Op-Ed: Improving Transit Equity as a Pandemic Recovery Strategy

Current crisis provides an opportunity to rethink how we fund mass transit and to make it more responsive and resilient
Brandon McKoy, left, and Nat Bottigheimer

As New Jersey responds to and recovers from the COVID-19 health and economic crises, state lawmakers have an opportunity to build an economy and a society that is more equitable, stronger, and resilient than the one we had before. One way to accomplish this is by rethinking our approach to transit so every resident — regardless of their income or zip code — can easily travel across the state and take care of themselves and their families.

Right now, New Jersey’s transportation infrastructure prioritizes single-occupancy vehicles (read: private cars) even though many families — especially those hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic — cannot afford cars.

For example, 40% of households in Newark either do not have a car or have a household budget that is stressed by car ownership, compared to 6% for New Jersey as a whole. These families are left to rely on an underfunded and unreliable public transit system. Add to this longer commute times for multiple jobs, and it’s clear that these New Jerseyans face barriers that their suburban, car-driving counterparts do not.

Pre-pandemic, bus riders in Newark already had their trips delayed by cars exiting major highways onto city streets, forcing city residents to wait as suburban travelers jumped the queue. Data from New Jersey Transit shows that cars jumping the queue could make buses up to 40% slower. This dynamic is likely only to get worse as we start to recover from COVID-19 and more people prioritize travel by car over public transportation, at least temporarily.

Rethinking mass-transit funding

Creating a transit system, and economy, that addresses the needs of communities hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic also means implementing an equitable tax code so that the state can raise enough revenue to support such critical actions. Right now, that means an increase in federal support for NJ Transit’s operating budget, which has been decimated by declining ridership revenue. As the economy reopens over the next year, transit service must be restored to safely allow essential workers and others to return to work.

Over the longer term, we need to solve underlying problems in how our transit system is funded and planned so it’s part of a fair and equitable recovery. This means raising more transit revenues from tolls and new fees on carbon emissions.

We must improve and expand service to communities that depend on transit and have been harmed most by the COVID-19 pandemic, by creating travel lanes where bus riders get more priority than cars and increasing transit service frequency so that wait times are shorter.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent announcement that $80 million from Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative sources will be spent annually to electrify vehicle fleets in New Jersey sets an example for how to do this, prioritizing transportation investment in economically vulnerable communities that are disproportionately exposed to air pollution and that experience high asthma rates. But as we recover, much more will need to be done.

New Jersey’s economy can be rebuilt in a way that supports more equity, a healthier environment, and greater resilience to both future pandemics and climate change. Public transportation must be a vital part of that recovery.