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July 2022 - Episode 5

Transit Inequity

For many Americans, taking public transit can be a difficult daily trial. Depending on where people live, and where they’re going, buses or trains may only come once every thirty minutes to an hour. Or, in some cases, they may not come at all. Riders might have to transfer one, two, maybe three times, and even walk or roll long distances between each stop. 

Many bus stops lack important amenities, like benches, shelters, and lights, so that commuters can wait comfortably for their next ride. And not every bus stop is ADA-compliant, so public transit for people with disabilities – particularly Black people with disabilities – can be especially inconvenient, and even dangerous.

Our public transit systems are supposed to be designed for everyone. Instead, bus and train lines often leave behind people living in low-income communities of color.

Inequity in public transit is just one way that Black Americans, particularly Black women and disabled commuters, have had their mobility arrested. Today, we’re untangling all the ways that transit networks are failing the people they are meant to serve.

Research Cited: 

Transportation Access for Everyone

Photo by Kevin Nice on Unsplash

Abby Griffith:
A lot of times I know I have to catch a bus, I know I have to go places. But still, it’s really scary because a lot of times people who are out there are not kind and nice people. And especially when I’m going from my house to the bus stop between here and there, a lot of times I feel, “God, please keep me safe,” and always worry, stress is always on. And standing at bus stop, keep checking time when it’s going to show up because a lot of times people grabbing and touching me or just randomly talking to me, makes me very nervous. Sometimes I use on my phone, even though I’m not on the phone, but I hold my phone up to my ear, pretend like I’m talking to somebody and hoping people could leave me alone.

Charles T. Brown:
Imagine this, you need to take the bus home from work. Sitting down on the bench at the bus stop, you take a breath. It’s been a long day. Rain starts to fall but the roof of the bus shelter keeps you dry. You look forward to getting home and making dinner. The bus comes every 15 minutes so you won’t have to wait too long. Now imagine there is no bench to rest on, no roof. If you don’t have a raincoat or an umbrella, you’re going to get soaked. This time, it’s going to take longer than 15 minutes, and you’re going to have to transfer it to make it back to your neighborhood.

For many Americans, taking public transit can be a difficult, daily trial. Depending on where you live and where you’re going that bus or train can only come once every 30 minutes, or it may take an hour, or in some cases it may not come at all. Riders might have to transfer one, two, maybe three times and even walk or roll long distances between each stop. Many bus stops lack important amenities like benches, shelters, and lights so that commuters can wait comfortably for their next ride. And not every bus stop is ADA compliant so public transit for people with disabilities, particularly Black persons with disabilities, can be especially inconvenient and even dangerous.

Our public transit systems are supposed to be designed for everyone. Instead, bus and train lines often leave behind people living in low-income communities of color. Inequity in public transit is just one way that Black Americans, particularly Black women and disabled commuters, have had their mobility arrested. Today, we’re untangling all the ways that transit networks are failing the people they’re meant to serve. I am Charles T. Brown, and this is Arrested Mobility.

Thanks for joining us. Richmond Virginia is a majority-minority city with a deeply racist history. During the Civil War, it was the capital of the Confederacy. Today, its bus system is called the GRTC, which stands for a Greater Richmond Transit Company. Unfortunately, GRTC doesn’t extend very far into the surrounding Henrico, Hanover and Chesterfield counties. This is a problem for citizens of Richmond who need to cross county lines. RVA Rapid Transit is a non-profit group that was formed in response to the region’s transportation challenges. Their goal is to advocate for frequent and far-reaching transit in the Richmond area. Let’s hear from Faith Walker, the executive chair of RVA Rapid Transit.

Faith Walker:
My name is Faith Walker. I’m executive director for RVA Rapid Transit. RVA Rapid Transit is a local non-profit. We are dedicated to frequent and far-reaching public transportation throughout the region. Within our region, one of the highest issues that people are having, and even the people I focus and talk to today are complaining or having troubles getting to a job that can give them a higher pay. One of the things our city sees is people are applying for positions, they’re applying for jobs, they’re going to temp agencies, finding employment, but when they’re offered the job, a lot of them say that, “Hey, it’s a job outside of the bus line. It’s across county lines.” And that’s generally where a lot of those jobs exist and so that’s the key challenge that we saw.

Charles T. Brown:
I see the problem. Before we go on, I wanted to ask you how you got involved in this work. Why do you care about transit in the city of Richmond?

Faith Walker:
Well, I care about transit because I was a person who completely depended on public transportation at some point in my life, whether that was in the city of Richmond or in a brand new city. Part of the challenge was, at 19 years old, I had no clue how to manage a new job, a new place, a car, insurance, and I did not pay my insurance. I didn’t understand that was important. In the state of Virginia, if you can’t pay insurance, if you’re stopped, there’s just so many barriers. And so I reached a point where I was stopped so much that my plates got taken away. Now I had fines so the only way I could pay the fines was I had to drive to work so I was literally stuck in this impossible cycle. I remember going to my court date and everyone in the court was in court for the same issue.

I definitely could have managed my funds a whole lot better, I will own that. But at the same time, I realized, “Hey, this is a problem. I’m not the only one having the same issue.” And so I completely relied on public transportation. I had to usually walk over a mile on a busy street to get to the bus. I mean, it’s just what I had to do. Just seeing that in my own community, me experiencing it myself, knowing my sister’s story, and also talking to riders every day and hearing their stories makes me so much more passionate about it.

Charles T. Brown:
Thank you for sharing that Faith. So who are these riders? What are their demographics?

Faith Walker:
Our transit leader, GRTC, did a 2019 study and 64% of ridership in our city are Black. 43% are white. You can see right there where we are, 57% are female, and then 51% of them are going to work. If you were to take a snapshot or if I had to sum up who rides the bus in Richmond, I would say Black working females. That makes up the majority of people who use public transportation in that region. The Richmond region has a deep-rooted history in racism. Back in the 1900s, I think, we were one of the forefront cities when it came to streetcars. We had extensive streetcar lines that ran all through our city. But one of the things started to happen is our city started to concentrate poverty within the city limits. And so it was folks trying to maintain and control people in a certain area, especially Black people. And that’s one of the number one modes of transportation that Black individuals use throughout the Richmond region. And so then we have a long history of redlining and making sure that buses that run only stay within those city limits.

Who uses public transportation? Largely African-American communities use it and so a lot of racist White individuals would not allow lines to extend throughout the county lines. And so we are at a position right now, where even back to where I mentioned before, a lot of employers, a lot of agencies are putting their businesses outside of county lines for land issues, it’s cheaper for them to operate, but the folks who actually need jobs or need that economic mobility cannot move into those areas because they don’t have lines that cross them. That’s a clear sign of arrested mobility.

Charles T. Brown:
The public transit in Richmond doesn’t always extend to where working folks need to go, but that’s not the only problem for GRTC. One area of focus for Faith is getting more bus stop amenities on underserved transit routes. Faith worked with a graduate student and former GRTC intern named Carrie Ramos to produce a report that explores the lack of amenities in detail.

Carrie Ramos:
My name is Carrie Ramos. I’m taking on a master’s program at VCU, which is Virginia Commonwealth University and their master’s in Urban and Regional Planning Program.

Charles T. Brown:
It’s good to meet you, Carrie. You recently completed a study about transit equity through investment in bus stop amenities in Richmond. Can you tell me how this came about?

Carrie Ramos:
This study, it came about because I was really interested in public transportation. I grew up right outside of Baltimore, and then in high school I moved to Bethesda Maryland, which is right outside of DC, and the public transportation system for the suburbs of DC is phenomenal. It’s got its problems, but going from nothing to that, made my life significantly better. When I did that, I realized how important it was for people who don’t have cars, don’t have access to cars. And for me that was because I was under-sixteen and I couldn’t drive. But for a lot of people, it does have to do with financial situations or just how life turns out. I noticed something that especially when buses aren’t as frequent as we would like them to be, the hopeful standard in the industry is about 15 minutes, those amenities become increasingly important.

Having something like a shelter to protect you from any elements outside just to make you feel like you have an actual area to wait with dignity, having a bus stop bench, having a trash can, having just any kind of idea on what’s going on with the buses, especially if you don’t have access to something like a cell phone or anything like that. A lot of areas also include bike racks. We have one bus stop, I believe it’s in Willow Lawn, where people take the shopping carts and overturn them because GRTC won’t give them a bench of any sort, even in the language itself, bus stop amenities make it seem like they aren’t essential. When we think of amenities, we think of maybe a luxury apartment building or a nice hotel that has a pool that has a gym that nobody ever uses and all of that kind of stuff, like a fluff piece maybe.

But when we talk about something that protects you from the rain or extreme heat or wind or just intense blinding sunlight, that’s not an amenity, that’s an essential. In Richmond, I had noticed when I was working for GRTC that there were huge disparities, especially among different areas. One of the big things GRTC does is they have interns like me ride back and forth on certain routes to see time frames and how many people get on, how many people get off. And one of them, the five goes from an underserved area in Richmond to Carytown, which is one of the most popular areas in Richmond, and it’s got a lot of shopping areas and stuff. And the stops in Carytown, it’s about every 30 minutes I believe, for that ride. But most of them had shelters, they had benches, they had bus stops, trash cans, and they had all of those other amenities attached to them, but the ones in the underserved areas didn’t have those.

A lot of times, the majority of people, at least when I was riding, were coming from the underserved areas and they had to wait for about 30 minutes. And then when I was riding, there was a woman who explained to me that she had been pregnant, she had been waiting for the bus for 45 minutes, and she actually went into labor and she had to figure something out and it seemed miserable and she couldn’t even sit down on a bench because there wasn’t one available to her. My heart broke for her and that was one of the moments when I was like, “Okay, so how do we fix this?”

Charles T. Brown:
In your paper, you also talked about the need for bus stops to be ADA compliant. Why is that important through the Lands of Transit inequity?

Carrie Ramos:
One of the bus routes in Richmond, it goes along a highway, I believe, it used to be called Jefferson Davis. I’m not sure what it’s called now, but I’m pretty sure it’s bus route number one. A lot of the stops on there, they don’t even have a curb cut out where you can wait and the highway is pretty fast. I rode along there because we were going through all the bus stops to see what were ADA compliant and what weren’t. And that one honestly terrified me because even as someone who I have the ability to walk and I couldn’t imagine crossing a highway with no crosswalk to then if I didn’t have the ability to get over the curb to then wait in the shoulder of a highway because there’s not even a curb cut out or a concrete slab, it’s incredibly dangerous.

It also, at least to me, would feel a little bit dehumanizing in a way, not considered, forgotten, just a lot of really negative emotions that would come with that. And going through all that while you’re sitting next to cars that are whizzing by you at incredibly fast speeds. And that was another thing that really made me upset. It’s interesting because not even 50% of GRTC bus stops are ADA compliant, which is, I believe it’s a five by eight slab with a less than 2% grade, which doesn’t even include a curb cutout to get onto that slab. It doesn’t include a sidewalk that would help you get from point A to point B. It literally is just a singular area for that. It is the absolute, below the bare minimum, that just, if you can’t even meet that standard, then you got to be better. I totally understand that GRTC has a budget, and I understand that there’s a lot of intricacies, but we have to do better. We have to care about people. We have to just do more than the absolute minimum. That’s not even the minimum because you can’t access it effectively and safely.

Charles T. Brown:
Abby Griffith is a Black disability rights advocate who is blind. When Abby was a student, she faced a number of barriers on her commute to school. She lives in a low-income housing complex and the nearest bus doesn’t come very often. Abby always had to show up early, transfer frequently, and walk far distances between stops. These are challenges that Abby knew how to overcome, but they drained her valuable time and energy.

Abby Griffith:
My name’s Abby Griffith and I am Disability Mobility Initiative Fellow at Disability Rights Washington. I graduated from Washington State University last year in May, 2021, and I had to take a bus to school and it took me almost three hours, sometimes over three hours to get to school and I have to take three buses to get there in total of five to six hours or longer, depending I make it to my bus or not. When my class starts 09:00 AM, I have to leave my house 05:00 AM, I can just jump in my car or jump in accessible bus and get there quick. I have to plan and how long it would take ahead of time. Sometimes I do not have a choice not to pay for a lift in Uber, and I don’t have a lot of money to pay for a lift or Uber. Transportation is real challenge for people who don’t own vehicle.

Charles T. Brown:
I’m sorry to hear that, Abby. In my transparency and honesty, when I’m waiting for transit, most times I can at least see a potential threat coming. Are you ever afraid when you’re walking to a bus stop or waiting to be picked up?

Abby Griffith:
Definitely. A lot of times I know I have to catch a bus, I know I have to go places, but still, it’s really scary because people around there, a lot of times people who are out there are not kind and nice people. And especially when I’m going from my house to the bus stop between here and there, a lot of times I feel, “God, please keep me safe.” And always worry, stress is always on and standing at bus stop, keep checking time when it’s going to show up because I always go to bus stop early so I don’t end up missing it. I could be like 10 minute early or 15 minute early. I’d rather be there and waiting around than missing and waiting entire 30 minute or hour in weekends. It is definitely scary, and a lot of times people grabbing and touching me or just randomly talking to me makes me very nervous. Sometimes I use my phone even though I’m not on the phone, but I hold my phone up to my ear pretend like I’m talking to somebody and hoping people could leave me alone.

Charles T. Brown:
Abby works with the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington. The organization’s goal is to ensure that people with disabilities have their voices heard and their needs prioritized in transportation planning. Last year, the Disability Mobility Initiative published a research paper called Transportation Access for Everyone. It contains examples from people with disabilities about the barriers they face when trying to get from point A to point B. Here’s an excerpt from that paper. A woman named Crystal who uses a wheelchair says this, “Some bus routes stop on inclines. How’s a wheelchair user supposed to even wait at that bus stop without rolling backwards? Or maybe the incline will be on grass. How do you expect me to get on grass and then the ramp to get on the bus when I’m already inclined in the weirdest position?” There are many more examples just like this in the paper. We’ll link to it in the show notes. Anna Zivarts, director of the Disability Mobility Initiative organized this research.

Anna Zivarts:
My name is Anna Zivarts and I am the director of the Disability Mobility Initiative. We are a program at Disability Rights Washington, and that’s Washington State.

Charles T. Brown:
Thanks for talking to me, Anna. Tell me about Transportation Access for Everyone.

Anna Zivarts:
Sure. The study, the research paper that we released, there’s 15 different sections where we sort of categorize the barriers. And yes, there’s a wide range of things, everything from transit schedules, frequency, intra-city transit from more rural areas, connectivity to sidewalks, and whether transit connects to sidewalks and crossings. Are there accessible crossings? Are there bus shelters? And then I think a really big takeaway from this report is affordability and housing. As housing prices have skyrocketed throughout Washington state and really through many parts of the United States, people with limited incomes are forced further and further out away from urban cores where there is more reliable transit or there is that connected sidewalk network. And so that is a huge impact on our ability to get around and be connected to our communities.

Charles T. Brown:
This paper lists many of the challenges that disabled commuters face, but you also make suggestions on how to improve things. For example, you recommend transit agencies expand their service areas and hours. What’s the biggest change you want to see in the state of transit planning right now?

Anna Zivarts:
One thing that I would love to see and I think would make a difference is that there’s one piece for us to be advocates and to be on the outside and to be pushing to show up at hearings and have our voices heard, and that’s great and that’s important work. But we also need to be inside transit agencies on transit boards in positions of power where we get to vote on the funding and we need people with lived experience of really being transit reliant in these positions and being disabled and transit reliant.

Right now, we really don’t see that at all. And so if you’re a transit agency and you’re hiring a policy person, how about not having a driver’s license requirement on that job because you’re excluding anyone who actually is reliant on your transit system. We see that unfortunately on so many job postings in transportation, jobs that aren’t bus driver jobs, but then it’s going to take going beyond that to really seek out people with lived experience. Unfortunately, we just went through a big fight in one of our big regions here in Washington state. Ben Franklin Transit has been trying to cut taxes and defund transit for the last couple of months, and there’s no one on their board who understands what it’s like to rely on transit. And that’s too common in transit boards across the country and so we’ve got to figure out how we can get people with the experience of using the systems and relying on the systems in positions of power.

Charles T. Brown:
Advocating for elected leaders and transportation professionals with a diversity of lived experiences is a great way to tackle transit inequity. Back in Richmond, Carrie Ramos has a few solutions of her own to make the GRTC more accessible and equitable. In your research, you write about how multi-sector cooperation and communication can foster more equitable access to bus stop amenities. What exactly does that entail?

Carrie Ramos:
A little bit of background on it. The way that I came to realize that this is the way to do it was when I was thinking about the DC bus system. Obviously, Richmond and DC are very different, but they are sort of similar in nature in that there’s a locality, the city, that’s not necessarily tied to the other localities, which would be the suburbs. Richmond City is its own county, DC is its own district, I guess. Anyway, those don’t necessarily have to work with each other. But in DC they work together almost seamlessly. There’s two bus systems. One of them works directly with the metro. One of them is servicing more suburb areas. And that’s how I used to get there because the metro went out to the suburbs. And that was how I would go into the city. And I realized when I was living in the suburbs of Richmond that that was significantly harder.

I couldn’t get into the city effectively. It was, I believe about a one to two hour difference versus driving, which is just not effective. No one would want their commute to be that much longer. I realized that I needed to talk to the planning district that oversees the Richmond area so that would be Plan RVA. Plan RVA, at least their transportation department, is very much on board with having more buses, having more bus lines to go out to the suburbs and having all of that integration. A lot of the issues to me at least seem to be communication and funding and priorities honestly. Looking at it through an equity lens that does factor into people’s days, that factors into people who, if you have to take the metro to work, if you have to do this, that timeframe is completely comparable to driving. Regional is important because it allows it to be a more robust system, and it allows you to have more opportunities because let’s be honest, there’s not only jobs in the city, there’s not only houses in the suburbs and all of that.

Charles T. Brown:
That’s very true. Another piece of your research touches on fare exemptions during Covid that are continuing through 2022. What is your position on fare free transit?

Carrie Ramos:
I think it’s incredibly important. One of the metrics I was looking at with GRTC was the median income for riders. I believe it was most people make under $50,000 a year so if you’re riding GRTC extensively, if you are someone who takes it to work every day, that adds up incredibly quickly. I fully agree that if you’re using it and you can afford to, you should be paying it back a little bit. But I also believe that you should be able to move around the city for free.

Charles T. Brown:
Free rides on buses and trains can potentially make transit more equitable and inclusive. But this approach may come with a cost. Ricky Angueira is a transit planner with Jared Walker & Associates, a transit firm that has worked with the GRTC in Richmond. When it comes to free fares, he stresses a value choice that planners have to consider.

Ricky Angueira:
My name is Ricky Angueira. I am a transit planner and senior associate with Jared Walker & Associates. Fare-free transit isn’t exactly free, right? It means that money has to be coming in from somewhere to replace the money that was being generated from fares, whether that’s a new investment or if it’s changes in service or whatever it may be, money needs to come from somewhere. And so the value choice that arises from fare-free transit is that when an agency might receive more money, they can put that money into making fares free or they can use that money to expand service and in expanding service, they might provide more frequency. In some places, different cities make different choices, but a lot of times what we’ve seen is that some low-income communities often prefer to have higher frequency and higher service than free fares. Now, this varies from place to place and it’s a value question, so there’s no right answer, but a lot of low-income people really value their time.

A lot of low-income people might have two or three jobs so it’s important for them for transit to be useful and to be frequent for them. And so what we’ve seen in some places is that people prefer to have frequent service even if they have to pay, as opposed to having free service that it’s not very useful for them. Now, this depends a lot on the location, what the network looks like and where people can go and the opportunities that they can get to. It depends a lot on the place, but it’s essentially a values question on what people want.

Charles T. Brown:
Thank you. That’s an interesting perspective. While that’s true for riders of privilege, one could also argue that you should not have to pay more for reliable service. Reliable service should be the default. Another idea to make public transit more equitable and inclusive is a model called on-demand transit. In that case, there’s also a trade-off. Can you speak on that?

Ricky Angueira:
On-demand transit or micro transit as it’s sometimes called, basically works like a taxi service. It’s nothing new. It’s just rebranded recently to make it sound like it’s something different. But it’s essentially something like what Uber and Lyft are doing. It’s vehicles that can pick someone up at their origin and drop them off at their destination. On-demand transit can be very attractive to a lot of people because you don’t really have to walk out to a bus stop. You can get picked up at your home and then they can drop you off right at your destination. Not all on-demand Transit services are like this. It’s a spectrum of different types of services. The biggest difference between fixed route and on-demand service is the capacity. On a bus, you might be picking up 20 people per hour with one driver, but with on-demand service, if you think about how many people a taxi can move, then that might be about three, four, maybe up to six people at most in an hour.

If you have a bus route that might be picking up 20 people an hour and you were to substitute that with on-demand service, then you might need maybe three or four drivers instead of just one so the cost can be very high compared to fixed route, which means that because of these capacity limitations, on-demand service can work, but only in places that are low density. If you end up putting on-demand service in places where you might expect a lot of people to be using it, then the cost is going to go up very quickly. Because if you’re trying to pick up 20 people an hour, then you’re going to need three or four drivers as opposed to one driver when it’s a fixed route service.

Charles T. Brown:
Multi-sector cooperation, free fares, and on-demand transit are great ideas, but they’re not applicable in every situation. Why? Put simply there is not nearly enough funding for public transit in the United States. Ricky tells me that Canadian cities invest twice as much money into public transit as American cities. European cities invest three or four times as much, but even if transportation were being properly funded, there’s still a larger systemic problem at play. One of the most important causes of transportation inequity actually has little to do with transit itself. In order to understand this problem from a broader perspective, we need to use a different approach to what Ricky calls a land use problem.

Ricky Angueira:
Something I think it’s important to discuss is a relationship between land use and transit. Often in many places, there might be some minority and low-income populations that live in a place that is very far from the city center. And so because they’re really far from the city center, it’s just generally really hard for them to get downtown in a reasonable amount of time and get to those job centers. And that’s something that we see in many cities across the United States. We see the low-income communities in the south of Chicago where there’s not a lot of jobs down there so everybody has to go downtown to find a lot of jobs. Often, a lot of times, transit is asked to solve this land use problem. This means that part of the solution to making cities more equitable is to put more jobs, more job centers and opportunities where people can actually go.

A lot of times we see that when there’s a new housing development that is going to be built or a new job center, we often see those places being located in places that is very hard for transit to serve, which means that when we’re thinking about land use, we’re thinking about development. We got to think about transit as we’re planning these things out. We got to make sure that we are putting these new developments, these new residential places, these new job centers in places where there’s already transit, already frequent transit, or where it makes sense that a lot of people can get to these places.

Some social services like the Social Security Administration Office has a tendency to locate themselves in places that are usually really far removed from transit and then they often ask the transit agency, oh, can you come over here and provide service to us? But the difficult thing is that a transit agency is already working with a fixed budget, which means that if they want to expand to reach a new location, they usually have to cut something from somewhere else. And it’s usually really hard to do that so it’s important that as we’re planning for new locations, for new services or any sort of new development, we think about transit with that. And if we do think about transit while we’re planning new development, we can be more equitable with the future of our cities.

Charles T. Brown:
Every commuter deserves comfort, safety, dignity, and respect but not all commuters receive it. Many people who rely on public transit are service workers and essential workers who you rely on. Others are people with disabilities or they just can’t afford to drive, and a large number of them are Black and transit inequity is just another way that their mobility has been arrested. I want to thank my guests, Faith Walker, Carrie Ramos, Abby Griffith, Ana Zivarts, and Ricky Angueira. I appreciate your expertise and time.

For Arrested Mobility, I am Charles T. Brown. I encourage you to follow me on social media at ctbrown1911 on Twitter or using hashtag Arrested Mobility. To read the research we’ve discussed today. You’ll find all the links on our page for this episode at ArrestedMobility.com. You can follow Arrested Mobility on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.