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North American / the US

US public transit systems are facing a threat like never before

Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, explains why the pandemic presents a unique challenge after decades of underfunding mass transit.

A passenger boards a WMATA train in the Washington, DC area.
The Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority is proposing severe cuts to services in response to shortfalls brought about by the pandemic. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The future of mass transit in the US has rarely looked as grim as it does in 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic has sent ridership plunging in cities across the US, depriving transit agencies of farebox revenue, while heightened cleaning regimens (of dubious value) have sent costs spiking. While there is no clear evidence that trains or buses have sparked any particular outbreak – the ventilation on many vehicles is actually fairly good – the reduction in commuting and general nervousness about crowds makes it unclear when, or if, ridership levels will return.

A transit rescue package is under consideration in Congress as part of a larger stimulus effort, but the politics of sustaining and transforming non-automobile modes of transportation in the coming years will be fraught. Whomever President-elect Joe Biden selects as the secretary of transportation will be a big part of those debates. 

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Among the names being kicked around in the press is Beth Osborne, the director of the advocacy group Transportation for America. Osborne is a New Orleans native, but has lived in Washington, DC since 1997. She worked for Democratic politicians, including Biden’s fellow Delaware senator, Tom Carper, and then served in leadership roles in the Department of Transportation for much of the Obama administration. As head of Transportation for America for the past two years, she has advocated for a greater emphasis on street safety, expanding public transit, and investing in the highway infrastructure we already have rather than growing our road network further. 

City Monitor spoke with her about the scale of the crisis facing mass transit in the US,  bipartisan agreement on transit aid in the March coronavirus relief bill, and whether that support will hold up during the current negotiations.   

When we talked in April, you were very happy with how the CARES Act negotiations had gone. Unlike previous experiences, transit advocates didn’t have to fight so hard for the necessary funds. Senate Republicans and House Democrats both included similar amounts for the agencies in their bills. Now negotiations look much rockier. How are you feeling about a transit rescue today?

If there’s a package, there will be money for transit. The question is, will there be a package? We’re continuing to raise the issue and point out that there’s urgency required, you can’t just sit on this. A relief package is needed right now. 

Congress doesn’t act in anticipation of a potential crisis. They act because a crisis has already occurred. We’re trying to point out that the crisis has occurred in transit, as so many are pointing out for the programmes that they work on. We have done a great job of pointing out to folks on Capitol Hill how essential transit is, but you need a bill first – and that’s where I stress out.

What are you hearing about the challenges in transit agencies around the country that stresses you out?

The story is the same everywhere, and it’s deeply concerning. In August, it was really only some of the biggest agencies that were struggling. Some very small agencies were saying something similar, particularly rural agencies that are underfunded as a matter of course. If they run into a crisis, they’re going to be among the most vulnerable. But now the number grows with each month of transit agencies that are facing the end of their CARES Act funding. 

Have you ever seen struggles on this scale before?

I’ll make it easy: no. 

Why is the threat to public transit so profound? Is it simply that ridership is way down?

When you provide a service for people traveling and they aren’t traveling, that’s an existential crisis. Then there’s always been an attitude for transit that the only time we consider it valuable is if the buses are full. Now the only people traveling are essential workers. What are we saying? If a bus isn’t full, that we don’t care whether or not essential workers can get to work? 

We have a very different situation here than we had in January 2020, when the conversation was around what kind of transit should be built. Or how do we guarantee we’re getting value for money by making sure there’s strong ridership? Now the conversation is how do we make sure there is transit for essential workers, even if they are traveling at different times and you don’t have full buses? It’s a very different question. It’s not like people have chosen not to take transit. 

It’s important to remind ourselves that this is not a conversation about ridership that we used to have where people are choosing it based on convenience and cost and timing and reliability. This is a deeper and stranger challenge than we’ve ever faced before. Natural disasters don’t have nationwide effects. We haven’t seen this kind of economic impact since the Great Depression. The Great Recession was hard, but we didn’t sit in the trough this long. This is a new kind of emergency.

Has there been any research around what happened to transit ridership during the 1918 flu pandemic?

Back then, many people were still able to get to most things they needed by foot. I think one of the mistakes we’ve made is taking that away from almost every American. That’s why those neighbourhoods where you can get to the things you need by foot, are so expensive, because those are the most resilient neighbourhoods. They’re the best for business, they’re the best for people. In most of America we have not made that possible, which also makes transit work much less effectively. When people can walk around little town centres, it makes it very easy for transit to connect people from cluster to cluster.

Is that part of the reason why a lot of policymakers in the US seem less willing to reliably fund public transit? If you’re a senator from Alabama or Wyoming, most of your constituents aren’t riding public transit. You’re going to be less interested in funding those services. In contrast, London just got a big transit rescue package. In the autumn I talked with an expert in Canada, who was not worried about the future of public transit in that country. He had faith that political leaders would sort it out. I’m not hearing that optimism from American political observers. 

I don’t share that pessimism for the US. One of the things I found very heartening is the continued real commitment to transit. Look at the regional ballot initiatives, which showed an extraordinary amount of support for transit. Austin for the first time voted to tax themselves for transit. That’s not something we’ve really seen before. I’m not among the doomsday forecasters who think that because transit is struggling now the country as a whole will walk away from it forever. In many cases, frankly, we had never really shown much of a commitment to it in the first place, so I’m not sure how much there is to walk away from.

But look, in the CARES Act, it was not a struggle to convince people to put money into transit. When negotiations closed down, before the election, transit was something they thought would be easy – that was the reason they hadn’t got to it, because it wasn’t going to take any effort. I don’t agree that people are laying in wait, looking for an excuse to kill all transit. 

Now, before Covid, were we investing in transit the way we needed to? Heck, no. We’ve done a dismal job in this country at investing in transit and making it possible for people to get basic things done outside of a car. There are people that can’t cross the street safely. I lived in Baton Rouge in an apartment complex right next to a grocery store and I had to drive there. The only way to get there was to walk in traffic or to shimmy over a wall. It’s like that all over the country. 

I would be very interested to study whether or not some people are more patient with shutdowns if they live someplace walkable where they can do so much in their neighbourhood. Covid is definitely hard, but I have a ton of restaurants in my neighbourhood that I can pick up from. They slowed down streets so when things weren’t as bad as they are now there were plenty of places to sit outside for food. We didn’t prioritise vehicle traffic over making space for business and for people to enjoy themselves. I have three groceries within four blocks of me. I’m right by several playgrounds where I can take my kids and let them run around, and they have plenty of space away from other kids. 

Maybe it’s easier for people who live in a neighbourhood like mine, but if you live in a neighbourhood where all you’ve got is your house and your yard, and nothing else without getting in a car, you might be a little more antsy.

Which neighbourhood do you live in?

I live in Columbia Heights. 

That’s where I hung out in high school. My friend group rode the buses and trains around. It was very freeing to not have to rely on a car. But now Metro is looking at massive cuts to service, running the trains far less often and closing a lot of stops. I’m curious what you make of that plan. I see a lot of US systems where the regional rail ridership has fallen by 80% or 90%, far more than the inner city routes. Would it make more sense to concentrate service in places where white-collar office workers don’t live, where car ownership is lower, while pruning commuter rail service?  

I honestly don’t know and I really struggle to question their numbers. I don’t have access to who’s traveling in what way, but I know that there’s actually a lot of people that move pretty far outside of the city for cheaper housing and so [commuter rail] could be accommodating essential workers who we wouldn’t traditionally think of being that far out. 

All I know is that when you’ve got a tea cup worth of funding and a bucket of need, there’s no way to pour that water into that bucket that’s going to come out fair. No matter what they did we’d all say, well, this is ridiculous. This can’t work. And we’d be right. 

A closed WMATA station in downtown Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

I was seeing the proposals for more stimulus this week and Mitch McConnell’s proposal didn’t have any transit funding in it. That’s part of the reason for the pessimism.

It started that way under the CARES Act too and then some Republican leaders stepped up and said, no, we really need transit. I wouldn’t be surprised if we got there again. 

Let’s talk about the speculation around the Department of Transportation. You’ve been talked about as a potential Biden appointee to head that agency. Have you officially been told that you’re under consideration? Or is it more of an informal discussion?

It’s important to recognise that having the press talk about you as someone who should be a nominee is not the same thing as being under formal consideration. I can say that it’s very flattering that there’s anybody out there that thinks I should be in a leadership role. It’s been really gratifying. I also recognise that I’m more of a technocrat. It’s not terribly common to put someone like me in charge of an agency, at least at the beginning of a first term. All I can say is the new administration has an opportunity to update programmes that really haven’t been updated for over half a century. It would be super fun to be a part of updating them. 

Have you followed how other wealthy nations are dealing with the transit funding questions brought on by Covid? 

You remember what I said about rural transit, that they’re so underfunded that when they are hit by a crisis they’re way more vulnerable? The same thing is true with the US in general. 

Why is US transit more vulnerable than other nations? Because we underfund transit. In your house, if you underfund maintenance of your roof, for example, your roof’s going to probably get more damaged in a hailstorm or hurricane. A weakened system is not as resilient. There’s really no mystery here. If you underfund things, it’s less able to stand up to crisis.

That makes total sense, but also makes me nervous about what comes next year. 

We keep looking for some easy way to get around this. Oh, we’ll just have automated, flying, electric vehicles. That will fix it. No it won’t. We don’t have a technological problem. We haven’t failed to come up with a good idea. We failed to fund and execute the idea well and so when a crisis hits, it’s going to hit a programme that is underfunded and that hasn’t got the proper attention.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for City Monitor.

Jake Blumgart

Jake Blumgart

Staff writer

Jake Blumgart was a staff writer for City Monitor.