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The How, not the What

The theme of my work this year is The How, not the What. There is a lot of great work being done on what transportation policy changes are need to address equity and climate change. But how to make or implement policy changes can be much harder. Harder to do, and to research and learn from as often changes are obscured in political deals and implementation takes place inside complex government mazes.     

This is a short video I made for a “poster” presentation at the virtual TRB Conference on Advancing Transportation Equity. I am still looking for examples and other theories of change, so please reach out if you have some to share. 

How did transit agencies end up with inequitable service?

I am going to start with the given that a major source of inequity in transportation is the prioritization in funding and building infrastructure for personal motor vehicles. Equity (and addressing climate change) require a shift in this resource allocation. The power to make these decisions are mostly outside individual transit agencies. However, the question of equity also exists within the allocation of resources for transit (and biking and walking). And transit agencies do have the power to make these decisions.

There are a number of ways to define and measure equity in public transit. One definition is essentially that people (or neighborhoods depending on your dataset) of all demographics (income, race, ethnicity, language, ability, age) have access to service that meets their transportation needs. Since ‘needs’ is hard to measure, most analysis measures sameness (equality). For example, do people living in Black neighborhoods have access to the same number of jobs within 45 minutes as white neighborhoods?  

There is a lot of data showing these types of inequities across transit networks. The underlying problem is both discriminatory land use policies and transportation decisions. Transit agencies can and should use these types of metrics and data to reduce and eliminate these inequities. But these inequalities didn’t just happen. They are the result of past (and current) transit agency decisions – big and small.

In order to not repeat past inequitable decisions and to acknowledge the impacts caused by agency decisions, I think transit agencies need to do an accounting of how their system got inequitable.  We need ‘active voice’ in transit agency equity plans that takes responsibility for their role in creating the problem.

Inequitable transit access can come from big Capital decisions, like where to invest in rail service, and incrementally as a series of small decisions, like where to put that one additional bus trip. No doubt political pressure by politicians representing white and higher income communities is a major factor in many decisions. But that pressure will continue in the backrooms until forced into the light and acknowledged as inequitable.

If you are with me so far that this is important, my question is how: how should transit agencies go about this accounting of past decisions? Here are few components I am thinking about.     

Who should do the accounting? Quite literally what process should agencies take and who should lead and be involved in the process. To build new solutions to long-term problems the answer can’t be the agency hires the usual consultants to lead a study. How can agencies and communities collaborate so the process builds trust?

What is the scope? Some transit agencies in the US go back to private sector control and it would be overwhelming to analyze every decision. (The history of transit injustice goes back to the beginning- here is a timeline I put together for my master’s project on Atlanta.) Every agency and region will need to figure out their scope, but it seems important to pick a variety of decisions and look at how they happened and their impact. 

What is the format for presenting the history and acknowledgement of equity impacts? Or what is a platform for ongoing analysis and discussion? One interesting example I found is an LA Metro blog post on one of their rail lines.

How should the outcome be used? How will the results be integrated into policy decision-making? And drive narratives and communications about equity to help push back on the forces of inequity? I have seen inequitable decisions as the result of political bullying, maybe talking about the past can help inoculate against those tactics in the future.

What are the challenges for government agencies admitting past injustices? Or even disclosing that they were wrong about something? Clearly the main challenge is if you admit a past wrong then you should do something about it and that requires shifting power and resources. But I also found a deep fear inside a government agency of admitting any mistakes, even small ones. We need to figure out ways that a governmental body can acknowledge they did something wrong in ways that doesn’t undermine trust in government and instead builds it.

(A side tangent, one of the reasons I started the data blog at the MBTA was to create a forum or platform for talking about data mistakes and errors. Data analysis is difficult and messy and even if there are no mistakes new data comes along that might change the results. But there wasn’t really a way for a matter of fact telling of what happened and why we think the new results are better. My hope is that talking about mistakes makes people more confident in the data analysis and the agency in general.)  

I have a lot more questions than answers on this topic. And I don’t think I should be the one to have the answers and I know this idea isn’t new. So I am looking for examples or best practices of transit (or other government) agencies doing this type of accounting of past inequitable decisions. Please share if you have any and I will share what I learn! 


The right policy tool for the problem

Ideally transit agencies should not have to be in the position of directly alleviating income inequality. They should play a supporting role by getting people to opportunities; federal and state policies like taxes, minimum wage and benefits laws, and guaranteed income programs should be addressing the outrageous inequality and poverty in the US.

If poverty was addressed in other areas of public policy, then transportation policy could focus on using pricing to shift behavior to address congestion and emissions. The US should have high quality transit at a low to no cost to users to make it competitive, and be partially funded by making the cost of driving reflect its true social cost. But unfortunately we are far from this reality, so transit agencies are often in the position of trying to solve multiple policy problems with limited tools.

Means-testing is at the center of progressive public policy- just usually we think about it as income (individual and corporate) taxes. But transit agencies don’t have the power to levy income taxes. So means-tested fares are one of the few tools they have to raise revenue in a progressive manner (value capture is another idea often discussed).

Multi-modal agencies like the MBTA use mode as a proxy for income in their fare policy with lower bus fares and higher commuter rail fares. But this can be a self-fulfilling cycle reinforcing the existing usage of bus by low-income riders and exclusion of low-income people on commuter/regional rail. It has become a greater concern with the suburbanization of poverty. (Addressing housing affordability is critical, but again one that many transit agencies have limited control over.)

Free transit for all and means-tested fares are popular policy ideas for addressing transit affordability, but let’s continue to remember the root cause of the problem is policies that create vast income inequality. How equitable either idea is in part depends on where the lost fare revenue will come from. For example, replacing all fare revenue with sales tax revenue is likely more regressive than means-tested fare system where higher income riders pay fares. All calls for free or means-tested fares should be associated with a funding source that ensures low-income people aren’t just paying in a different form (and additional funding to increase service since people’s time is also a cost!).

The mix of funding sources for every major transit agency in the country is different. In 2019, the MBTA reported a 44.6% farebox recovery ratio to the National Transit Database while the Los Angeles Metro reported 14.6%. The differences are both local funding sources, rider demographics, and types of services offered. LA Metro doesn’t run the regional rail while the MBTA does.

This means that a one-size fits all policy at the transit agency level isn’t possible. From a funding perspective what works in LA, won’t necessarily work or be equitable in Boston. However, the affordability arguments for free fares or means-testing are universal. The farebox recovery ratio is meaningless to a rider trying to make ends meet every day in LA or Boston or anywhere in-between. And whether a person has to ride a bus or a train to get from A to B (and who operates it) also doesn’t matter.

To me this is a clear indication of the need for federal policies to address both income inequality and public transit funding. Transit agencies only survived COVID because the federal government passed three rounds of emergency funding (totaling ~$70 billion). But this was the first major federal funding for transit operations (not capital) since it was cut by President Reagan in the 1980s.  A return to regular federal transit operating assistance, funded by a progressive (and true cost of driving) source, could allow agencies to increase service and either lower fares or implement means-tested fares.  

A weedy postscript on fares and federal tax policy

A side note on fares and federal policy

Deep in the weeds of the MBTA’s fare revenue there was a golden egg

There is another way that the federal government subsidizes transit and that is through the pre-tax deduction for transit fares (and parking at transit lots). While this benefit primarily goes to individuals who work in higher paying jobs whose employers participate in these types of programs, transit agencies benefit as well.  I only know the details at the MBTA, and it is worth exploring the COVID impacts and thinking about what changes are needed.

Before COVID the MBTA’s corporate pass program was the golden egg of fare revenue. People could only sign up for monthly passes on a reoccurring basis and the cost was subsidized by the pre-tax payment and often by employers. This allowed the MBTA to set higher commuter rail pass prices. It also meant that often high income riders bought passes for which they didn’t take the number of trips required to break-even at the sticker price. The MBTA got revenue from passes without having to provide all of the capacity they could have represented.

This was equity enhancing only because the MBTA has a weekly bus/subway pass that is roughly ¼ of the monthly to maintain pass access for low-income riders not in the corporate program. And because the agency could use the corporate pass revenue to fund service for the bus/subway pass users riding more than the breakeven point. So commuters (really the federal government and employers) were subsidizing everyday riders.

The COVID pandemic likely killed this golden goose for the MBTA. First, many people turned off their transit payroll deductions during the pandemic and will have to be convinced to resign up. And second, it is likely that some continued remote work will make the monthly pass less attractive, even with the pre-tax benefits. It is also possible that large employers will reduce their subsidies for transit (please don’t).

This means even as ridership returns fare revenue could lag behind, thus creating a structural problem if there isn’t a new source of sustainable operating funds.  This new source of funds should also be equity enhancing, not higher fares on the remaining riders.

Clearly the MBTA, and other transit agencies previously reliant on pass revenue, have to rethink their fare structures over the next few years, including different products in their corporate programs (will require technology upgrades). It will also be important to make federal and employer transit benefits more available for lower wage workers in industries where remote work isn’t an option.    

I would be curious to hear from folks with knowledge of other agencies’ fare mix if there are similar or different concerns about how fare revenue will return. Do people have suggestions about how to make sure the federal transit pre-tax policy remains a useful tool for transit agencies?

The future is shared transport

The pandemic might have changed some things, but I think mostly it revealed or exacerbated existing conditions. So far it has not fundamentally changed my view of the future of transportation. Three key realities remain true. One, we have to reduce emissions from transportation to address climate change and air quality. Two, we have a limited amount of public space for mobility and increasing demand for it. (The pandemic intensified the demand with more deliveries and public outdoor space for dining, recreation, and non-motorized transport.) Three, our transportation system is unequal, unsafe and inefficient in both funding and how public space is allocated and enforced. (This past year further illuminated the inequity and violence around enforcement in public space and expanded my definition of safety.)

Maybe because I was a math major in college, when faced with multiple problems I like to find the intersection of their solution sets. In this case, the use, space allocation, and funding for systems of shared transport is clearly in the intersection of all three problems.  While the space and emissions benefits of shared transport are fairly clear, shared transport is also important as a place for social integration. I believe it is critical for a multiracial democracy to have places where people safely share space with people from different backgrounds.

Over the past decade my thinking about shared transport expanded. In part because I spent several years living and traveling in the Global South and saw a variety of shared transport systems that have been around for a very long time. And as new technology (e.g. electric scooters) and the ability to book fares on smartphones has created new shared mobility opportunities (and a new place for competition to take place).  

As I left my research role in Santiago, Chile I wrote a paper about shifting regulatory frameworks for transportation (presented at Transportation Research Board 2017).  My premise is that transport can be framed on two axes: the spectrum of how collective/shared the vehicles are, and the role of the state in providing the service (publicness). This graphic could be updated, but the idea is still useful.

As the graphic shows, shared transport ranges from bicycle sharing to trains that can carry thousands.  We need many types of shared mobility to match different land uses, demand levels, and personal preferences. There is no one size fits all regardless of who is operating the service. (I want to start thinking about how urban freight/deliveries fit in.)

Given the intersection of problems we need to shift trips from private motorized vehicles to shared vehicles (and non-motorized modes). The important policy questions are often around what is the role of the state in regulating, funding, and operating each service to achieve this goal and provide equitable access. The graphic illustrates there is an increase in publicness as sharing capacity increases. This is due to the need for large capital investment that lends itself to a public monopoly, but public ownership exists across the sharing spectrum.

I don’t know exactly what the mix of public and privately operated shared transport services will be in the future (or how Autonomous Vehicles will manifest), but regardless of that future it will be essential to have a digital platform that provides users with information about costs, in both time and money for any given trip, and books fares. Many tech companies have figured this out and are trying to be the platform. But it is critical that the platform be owned by the public sector.

Public control is necessary to ensure fair competition, facilitate equitable access, and achieve public policy goals. The digital platform is essentially the marketplace for shared transportation and, especially if there are private operators, the site of competition by giving consumers (comparable) information. The public sector can set the rules for access to the platform, like ADA accessible vehicles or providing service in low-income communities.   

A digital information and ticketing platform also provides the mechanism for government subsidy for transportation, either for equity goals or incentives to shift behavior to shared trips. Subsidy could be applied at the trip level, for types of services, or for individuals. Even if some public transit service is free, a platform allows public subsidy for low-income people to make trips where and when high capacity public transit service doesn’t make sense. For example, free transfers to bike sharing controlled by a different entity or a subsidized taxi trip late at night.

Another key reason for public ownership of the platform is to ensure access for cash users as the trend toward smartphone and contactless payments continue. Cash use is needed for under-banked people and privacy reasons. The platform has to be attached to an easy way for people to add cash to accounts that can be used to pay for all forms of transportation.

The MBTA Fare Transformation project is designed to be the foundation of a public platform. After integrating all of the MBTA services together, the plan is to bring in other services and develop joint fare products. The retail and fare vending machine network will provide access to cash users not only to the MBTA, but potentially to other shared mobility options. If all goes according to plan, it is a good example of a public agency acting proactively to protect the public good in the future.

Transit Governance Part 2: The MBTA FMCB

Since the Massachusetts legislature is considering the next governance board for the MBTA, I thought I would post a reflection from my front row seat at the Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB) for 5.5 years.

For the uninitiated the FMCB is a volunteer five member board who were all appointed by Governor Baker to oversee the MBTA. Over the course of almost six years there have been eight members; three members have served the entire time. The Board met three (sometimes four) times a month for almost five years and now meets twice a month. And meetings generally last from 4-5 hours.

I officially started at the MBTA in December 2014 before it started snowing and the agency was still under the MassDOT Board. After the Governor’s panel recommendation, I remember the staff conversations about the wisdom of creating a new board. When the FMCB started I became a key staff member doing presentations. Based on my experience, the transparency, scope, and power structure are all worth reflection.

The number and detail of the topics the Board took up and the sheer amount of time in public session made the FMCB an experiment in transparency in transit governance. It exposed the public or anyone with the ability to sit through long meetings (and later live-streams) to details of running a transit agency that usually are handled internally.

The frequency of meetings keeps the MBTA in the news every week and front of mind as the agency worked to recover from a number of crises. The meetings created a space for public input and Board members are generally more available to advocates than other members of MBTA or MassDOT leadership. The Board strives for consensus and it appears that members want to have an open debate on hard issues.    

In an idealized sense, public policy decisions are made by applying community values to the best information available on costs, benefits, and tradeoffs. Especially in complex organizations like transit agencies, expert staff are needed to provide the best information to a decision-making body (Board, Chief Executive, elected officials) which applies the community values.

However, given the power dynamics and the public nature of the FMCB meetings, staff subject matter experts didn’t always feel like they could speak freely about the complexity or unintended consequences of Board decisions. During my many presentations I tried my best to push back on unrealistic expectations or explain the interconnected nature of decisions, but there was often a lot I left unsaid. Sometimes the Secretary or General Manager (GM) would help us out, but they didn’t always have the technical knowledge, or probably want to have the conversation in public either.  

I wonder if sometimes we didn’t get the most optimal policy decisions because the discussion was happening in public. I value transparency, but is it transparency if there are important details that aren’t being said because of how power works? I am not sure how exactly to solve this problem.  

One consideration is what level of detail the Board should operate at. One of the things that the FMCB did is bring to the Board many decisions or discussions that previously would have ended with the GM. There are clearly policy decisions that should happen by a Board in public (like fare and service changes, budgets, and long-term planning). But once you get past those items that require votes, it is hard to know where to stop. The downside of too large a Board scope isn’t just staff unable to speak freely, but also the number of Board meetings to cover all the material.  

For the first four years of the FMCB, the Board met three to four times a month requiring a significant amount of executive time preparing for meetings. As an example, a powerpoint presentation I prepared for a Board meeting would often require two to three levels/rounds of review, while no one reviewed the decks I prepared for a meeting with the GM. When I talked to peers at other agencies they would laugh incredulously at the idea of their Board meeting that often.   

The external safety panel found that the frequent Board meetings had a ‘detrimental effect’ on the agency. Preparing for Board meetings replaced regular senior staff meetings, with a focus on the Board’s agenda instead of issues that were raised up internally. There are a lot of mundane and important issues, like safety, that transit professionals deal with on a daily basis that require executive, but not necessarily Board, attention.  

A lot of this boils down to what is the role of the Board compared to the General Manager and Secretary of Transportation. It often felt like all three were playing similar political roles, instead of complementary roles, without a clear power structure. In practice this meant that sometimes the strategic energy of leadership was spent trying to position each other, instead of jointly positioning the agency outward or forward.

The FMCB diminished the role of the GM, not just by setting the agenda, but also with staff. Under the MassDOT Board, the GM and the Secretary were the main conduits of information to the Board outside formal staff presentations. The creation of the FMCB broke the wall between the Board and staff. I, and a few other staff members, took advantage of this access and pushed through changes that we wanted by going around the GM and/or Secretary directly to Board members. (It was like being the child of seven divorced parents.) This made a few good things happen (and some things that could have been better thought out), but in the end I realized it wasn’t good for the long-term functioning of the organization.   

The muddled power structure creates access for some new ideas, but based on relationships not the merit of the ideas. It was difficult for staff to understand the priorities when they got different feedback from multiple leaders, which creates frustration and wastes time and effort. If an organization is going to use a hierarchical power structure than the structure should be clear to all involved.

I worked for five GMs during my time at the MBTA and likely three of them wouldn’t be considered qualified to be GM at almost any other major transit agency due to their lack of transit and/or management experience. (Hint, I am not talking about the Black woman who had already been GM at other agencies.) The long string of GMs before I (or the FMCB) arrived indicates that there is a mismatch in the skills/experience required, the responsibility of the position, and the power or authority the position holds.

In my personal opinion, the MBTA would be better off if the GM role was a technical hire drawn from the transit industry, not a political or Massachusetts insider hire. It makes sense for the Board to be the site of public policy decision-making by applying the community values to the staff expertise marshaled by the GM. There should be clear roles and responsibilities between the GM, Board, and Secretary for the benefit of the staff and the public.

Having the Board operating at a higher level would scale back the number of meetings. This could create a better balance for executive attention to issues that come externally (from the public and Board) and that come up through the ranks internally. In order to make sure this doesn’t diminish the important transparency the FMCB provided, the MBTA would need to use other methods for leadership to explain themselves and engage with the public.

Transit Governance Part 1: Advocacy Relationship

In my quest to encourage transit agency and advocate collaboration to increase transit equity, I need to take a moment to talk about transit governance.

Who does a public transit agency work for? The idealistic answer is the public. But the real-politik answer is important to the relationship between transit advocates and an agency. This answer lies in the intersection of where the agency’s funding comes from and who appoints the leadership (Board and Chief Executive). Another way to ask this question is what elected officials should be held accountable for a transit agency’s performance or decisions.

Governance structures for transit agencies vary across the US and often get very complicated. There is utility in having the funding source directly connected to the governance board. There are arguments for making an agency clearly the responsibility of a single elected official or elected body so that accountability is easier. But both can limit the representation and lived experiences on the board (which should be addressed).

Understanding the governance structure is critical for advocates to know where the decision-making power lies and how to direct their advocacy. And it is also important to understanding what role advocates need to play and what role the transit agency can play in making change.

In my personal experience most transit professionals are in their jobs because they want to improve public transit. It is a mission-driven organization and the stress is too great to stay if you don’t care. So in all likelihood transit advocates share some common goals with the workforce and middle management of the agency. I believe pushing change forward requires inside/outside collaboration. Governance defines how that collaboration can work because it determines the roles of the different players in making change.

How the agency can advocate for itself depends on the governance model. My personal experience is in Boston (working for the MBTA) and in Atlanta (as an advocate for MARTA). In Massachusetts the MBTA works for the Governor and the majority of the (non-fare) funding comes from the state. When I lived in Atlanta MARTA was funded by the City of Atlanta and two surrounding counties and the Board was appointed by those jurisdictions (and some seats by the state).

MARTA was able to advocate for itself at the state legislature (see photos in this post) and work directly with community groups to support more funding. But it didn’t get any operating funds from the state of Georgia (due to racism, but that is a story for another day). The MBTA is functionally part of state government, so is unable to advocate for itself as an entity separate from the rest of the administration. But it does get state funding. I worked with the same General Manager in both places so know the difference isn’t solely about leadership.   

This means in a region like Boston, one of the main roles for advocates is to speak-up for the transit agency in a way that the agency can’t. Asking the MBTA leadership to go against the position of the Governor (whoever it is) is like asking someone to publicly contradict their boss. It is tempting, but not really a recipe for success. This might be frustrating for staff and advocates, but it is the existing reality.

Regardless of the governance, advocates should hold the agency accountable for the decisions that are in their control and push (or change) the relevant elected officials on decisions that are out of the agency’s control. And at the end of the day advocates are always playing a supporting role, it is the transit agency that has to implement any changes and have the trust of the public to spend public funds.

Advocates, your role is to push transit agencies into the stars we need them to be! This can be hard to remember when you are trying to get your voice heard and secure funding for your organization, or if it feels like you are fighting the bureaucracy. But you are a supporting character with the goal of organizing yourself out of being necessary. Understanding your role within the existing governance structure (or trying to change it) is critical to helping the transit agency shine brighter.

(Agency staff, if you missed it, check out my posts about accountability and movement building inside.)

Transit is a dependent and independent variable

The federal American Rescue Plan will allow transit agencies to fill their budget holes for the short-term to keep running service as the country starts the recovery from the pandemic. But transit advocates shouldn’t declare victory yet; the long-term funding problem isn’t solved and restoring service isn’t as simple as it sounds. 

The pace of returning service varies across transit agencies in part because agencies have been running different levels of their pre-COVID service throughout the pandemic. Different levels are likely due to the percent of pre-COVID service at peak, pandemic ridership, funding, and employee availability. 

  • The MBTA announced that they are budgeting for full bus and rapid transit service in FY22 (which starts July 1) and working to restore some service sooner. They are currently operating 86% of service.
  • The San Francisco MTA said the federal funding buys time, but it’s essential to find new sources of ongoing operating funds to move beyond 85% service restoration by January 2022. Service is currently at 70%.
  • LA Metro has been running 80% of pre-COVID service and promised full bus service restoration by September 2021.
  • King County Metro in Seattle is running about 85% of service now and their 2021-22 adopted budget funds a return to pre-COVID service levels by the end of 2022. They are planning a significant increase in September 2021.

A key logistical challenge to restoring service will be hiring and training operators. Before COVID many transit agencies were struggling to hire bus operators, there are normal attrition rates of operators even without the additional stress of working through a pandemic, and likely most agencies slowed or stopped their training programs for financial and safety reasons. 

Having the funds to run service is not the same as knowing what service to run. Transit service is both a dependent and independent variable in travel patterns. Frequent service is needed to get people to come back to transit, but agencies don’t know yet how travel patterns have changed independent of their service levels. This means that, even with service restored, the service distribution is likely going to have to change over the next few years as our communities recover from COVID.  

It is also important to remember that many transit agencies set lower crowding standards and shifted their service to respond to ridership. So getting back to 100% of pre-COVID service doesn’t mean all pre-COVID service, unless that additional service on routes serving essential workers is cut back. For the MBTA, as an example, this might mean that they should aim for over 100% of pre-COVID bus service and remain at less than 100% on ferry and commuter rail.    

Service changes are hard, but necessary to align service with demand. So let’s all commit right now that we know there will need to be service changes over the next few years and that agencies and communities can work through them collaboratively.  

These changes are also likely going to align in some cases with agencies running out of the third allotment of federal funding. Especially if fare revenue doesn’t completely recover, agencies are going to need new sustainable and progressive sources of funding. Without new funding there will likely have to be service cuts; even with new sources of funding service changes will likely mean some reductions in service where demand hasn’t returned.

We should pivot from the discussion of restoring pre-COVID service to envisioning what data, processes, and trust we will need to get sustainable funding sources and to rebuild more equitable transit networks.

‘More equitable’ than before COVID

Before I left the MBTA I made a powerpoint slide (one of hundreds I made over 6 years) for my last Board presentation and on it I wrote, “ Our commitment is that service at the end of the recovery will be more equitable than before COVID”. At the MBTA Board meeting this week the General Manager reaffirmed this commitment.

Hopefully other transit agencies are also currently making this commitment, or being pushed to make this commitment. The Biden Administration is putting transportation central in their equity agenda.  The additional federal funds for transit as part of the American Rescue Plan should stave off service cuts for the short-term, but that doesn’t guarantee service will be ‘more equitable.’ All of this begs the question, what is ‘more equitable’ and how should it be decided, measured, and implemented?

The existing official measure of equity for transit service is a Title VI (of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) equity analysis. The current (2012) Federal Transit Administration Title VI circular sets a process for performing an analysis that measures the equity of changes off the current conditions. This, unfortunately, assumes that the current conditions are equitable. To make service ‘more equitable’, we (agencies and the community) need to acknowledge the ways that the existing service (pre-COVID) is inequitable. This accounting of past, and current, inequitable policies and practices is necessary to build trust between agencies and communities, and to establish the real baseline off which to measure equity improvements.   

Researchers, advocates, and transit agencies have been working for years to develop new ways to measure equity that better approximate equity in access (transportation’s central function). There are numerous versions of access to opportunity measures that, for example, look at the number of destinations people in different neighborhoods can reach in a time budget. The MBTA is working on a competitiveness measure that is based off the idea that transit users should have a trip that is ‘competitive’ with car users making the same trip (adding the component of trip quality).  

After equity is defined and measured, the results of the analysis have to be translated into changes to the transit network (in space) and levels of service (in time) within the very real context of an operating budget, vehicle, and labor constraints. The MBTA already made equity positive changes to respond to different ridership levels by route during the pandemic. There are more than 20 bus routes with more service than before the pandemic to meet social distancing crowding standards. It would be ‘more equitable’ to keep all or some of this additional service on these routes serving low-income communities of color after the need for social distancing recedes. However, that means the MBTA will need to keep other bus routes running with less service, shift funds from other modes, or receive additional operating resources above those needed to replace their lost fare revenue for the considerable future.  (And, of course, work with cities to keep prioritizing buses on streets to make service more efficient.)

Even with the additional federal funds, there are necessary (and hard) decisions facing transit agencies on how to rebuild. More equitable also means decision-making using a collaborative process. Now is the time for realistic conversations between transit riders, advocates, and agencies about how to account for the past, define and measure equity, and make service changes.

Please join me (or let me join you) in making these conversations happen1. Putting all of the service back exactly how it was before COVID is not equitable. To respond to the overlapping crises of public health, economic inequality, and racial injustice we have to rebuild our transit networks as a foundation for a more equitable recovery.

1 If you actually look at the powerpoint slide in question you will see I suggested a simple metric for ‘more equitable’ as measured by percent of service hours serving minority and low-income populations. It is a starting place for a conversation.

Part 5: Building Power-with from the Outside

In Part 4, I discussed some ideas for agency insiders to democratize their technical power and value experiential knowledge. In my theory of change, organizers outside are critical to changing government agencies’ policies and practices. Often people on the inside need political support from the outside to push change. And more importantly, most priorities for changes should come from impacted communities.   

I decided to study transportation after I moved to Atlanta, Georgia without a car. One afternoon during my rail to bus transfer, I met members of a grassroots transit riders’ group passing out fliers at a MARTA station. They were in my neighborhood organizing riders to make the transit system work better for them. I went to their next meeting and for the next five years I would use what I was learning in grad school to provide technical support to Atlanta organizations with low-income, of color, and disabled leaders organizing transit riders and workers. I also became a person who transit insiders called when they needed something said they couldn’t say publicly themselves without risk. I supported a joint day of action in 2010 organized by the transit agency, the employee union, and a transit advocate organization (all groups led by Black women) that successfully pressured the Georgia legislature to make a needed change to save transit service levels.        

  • Large red X painted on a side of a MARTA car
  • Red X painted on the side of a MARTA bus
  • Rally on the upper level of MARTA 5 Points station
  • People marching to Georgia State Capitol Building
  • Crowd of people hold MARTA Breeze cards in center of Georgia State House
  • Rider at a table filling out a sign-up form

A convergence of leadership, governance structure, and historical moment led to such public collaboration at this high level of an agency. However, the central tenet remains constant: change-makers inside and outside of the agency building power-with each other. In power-with change making, developing a common understanding of the role each plays in the partnership is necessary to achieve the shared goal. 

In her book The Purpose of Power, Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, defines organizing as building relationships so that together you can build power to change the conditions hurting your community. She makes sure to point out that a condition of success is changing the relationships of power so that it is held by many instead of few (pg 56). I call power held by many ‘power-with’ and power held by few ‘power-over’. (Terms I picked up in a Women’s Studies class as an undergraduate.)

I have observed how effectively building relationships with people inside government agencies can help outside organizers push change. Internal change-makers can provide information that is hidden, sometimes on purpose, from the outside; can explain the complexity around problems; and can identify leverage or decision points. Insiders can do the creative problem-solving internally to find a way to implement changes. They can champion changes sought by communities.

The challenge is how to build those relationships using power-with tactics within the overall power-over system that internal change-makers work in. The circumstances vary on how much internal change-makers can build power internally. They are working in a system where others have power-over them. Sometimes insiders are putting their livelihood at risk when they collaborate with outside organizers, so relationships require trust.

This is not to let people in the public sector, especially in leadership positions, off the hook, but to say that we need the creative tension of accountability and support. Using this tension to make change requires understanding the role that individuals play in bureaucracies. Decisions are made by individuals in the context of systems and political structures. Individuals in systems need to be held accountable for the decisions within their purview and must be supported so they can take risks.

Instead of criticizing individuals (or organizations) for not making decisions they don’t have the power alone to make, outside organizers should work to build the conditions where, either that individual has that power (political cover), or that power is more widely held. Identifying where in the system decisions can be made, and illuminating what or who is preventing those decisions, allows organizers to hold government to account while maintaining trust in the institutions of government that are working within the existing system of power. (A corollary to this principle is that trying to hold institutions to account for decisions they can’t make, or positions they can’t take, can undermine those institutions in the eyes of the public.)

Accountability is two-sided. Internal change-makers should also be asking what makes their potential outside partners accountable and to whom. In transportation there tend to be advocate organizations that have experiential expertise and those that specialize in technical expertise. The authority of organizations with experiential expertise comes from their legitimacy with the communities they represent. For organizations based on technical expertise there is a tendency to base their legitimacy on the power of their ideas. However, this can set up a power-over dynamic where the argument becomes about whose ideas are better, instead of how to collaboratively make change based on shared goals.

Organizers with access to power can use the tools of power-over to try to force change, but that comes at a cost and does not build relationships. No matter who uses power-over techniques they still replicate the systems of inequality, even if organizers ‘win’ in the short-term. In my personal experience, organizations that are rooted in communities historically without power and led by women and people of color are well-versed in power-with tactics. I assume this is due to their lack of access to power-over decision-makers, and because people who have had power wielded over them are less likely to replicate these tactics. The movement to create a better world is practicing the world we want.

I wish that the public didn’t have to organize themselves to change how government operates and treats them. Government should exist to solve problems and improve the lives of everyone. But we have to start with the reality of the power-over world we live in. Making sustained change will require dedicated organizers inside and outside of government working collaboratively to build power-with each other in large and small ways.