Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2017, about 50 million U.S. households were under such economic stress that they could not cover an unexpected $400 expense, like the breakdown of a car or a sudden health problem, without borrowing; many are unable to cover it at all. As is well-recognized, the pandemic has exacerbated these problems, which fall disproportionately hard on the African American, Native American, and Latinx communities. Public transit is a case in point, one of the most important, in fact.
Low-income households routinely face impossible economic choices – pay the utilities or the rent? Buy food or medicines? In the tightest of situations, these essentials come to be regarded as temporarily discretionary. Pay the rent in the winter instead of utility bills since utilities are less likely to be cut off. Pay utilities in the spring, by now accumulated so much that the bills compete with rent. But most transportation expenses, whether for a personal vehicle or public transit or both, are not flexible even temporarily. Most importantly, transportation is needed to get to work; the expense is unavoidable on a daily basis or the other bills stand no chance of being paid.
In 2016, households in the lowest income quintile spent almost 30% of their income on transportation. At the same time, public transit systems around the country routinely operate in fiscal distress, trying to raise revenue by fare increases. Transit workers, who are so essential to the functioning of life in cities, have had to struggle hard for everything from safe buses to adequate time for bathroom breaks. Then came the pandemic and the collapse of ridership and revenue, and inadequate federal support. At the same, workers who kept the system going — grocery store workers, medical personnel, and, not least, transit workers themselves — were declared essential; they now faced added risk not only for themselves, but also for their families.
Beyond the issues of affordability and safety is the central stark fact that transportation is the single largest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: 36% of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning and 31% of total net greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Public transit has rightly been seen as a principal tool in reducing these emissions, along with making that transit emissions-free.
Even before the pandemic, cities around the world had begun experimenting with making public transit free. In September 2018, Dunkirk, France made public transportation free. Weekday ridership increased over 60%; on weekends it more than doubled. In January 2020, the Kansas City Council voted unanimously to make public transit free. In February, Luxembourg became the first country, albeit small, to make public transit free. Lest one think that public transit is only for the densest cities like New York, Luxembourg’s population density is only 627 people per square mile compared to New York City’s more than 10,000. Even Montgomery County, Maryland, which has large swaths of rural land in an agricultural reserve, has a population density more than three times that of Luxembourg.
Increasing ridership must be combined with zero emissions. Electric buses are now coming into widespread use. Powered by solar and wind energy — now the cheapest new electricity sources — revived public transit can be a central instrument in making air cleaner, household finances more secure, and society more equitable. Commerce in cities could be stimulated. In Dunkirk, some people have gotten rid of their cars altogether.
Electricity, water, and sewage are considered essential public utilities in cities, necessary to keep the them functioning. Public transit easily fits the criterion of an essential service. The climate crisis, the severe and constant strain on family budgets of tens of millions of U.S. households, exacerbated by the pandemic, and the need for clean, breathable air all point in one direction: public transit in cities and close suburban areas should be declared a public utility. And it should be made free. When coupled with pedestrian and bicycle friendly cities, becoming more common during the pandemic, a revolution in transportation can be one of the anchors of economic vibrancy married to economic and environmental justice.
Indeed, there is a strong argument that the concept should be extended to rural areas, where water supply, sewage connections, and transportation can pose significant economic, health, and environmental challenges. The heavy toll of the lack of wastewater services was covered in a shocking November 30, 2020 article in the New Yorker. Similar problems, including lack of affordable transportation options, are widespread on many Native American reservations.
Where will the money come from? Political determination is needed to see the sources. Real estate, notably commercial real estate along dense public transit corridors, such as the Washington, D.C. area Metro system, increases in value due to the availability of transit. Yet, the benefit of that does not accrue to those who ride transit or to transit workers. Rather, it goes into private pockets and, to a lesser extent, into general tax revenues. Taxing real estate along transit corridors corresponding to the increase in value is one source. Second, transit riders subsidize private car ridership. Jammed in at rush hour, transit riders relieve congestion on the roads and reducing pollution in the bargain; yet they pay more at those very times. A congestion charge on cars is among the options. Then there is the wealth tax, put on the political map by Senator Elizabeth Warren during her presidential campaign. A simple 1% wealth tax on the wealthiest 0.1% of households would raise about $200 billion a year, in round numbers. That tax would affect only one out of seventy millionaires. It’s not as if the rich will have less money; it’s just that their wealth will grow a little less rapidly. Bill Gates set up his foundation in 2000; he has given away billions. Yet, he is almost twice as rich today as he was two decades ago.
Transportation, and within that public transit, is a big piece of the big environmental, economic, climate, and justice puzzle; it is far larger one than is often recognized. By the same token, the role of public transit in accelerating solutions — needed as much for climate as for justice — is often underappreciated. That should change; the sooner, the better.