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Refocusing public transport systems on their essential occupants


When the epidemic Hit the United States in March 2020, public health officials asked people to stay at home. But many could not. Essential workers — grocery store cashiers, health care workers, cooks, drivers, and cooks — continued to strike every day. Others went to buy groceries, to doctors’ appointments, or to take the kids to school. So all over the United States, including Pittsburgh, Americans kept taking the bus.

Yes, the rate of public transportation commuters decreased like a stone after many places imposed stay-at-home orders. Americans took 186 million transit trips in the last week of February 2020, according to data compiled by the American Public Transportation Association; A month later, that number was down 72 percent, to 52.4 million. In the Allegheny County Port Authority, which operates in the Pittsburgh area, passenger numbers are down 68 percent.

Who kept riding? In a country where race is linked to economic opportunity and geography, transit passengers have long been disproportionately low-income and people of color. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, but they were the riders who got stuck. An analysis from the APTA found that white men were more likely to give up transit during the pandemic; People of color, people who speak Spanish, and women who don’t.

“The pandemic has made the invisible visible,” Stephanie Wiggins, executive director of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said in November. Her peers across the country realized that they needed to serve the people who needed them best.

By November 2020, the transit agency in Pittsburgh had made drastic shifts. Among more than 20 major changes to bus service, officials have moved resources away from the routes of “passengers” — those serving people who worked traditional office jobs on traditional schedules, and who were now mostly at home — and toward lower-income neighborhoods, those who have larger shares of people of color and families without cars. They added more service on weekends and off-peak times, because many people still taking buses and light rail were either working outside of traditional “peak hours” or were just taking transit to get around.

“Public transportation is a tie factor, and it’s a way to provide access to marginalized communities,” says Adam Brandolph, a spokesperson for Pittsburgh. “The pandemic has changed the way we are viewed, but also, just as important, the way we perceive our passengers.”

Researchers from the Urban Institute, a think tank, found similar situations in four other transit agencies where they interviewed leaders and staff. “They were really candid that the moment in black lives mattered and the vulnerabilities of the pandemic really affected the way leadership thinks about the role that transportation plays,” says Jorge Morales Burnett, a research assistant with the institute’s Metropolitan Center for Housing and Communities in his interviews. Across the country, one word is ringing from community meetings, press releases, and official speeches: fairness.

Justice, in theory, has always been at the heart of public transportation. Agencies are legally obligated to provide fair service to everyone in their community. Even before the pandemic, some agencies had started programs focused on equity.

But U.S. public transportation has generally focused on commuters, especially those with traditional 9-to-5 schedules, who travel between the fringes of the city and downtown business districts — commuters who are less likely to be low-income and more likely to be of eggs. This is despite the fact that, even in the largest cities, where transportation use is most common, half of the pre-pandemic trips were to and from work. In smaller systems, the share is lower. Allegheny County Port Authority is no exception. “Our system is very central downtown, and has historically relied heavily on commuters,” says Brandolph, the spokesperson. As a result, service within cities, serving people who have less regular work schedules or who take transit for other purposes, are no longer of interest.

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