One City, Two Transit Systems, Separate and Unequal?

And Sacramento Regional Transit sends a Federal transit grant back to Washington and more in this week's The Mobile City.

(Photo by Ken / CC BY 2.0)

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Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of noteworthy transportation developments.

“As they say, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” —Margaret Atwood

It looks as if American public transportation has come into historical rhyme time.

When the Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, American urbanites of all backgrounds rode the same buses from their homes to their workplaces much the way everyone shopped at Sears. In the South, Black people had to ride at the back and stand if a white person couldn’t sit, but aside from that, the same buses served middle-class suburbanites and lower-income city-dwellers alike. Only a handful of our largest cities had commuter trains that carried the affluent into downtown.

Now, it turns out, the drive on the part of the public transit authorities formed since World War II to both maintain basic service for “dependent” riders and design service to lure “choice” riders out of their cars has led to the creation of dual transit systems, separate and unequal, under single umbrellas (or sometimes separate ones) in city after city. A transportation professional in Houston points out in a new essay that even there, the local transit agency runs a dual bus system: fast, comfortable buses for the “choice” riders in the suburbs and slow, not-so-comfortable buses for the “dependent” riders in the city. Most of the former, the author notes, are affluent and white, while the latter are lower-income and black. Thus we have come full circle to the days of Plessy v. Ferguson, and the author says it’s time we did something about that.

With regards to the other main topic of concern surrounding transit service, this column has pointed out on several occasions that riding public transportation may be one of the least risky things an urbanite can do now: Better air circulation and more frequent air changes combined with the standard distancing and mask protocols have made public transit COVID-free for the riders. One transit agency, picking up on both the research and the need to carry more riders on its vehicles, has taken the findings to their next logical step and recommended cutting the required social distancing space in half. But wait: The operators, who spend much more time on the vehicles, are at greater risk for catching COVID-19 than the riders are, and they continue to press for better protective measures.

Meanwhile, transit agencies continue to plan and build extensions of rail lines and bus rapid transit. So it does come as a bit of a surprise to find that one regional transit agency has chosen to return a federal grant after the agency couldn’t figure out what to spend it on.

Time to Root Out the Structural Racism in Public Transit, Transportation Planner Says

Black people no longer have to ride in the back of the bus or give up their seats to white riders thanks to the bus boycotts that launched the Civil Rights movement. But that victory has proved Pyrrhic thanks to the dual missions metropolitan public transit authorities have taken upon themselves since they were formed beginning right after World War II.

Christof Spieler, a former member of the Harris County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (Houston Metro) board of directors and director of planning at the Texas engineering and design firm Huitt-Zollars, has studied the outcomes of those dual missions and produced an indictment of American transit agencies as a whole. As he writes on the site of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, “Racism has shaped public transit, and it’s riddled with inequities.” Those inequities range from the small — like the two vastly different Houston Metro bus routes that connect the same southwest Houston suburb with downtown — to the large, like the separate transit agencies that serve two overwhelmingly white suburban counties in the Altanta region.

The net effect of both is to place a heavier burden on the mostly-low-income, mostly-Black “dependent” riders who either can’t afford the premium bus service or must pay more and travel longer to get from their city homes to suburban jobs. (It’s quite likely that one of the reasons business leaders in Gwinett County want to see MARTA rapid transit extend to the county [“The Mobile City,” Aug. 19] is to make it easier for their employees who live in Atlanta to get to work.)

“We in the transit world, all of us who are involved in decisions about what kind of transit service to provide, and where and how to provide it, are the stewards of systems that have racism deeply rooted in them,” writes Spieler. “And, unless we step back and question ourselves, are willing to have uncomfortable conversations, and share our power, we will continue to perpetuate that racism.”

Bay Area Transit Plan Reduces Social Distancing for Riders

No doubt responding to those reports that show that buses and trains have not turned out to be rolling COVID spreaders, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) in the San Francisco Bay region has produced a new set of social distancing guidelines for area transit agencies that should make their accountants happy but cause jitters elsewhere.

The Marin Independent Journal reports that the MTC’s new guidelines recommend that riders keep only three feet of distance between themselves and other riders. That’s half the distance the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments recommend to slow transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

MTC spokesperson John Goodwin cited World Health Organization recommendations and European and East Asian transit agencies’ experience as influencing its decision to shrink the minimum recommended distance between public transit riders, the report states.

The new guidelines, which all 27 agencies operating transit service in the Bay Area are expected to follow, also set standards for vehicle sanitation and maintenance, employee infection tracing and provision of personal protective equipment for employees. Those standards call for continuing the six-foot distancing requirement between passengers and operators. They also recommend installing shields between operators and passengers and rear-door boarding of vehicles.

Representatives of transit workers say those protections aren’t enough, and they are skeptical at best of the reduced passenger distancing minimum. Four Bay Area transit unions and two advocacy groups sent the MTC a letter calling for mandated shields, strict capacity limits for vehicles, increased hazard pay for essential workers and additional personal leave for employees.

The MTC also noted that Tri-Met in Portland has also adopted the lower social distancing minimums and pointed out that the six-foot minimum was drawn up before mask-wearing mandates were imposed.

Sacramento RT Gives Capital Grant Back to Washington

For the better part of the last decade, Sacramento city and transit officials pursued a plan to build a four-mile downtown streetcar that would connect the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento. The U.S. Representative from the area, Doris Matsui (D), had even helped to secure a $50 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration that would go towards the line’s projected $200 million construction cost.

But as the project dragged on and costs rose, officials couldn’t figure out where the rest of the money would come from. Now, with a federal deadline for allocating the grant approaching and a last-minute “Plan B” gone down to defeat, Railway Track and Structures reports that the Sacramento Regional Transit District (Sacramento RT) is sending the $50 million back to Washington.

The agency made this decision after its board split down the middle over an alternative plan to build a shorter, 1.1-mile line that would cross a bridge connecting the two cities. The 5-5 vote left the weighted score for proceeding with the project at 48, short of the 50 score required for it to proceed.

Matsui told The Sacramento Bee that she found the decision “troubling,” and Sacramento RT General Manager Henry Li said that the decision to return the money would make it harder for the agency to obtain federal assistance for other transit expansion projects it hopes to pursue in the future.

Know of a development that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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Tags: public transportationcovid-19streetcarsracismbay areasacramento

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