples of how we can change the urban form, the places where we live, to give more room for people. You’ll see a lot of cities across North America that are starting to take some of the street backs. So much of property goes to streets and cars and not for people. So I think the opportunity for us now, is to rethink the way we’re using our streets our public space. And not only that, how do we make that space available, not just in areas that, where people can afford that but how do we make it available to everyone in a way that they want? It’s not enough to put in a bike lane for a community without asking them, what is it you really need and want? I think the opportunity for the first time is to engage people more in designing a system that we want, that is all door boarding is what I call it. If you care about health, if you care about economics, if you care about the climate, they’re all room, there’s room for you on the bus, to reform where we’re going.
– The history shows that certain people have a very loud voice in this discussion. I’m thinking especially of the transportation lobbies, lobbying mostly for highways and things that can be done quickly by private contractors. I think they spend something like $260 million dollars in 2019 in the elections. How can people have a voice? And can we have a voice against that Daryl?
– You know, what we’re finding is a new movement, a renewed movement that is involving people of color, that is involving people from all walks of life to put pressure on elected officials, to put pressure on agencies, in a productive way to say, how can we improve the services we have? We need to. As more people are riding transit, because they want to, not because they have to, we’re finding a larger audience. So philanthropy is trying to step up and say, how do we support, some philanthropy, is saying how do we support local advocacy groups, to help inform decision-makers to rise mobility as a priority within local government decisions?
– Is it as simple matter of advocating for public transportation solutions versus private ones or, do you see a hybrid coming out of this moment?
– I think the challenge is always that people think technology will solve problems and it’s systems that solve problems. A public system is far more accountable than a private system. I think that there is an opportunity for private systems in selected examples, but to blanket say we’re gonna have Uber’s or Lyft’s everywhere, is a fantasy for a corporate entity, it’s not necessarily a fantasy for the public.
– Powerful forces are pushing the conversation towards consolidation and privatization, but what does an equitably accessible mass transit system look like? And how must it be transformed to respond to this pandemic? I spoke with Lateefah Simon, President of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System in Northern California. With all of the things you could be doing you former MacArthur winner recognized for your work with women of color and young women, you chose to sit on the board of Bart the Rapid Transit System of the Bay Area as its president, why is transportation so important to you?
– I had to run for this office. It’s bigger than a congressional district. The Bay Area, Rapid Transit District is one of three transit districts in the country that has an elected board. And, you know, frankly, I felt like I didn’t have a choice, after the death of my husband, as a legally blind person and a widow and a mom, I found myself back full-time on transportation and having been a part of the social justice movement that’s, literally since the age of 18 full-time it makes so much sense to me, to throw myself into a justice movement, that was intersected with everything that we care about. Economic justice, criminal justice, mobility justice, and for me transportation, and to the millions of Bay Area residents who rely on public transportation every single day to literally live, not just to go to and fro. And we’ve seen from the beginning of the epidemic, a new light being shown on essential workers and their need to be able to get to work, to keep the whole environment alive. So for me, transportation is the lifeblood, to so much of what we do, that I felt like we needed a voice, a working class voice. We needed someone who is transit dependent, to be putting the politic of what transit justice could really be in the conversation.
– We’ve heard about how inequities play out inside our transportation system. Our white supremacy, pro-male, pro-ability society’s biases, how do they play out in transportation?
– In this moment, we’re in the depths of COVID. I think of transit workers and transit riders as forgotten folks. We have an employee base, a worker base, a labor base, throughout this country who make decisions to get up in the midst of a pandemic, to keep trains and buses running. If we think about rural America, or if we even think about low-income suburbs and you have women and men and folk and families, they spare a time tax just to get to work. If you don’t have a bus stop, that is within two blocks of your house and then you’re taking that bus to rail, you’re spending an hour and a half on transit in the morning to get to a job that still denies you fair wage and fair health insurance. So when we think about writ large, the transit population, the folks who are best served and the folks who are working for transit that is, those are the people of the rust belt. Those are the people from South LA. Those are the folks from Detroit. Those are the folks from Oakland, California, that we believe have so much to say about mobility, affordability, having access to reliable, clean, and safe transit, and those are the folks that we want to center in this conversation.
– I should mention that you at Bart decided even as revenues were shrinking this summer, not to cut wages for Bart workers, but raise them.
– From where I sit at Bart, we operate now in five counties in the Bay Area. And what’s real is we designed a system over 50 years ago, that is 80% reliant on the fair box and not federal or state or local government government deep subsidy. So now we have a system where literally, we’ve lost 90% of our passengers, because most of them are working at home. And so only 10% of our riders are riding, so 80% of my operating budget is now in the tanks, that being said, this fiscal year as president, I’ve made it a priority to fight like hell to keep the trains running and to fight like hell to keep our staff there. It takes six months to certify a heavy rail operator. I don’t believe that in this moment it makes sense to completely cut and slash and burn my employee base without data, without clarity and what we have been able, thanks to the Care Act and thanks to MTC and other small revenue sources that will get us through the fiscal year. I damn well think it’s important to give essential workers a Cola. I don’t consider a cola a raise, I consider a cola to be there, just do, being that again, they are leaving their families every single day to go into a system that will and has kept the Bay Area alive. And again, we are getting a lot of flack for that, but transit and the opportunity to just have a robust, even in these times, civil society is based on our willingness to support our workers who do the hard work, full stop for me.
– While urban public transit systems fight to maintain and even expand service to the people who depend on public transport most, what’s happening in rural America where much less transit infrastructure exists? Across California’s Central Valley, thousands of agricultural workers grow the produce that feeds much of the U S. Many of these essential workers are undocumented and have long been targeted by immigration and customs enforcement for deportation, state and federal funding for transit and healthcare is next to non-existent in many places. I talked with Roman Partida-Lopez, the Environmental Equity legal counsel at the Greenlining Institute, to see how underserved communities have in part responded themselves.
– You know, when we think about transportation and it’s past right, our transportation system is rooted in institutional and systemic racism and white supremacy. What we’ve seen freeways do to our communities right? Dissect our communities, spinning them in half, and really putting them in a really hard situation, but not only by the freeways, but even to pandemics right? Our low-income communities of color continue to face the brunt of a lot of these issues, both socio-economic, and environmental. And so we need to find solutions that benefit them but that are rooted in community right? For many years we feel that the transportation options, have been provided have been somewhat dictated to them and what we’re trying to do is kind of flip that on it’s head and ensure that they are a part of the conversation and they are low income communities of color can share what type of transportation option best serves their community need and make sure that while doing so, we’re not only providing that service on the environmental side, but that we’re also really focusing in on the economic side, so that we’re able to get them to their jobs. We’re able to get them to their doctor’s appointments. We’re able to ensure that low-income communities of colors thrive and what we’re seeing now a reduction in transportation services because of the pandemic, but also just in general this move to have car culture be kind of at the center of it right? Creating more freeways, more cars on our roads and even in a perfect reality where every car is an electric one, that doesn’t necessarily move away from congestion and from other issues that our communities are going to continue to face.
– You actually have some experience at the Greenlining Institute, with kind of public private collaborations, initiatives to get people where they need to go, what others are out there?
– Car sharing models in the past, really operated in urban cores and in wealthier areas of these urban regions right? They weren’t really servicing low income communities and especially not serving rural communities either. So this one example called Green Riteros, is basically operating in the Central Valley in a small town called Huron, that is about a couple of hours away from Fresno and that project Greenlight Riteros, the Riteros component is is a Spanish word, meaning ride. And basically it was this operating service that had been there and operating for a long time, because there wasn’t a good public transportation system that would take them to Fresno, to access the medical appointments or, any other types of things that they had to do in Fresno. So through a lot of advocacy and through a lot of efforts they were able to receive additional funding, to receive funding to be able to operate the system with electric vehicles, right? Ensuring that the cars that they were riding in were clean, be able to pay the rateras, who were operating these services to the community and again, provide that economic equity component, to ensuring that they’re being compensated for their time. Those examples are just a few, of some of the California pilot programs that are underway, that are really taking the and public approach, right? Where they are partnering with some type of institute, some type of private company to help provide the vehicle and maybe the technology behind it. But the service itself and the ideas really rooted in the community and really uplifting what their need is and where the destination should be.
– Determined communities looking after themselves in the vacuum of government funding, can develop innovative models that keep people safe and strengthened interpersonal bonds. Back on the East Coast in Ulster County just up the Hudson River from New York City, I visited a more institutional version of this model. One of the most modern and fuel efficient bus fleets in the country, even in the midst of the pandemic, they’ve prioritized safety and accessibility for the most vulnerable in this rural and small city area. I met with some drivers from the Ulster County area transit system and asked how the pandemic had affected them.
– My name is Raymond Marrero.
– Leshanna Harris.
– Tony Torres.
– Just as coworkers, we got to connect again.
– We got to connect again, understand each other more. We came up with things like he would say, “Oh let’s do this” We’ll put it together and now we have a whole plan for us as drivers and parents ’cause we’re all parents and grandparents.
– Dealing with the public, we’re always watching to see who’s wearing their mask, trying to keep everything safe for everybody else, and taking it one day at a time.
– I gotta tell you, we got a great group of guys. We honestly have a great group of guys.
– And ladies.
– And we also have great management.
– Oh yeah.
– We’ve been supplied, all everything that we need, face shield mask, the sanitizer, hand sanitizer, wipes, Clorox anything that we needed, they’ve been there to help us. Everything we need, like they said, yeah an open door policy, you can call them up they’ll talk to you and explain everything and that’s exactly that’s what we needed
– After working on mass transit logistics in New York City for many years, Sasha Ahmed moved to Ulster County as executive director of UCAT the Ulster County Area Transit system, while the agency’s been strapped for cash in the middle of this pandemic, she’s helped push innovative programs to keep people connected and to transit workers healthy.
– When we think about transit, we think about our big cities. We think about subways, trains and all those kinds of more sexy parts of transit, but what happens in rural areas, is it’s mostly buses and that’s what our essential workers are relying on. When you have systems that are small, that means there’s less time. There’s less availability for transit, there’s less availability of drivers, which is a crisis that our department personally is facing, bus systems are a predictor of economic growth in these rural areas, without it is more important than ever before to make sure our rural transit systems get attention or, just as much attention or are not left behind, as we have this hopefully revival that comes out of the pandemic.
– How on earth do you balance budgets and revenues and needs and the climate and your carbon neutral footprint standing in a time like this?
– Some of the decisions that we had to make during the pandemic, what I always center them on is, I do not want any person or rider or worker to get COVID-19. That is my goal and if it means that we’re going to pay people to stay home, I am okay with that, and we ran limited routes, and we set up a call line for essential workers to call and we’d give them individualized rides, and in that way we were able to, give rides to essential workers, but we’re small enough to be able to do that.
– This does seem to be a critical moment. What would you love to see? And maybe what models would you love to see a built out?
– The inequities that were revealed by the pandemic, were always there. There needs to be a robust effort to educate and train people on just communicating the fact that there, these are your transit options. We should collectively make use of them as a society really. We have this amazing opportunity now, where young people and just people in general are becoming more and more aware of the climate crisis and do wanna take measures to reduce their footprint. So we are trying to encourage people to get in the mindset that even if you have a car, try to reduce your one trip a week. I am very hopeful, the Cares Act was the first kind of economic stimulus act that came out of COVID-19 and I’m hopeful that this is a moment similar to the depression, where we can have some sort of new deal. I would just love to see a focus on rebuilding our economy and emphasizing transit versus, these highway and big infrastructure projects.
– We’ve almost reached the end of the line of this episode. I crisscrossed the U.S in conversations exploring our past and present and future challenges. Clearly we, as a people and planet are at a critical junction. So the revival of beautiful old trains and platforms like this one, it’s probably not in the nation’s future, but what is? Addressing the issues laid bare by the pandemic is going to require that we not make the mistakes of the past. Public transportation officials and advocates like our guests, are clear that we have to put equity and accessibility front and center, whether urban or rural. We’re going to need to design smart, inclusive systems, that get everyone where they need to go, while minimizing the emissions that contribute to climate change. Clearly there needs to be commitment and investment from federal government, but there also needs to be input and participation from the people who use the system. It’s another mission for we, the people. I’m Laura Flanders, this week for the Laura Flanders Show from a train station in Pennsylvania. Thanks. For more on this episode and other forward thinking content and tune into our podcast, visit our website at lauraflanders.org and follow us on social media at the LF Show.
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