This Is the Moment to Reimagine Public Transportation

Back in April, the City of Seattle temporarily closed off nearly 20 miles of streets to most vehicular traffic in order to let residents bike, walk, jog, and skate at a safe social distance during the height of the city’s COVID-19 pandemic. Seattle’s Stay Healthy Streets program was designed to encourage people to travel to essential services and small local businesses—or just to get outside for exercise or fun—at a time when many people felt anxious about doing so. While wildfires ravaging the West Coast and smoke clouding the air across Seattle create yet another barrier to getting outside, these hazy skies also underscore the importance of defending our air quality, right now and for years to come.

And then, in early May, something unexpected happened: the temporary closure of these streets became permanent. Mayor Jenny Durkan—one of twenty-five mayors nationwide participating in the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge—announced that the program’s popularity and success had convinced her to extend it beyond the end of Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order. In explaining the rationale for the decision, the head of Seattle’s Department of Transportation described the impact of Stay Healthy Streets as “transformative,” adding that it had revealed a need “to continue to build out a transportation system that enables people of all ages and abilities to bike and walk across the city.” 

These days, as wildfires ravage the West Coast and smoke clouds Seattle’s air, residents face yet another barrier to getting outside. These toxic, hazy skies underscore the importance of defending our air quality, right now and for years to come. And we’re not starting from scratch: for years, Seattle’s transportation department and others in City leadership have been working to reduce the health-harming pollution from cars, trucks, and other sources. Seattle’s Stay Healthy Streets program is the latest in those efforts: in addition to being safe places to walk and ride, these streets are free of polluting cars.

Beyond Seattle and wildfires in the West, the COVID-19 crisis has compelled cities all over the world to reconsider—and, in many cases, to reimagine—their previously held ideas about our transportation systems. First and foremost, it has forced them to acknowledge that bus drivers, subway conductors, and other mass-transit personnel are essential workers, every bit as crucial to the continued functioning of society as the people who work at our hospitals, grocery stores, restaurants, and pharmacies. Indeed, in New York City, public transportation is how most essential workers have been getting to their jobs during the pandemic. And for millions of residents who don’t have access to a car, including a disproportionate number of low-income people and people of color, it’s their primary means of getting around, pandemic or no pandemic.

But our current crisis has forced us to admit something else, too: Transportation policy isn’t just about getting people from point A to point B. Rather, it’s inextricably connected to public health, racial and economic justice, climate action, and civil society in ways that haven’t always been fully acknowledged, but that are becoming clearer every day.  One surprising example? In San Francisco, a professional cellist gave impromptu performances from his doorstep, creating a magical experience for neighbors and people walking by—an experience that was only audible due to the reduction in car traffic.       

Seattle’s decision to turn its streets into pedestrian- and bike-friendly zones is just one example of how cities are recognizing that transportation is about regional accessibility just as much if not more than mobility. In doing so, they’re putting themselves on a path towards a healthier, more equitable future. Here are three ways we can reimagine our city transportation systems.  

One: Streets Aren’t Just for Cars 

Seattle was just one of many cities around the world to open up its streets as it (mostly) closed down for everyday business. From megacities like London, Paris, and New York to Climate Challenge participants like Austin and San Jose, officials have discovered the many and compounding benefits that come from redefining thoroughfares to promote walking, cycling, and other emissions-free forms of transportation. Adding safe places to walk and bike to our urban landscapes invites people out of their automobiles, resulting in cleaner air and fewer planet-warming greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. But it does more than that: It improves public health by promoting exercise, and fosters community by beautifying our neighborhoods and making people excited to get out of the house and be around one another (while still practicing social distancing and mask-wearing of course!) It also addresses inequities inherent in public safety: People of color and members of underserved communities are more likely to become victims of automobile traffic violence. In addition, “slow streets” programs in many cities are helping residents rethink what streets are for.    

Two: Our Public Transit Infrastructure Needs—and Deserves—Investment

For decades now, America’s public transit systems have languished in the shadow of a $98 billion backlog in deferred maintenance and replacement. These are the very same public transit systems that kept some of our biggest cities from collapsing entirely during the height of the COVID-19 crisis by transporting essential workers to their jobs and allowing people without access to a car to visit their doctors, buy food, and obtain medicine. While we’re lauding efforts by cities to get more people moving around on foot or bicycles, we should also be pressuring local, state, and national leaders to fill this backlog and update our mass transit infrastructure. And we need to be clear that “updating,” in this instance, doesn’t simply mean replacing the hardware like installing new tracks or buying new buses. Public officials must make investments that prioritize the needs of riders most impacted by this crisis by reimagining public safety and promoting public health, affordable housing, and economic opportunity in historically marginalized communities. COVID and post-COVID recovery plans need to make this a priority, and the congressional champions of infrastructure bills like the INVEST in America Act  like the Moving Forward Act need to fight hard for adequate funding and a holistic, equitable approach to spending. Which brings us to:     

Three: Access to Safe, Effective Transit Is Very Much a Racial Justice Issue 

Recent incidents of police brutality against people of color, and the mass protests that have occurred in their wake, have led to a long-overdue national discussion of how systemic racism and the legacy of white supremacy continue to permeate our public policy. For many Black and brown residents, transportation already means public transportation: the buses, subways, and light-rail lines on which they rely daily for getting to work, school, or essential services. When we neglect these systems, we’re neglecting these communities and in our common humanity, neglecting ourselves. Any efforts to remedy and redress the inequities borne of institutional racism are incomplete if they don’t acknowledge that mobility is a right, and that hampering people’s mobility—be it direct through poor planning, gentrification, redlining, or underfunding or indirect through an act of omission—is an unacceptable violation of that right. If governments are serious about listening and responding to the needs of communities of color, they’ll make the improvement and expansion of our transit systems a top priority.

We’re living through several pivotal moments in American history at once. In responding to the simultaneous crises we currently face, we have a responsibility to not just return to the status quo, but to boldly and intentionally improve public health, racial equity, and climate resiliency. Reimagining our transportation systems is the critical first step to shaping a more just future. 

About the Authors

Amanda Eaken

Director of Transportation, American Cities Climate Challenge

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