Op-Ed: Reliable Transportation Essential for NJ’s Essential Workers — and Everyone Else

‘I’m an essential worker who relies on — and has been failed by — public transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic’
Dayse Rodriguez

COVID-19 has put a strain on the nation while also spotlighting workers whose societal contributions have often been overlooked. At the core of the country’s response to the pandemic are essential workers who keep the nation running. Cuts in public transportation service and a lack of protections for transit employees hurt essential workers who rely on public transport to commute to work.

As we continue the recovery and look to fully open the economy, New Jersey has the opportunity to build a state-of-the-art transportation system that better serves our community and, specifically, the essential workers who have not only been at the front line of the pandemic but also experience transit’s problems firsthand. Supporting the public investment of the money needed to upgrade public transportation in our state will make everyone’s trips more affordable, reliable, safe and accessible — and help the very people who are helping our community now.

I should know. I’m an essential worker who relies on — and has been failed by — public transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, I work two essential jobs: taking care of an elderly person and stocking shelves at a grocery store. My round trip Elizabeth-to-Long Branch involves taking the bus and the train. And although I cover my mouth and my eyes and wear gloves, I’m still frightened every time I step aboard that I’ll become ill.

The buses and trains come less frequently now, making it harder for me to get to work to provide support to my elderly client. The reduced transit schedules add hours to my workday, as I now have to take earlier buses and trains to make it to work on time or stand in the rain and hot and cold weather for longer periods of time waiting for my transportation.

While we can’t predict the weather, we do have the power to improve our health. If I’m left to stand outside waiting for my ride, I’d like the peace of mind that the air I’m breathing is clean.

Through responsible investments we can reduce health-harming pollution from transportation — like upgrading our transit hubs and bus depots to improve the air quality while we wait for our rides home.

Essential workers are not the only ones using public transportation. Many in our communities can’t afford their own vehicles and rely on the transportation system to complete necessary tasks like grocery shopping. Fewer buses mean more people are on them, exposing me to more risk of catching COVID-19. And I’ve been left for hours at a bus stop with my groceries waiting for the bus to come.

And what about public-transit workers? How we treat service workers says so much about our society. Bus drivers, train conductors, ticket takers, custodial workers have to show up to work to help move other essential workers and residents. But we don’t adequately protect them with appropriate personal protective equipment, comprehensive testing or hazard pay.

Transit budgets have been cut sharply at a time when we, the riders, need public transit most. More funding is needed so transit systems are thoroughly disinfected, and public spaces are kept clean and virus-free if we ever expect the broader public to be ready to use these services again.

The past two months have shown the barriers that many of our neighbors have faced for far too long. Governors who are coming together to coordinate the reopening of our states also need to work together to invest in the future of transportation across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states. All of our expectations and how we view the world are shifting. The past two months have been eye-opening to many, uncovering whole swaths of the struggles too many of our neighbors have had to shoulder for too long. Now is the time to shine a light on it, learn from it and — with the help of stimulus money and better investments from our government — build a future that better supports everyone.

As we recover from COVID-19 and more people head back to work, New Jersey has the opportunity, with the help of stimulus money, to invest in transit and infrastructure that will better serve our communities. We need to take advantage of it, for the sake of my health and yours.