How California can lead the nation with its approach to transit during COVID-19

For years, California has led the nation in its efforts to address climate change. Now, the coronavirus has created an opportunity for California to lead the nation with its efforts to save transit and build upon the “cycling explosion.”  

Even before COVID-19, transit ridership was declining. Now, there are historic drops in ridership and fare revenue due to COVID-19. The shelter-in-place ordinances across the state combined with a valid fear of how COVID-19 could be spread on transit has resulted in ridership and fare revenues dropping by more than 90 percent. While the federal stimulus has staved off the worst of the impacts, the California Transit Association noted in a recent op-ed that a second wave of drops will hit local transit agencies, especially with state and local sales taxes plunging due to a slow economy. And as seen in previous recessions, a future stimulus will help but it can't stabilize transit for the long haul. Additionally, the Washington Post shared that public transit is highlighting historic inequities that are further impacted by COVID-19. Lower-income communities of color that don’t own cars have no other option but to ride transit to get to work, school, and the store.

Photo Credit: Andrew Cashin / MTA NYC Transit

The Guardian noted that the U.S. is experiencing a “cycling explosion.” As people work from home and accommodate shelter-in-places ordinances, bicycling and walking have become a symbol of freedom. Families can ride together on the weekends; essential workers can safely get to work; and residents can ride bicycles or walk to obtain essential goods. Curbed just reported that slow streets are the path to a better city

Despite the challenges that transit is facing--and the cycling explosion happening across the nation--the Governor's May revise budget for transportation relies on the status quo. There are no significant changes to the transportation sector of the budget. If adopted in June, this budget could result in further challenges for transit and lead to more cars and more traffic on the roadways as the state moves toward reopening. 

If California wants to save transit and build upon the cycling explosion that is happening, the state needs to change how it funds transportation.

Changing how California funds transportation is essential 
California is in an unprecedented time. The state cannot rely on the federal government or status quo formula programs to address the challenges that transit is facing or support the growth around walking and bicycling.  With a $54 billion dollar deficit, the state cannot invest additional money to fund transit. Instead, California needs to look at its current transportation funding to prioritize transportation modes and projects that will help California address the pandemic, and put the state on the path to economic recovery. Below, we’ve shared the following recommendations with the Governor and the Legislature: 

Reprogram existing state transportation funds to prioritize transit operations, and walking and bicycle projects related to COVID-19.

  • Recommendation #1: Temporarily increase flexibility in the Transit and Intercity Rail and Capital Program (TIRCP) and the Low Carbon Transit Operations Program (LCTOP) to fund transit operating expenses related to COVID-19.  
  • Recommendation #2: Where legally possible, allow transportation agencies to use funds from the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), Trade Corridor Enhancement Program (TCEP), and Solutions for Congested Corridors (SCCP) to fund transit operations related to COVID-19 and prioritize quick build bicycle and pedestrian projects related to COVID-19.  

Providing a safe transit environment for transit workers and riders.

  • Recommendation #3: Federal stimulus dollars or state transportation dollars should fund PPE (personal protective equipment) for every transit worker; a mask for every rider that is missing one; hand sanitizer on all transit vehicles and at all transit hubs; hazard pay for transit workers and paid sick leave for workers who have been exposed to the virus and need to quarantine, who are infected with COVID-19,or need to care for someone who is sick with COVID-19; daily routine sanitation to properly disinfect all transit vehicles following the latest guidelines and recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); on-site testing when possible and daily temperature checks of transit workers, and for line relief operators. Additional protections should be included to meet the specific needs of paratransit drivers, including: assistant dressed in a protective suit, face shield, gloves, mask, goggles, and one passenger per vehicle, per trip. 
  • Recommendation #4: The state should also ensure that all transit agencies have clear guidelines for PPE, including how transit operators should protect themselves; how vehicles surfaces should be cleaned; rear-door boarding on all buses; and ensure that transit agencies have created a COVID-19 health and safety plan per Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In regions with numerous transit agencies, the state should ensure these PPE guidelines are made consistent regionally by an MPO or major transit agency to ensure practices do not differ substantially and better protect riders who use multiple systems.  

It is essential that transit agencies have the flexibility to use funds where they are needed most. Agencies are already making cuts to address the funding shortfall; this flexibility around funding could help transit agencies maintain key routes. Vulnerable communities, especially low-income communities of color, depend on transit; they don’t have a choice on whether or not they can ride it. For those communities and transit operators, it is vital that the state provide funding to transit agencies to provide protections, as well as clear guidance on PPE. Everyone has the right to feel safe on transit. 

It is also critical that state funds prioritize walking and bicycling projects related to COVID-19, such as the slow streets efforts. These efforts are helping people safely get out of the house. As the state develops its process to reopen, prioritizing walking and bicycling projects could help reduce car travel and traffic. And as noted by the Public Health Alliance of Southern California and Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative, investing in public transportation and active transportation is also a key ingredient to community resilience and efforts to tackle climate change. 

We worked in partnership with statewide and local organizations to develop these recommendations. Thank you to all the statewide and local partners who offered their expertise to shape these recommendations. Click here to see the full letter to the Governor and here to see the full Legislature. 

Safety is not just about sanitation.
The recommendations in our letter don’t acknowledge the fact that transportation is not safe for everyone. Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging in South Georgia. Nia Wilson was stabbed to death at Macarthur BART station in Oakland. While we at ClimatePlan want to see transit thrive and more infrastructure to walk and bicycling safely around cars, we also want to be transparent that walking, jogging, hiking, and riding transit while being a person of color is not safe. And if we want to prioritize everyone’s safety on transit, walking, and bicycling, we can’t advance certain recommendations and remain silent on others. 

Below, we’ve highlighted reflections and recommendations from a few people and collectives working in this space: 

  • Ariel Ward, a transportation engineer and planner, wrote an excellent article, “A Tale of Two Truths: Transportation and Nuance in the Time of COVID-19” that outlines how we can hold space for the movement around open streets and hold cities (and the state) accountable to developing and implementing policies that do not add further harm to communities of color. What really resonated was this point, “Those who stand to be the most impacted by a policy or program should hold the most power in the decision-making space, but rarely do.” 
  • In early April, the Untokening Collective released “Mobility Justice and COVID-19.” This reflection is a powerful read about what freedom of movement means in the midst of a global pandemic, and how we can embrace the collective responsibility to keep each other safe and see mobility and immobility as integral to that collective responsibility. There are 12 recommendations that cities (and the state) can apply to transportation funding and project selection that can help move us all, especially those who are from vulnerable and oppressed groups, to a safer transportation system. 
  • At the Active Transportation Symposium in October, 2019, Dr. Destiny Thomas, an anthropologist planner, shared models for liberative planning. You can watch her walk through this planning process (start the video at 22:32) or you can review it here. As COVID-19 disrupts transportation planning processes, there is an opportunity to work with Dr. Thomas and others to create new planning processes that confront past inequities and focus on freedom in meaningful ways.

This list is by no means comprehensive! People for Mobility Justice, PolicyLink, Public Advocates, The Greenlining Institute, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, Tamika Butler, Brytanee Brown, Rio Oxas, and many others are working in this space and advancing the conversation. We fully support the work they are doing--and in line with our Strategic Priority to Amplify Community Voices--we share the reflections from other collectives and people in hopes to support real action around safety for all people on the state’s transportation system. 

Next Steps
We at ClimatePlan believe that this pandemic shows that California cannot continue to fund transportation at status quo, without endangering public transportation and public safety. We will continue to lobby the Legislature and the Governor’s office to incorporate our recommendations into the June budget. If you would like to be involved in this effort, please contact Chanell at chanell “AT” climateplanca “DOT” org. 



Our Strategic Direction


get updates