GBC 2020 Transportation Summit: Panelists urge route optimization, extended hours for equitable transit

Transportation Panelists

The Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) held its 2020 Transportation Summit on September 29, 2020. The topic of this year’s event was: Advancing Equity Through Transportation Policy. Leading transportation and mobility experts from across the country came together for an informative discussion on concrete strategies for advancing equity through transportation planning and policy at the local, regional, state and federal levels.

Panelists included:

  • David Bragdon — Executive Director, TransitCenter
  • Nathaniel P. Ford, Sr. — Chief Executive Officer, Jacksonville Transportation Authority, past Chair of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), 2020 Public Transportation Professional of the Year (APTA)
  • Monica Tibbits-Nutt — AICP, LEED AP BD+C — Executive Director of the 128 Business Council, Vice-Chair of the MBTA Fiscal Management and Control Board, Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) Board of Directors
  • Jess Zimbabwe – Founder, Plot Strategies, former Director of the Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership at the National League of Cities and the Urban Land Institute

GBC President and CEO Donald C. Fry moderated the event.

In his opening remarks, Fry said, “There’s no greater transportation policy challenge facing us today than ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to transportation access for employment, education, health care and everyday activities.”

Transportation Summit 2020The panelists addressed the challenges involved in making transportation opportunities available to underserved communities and ways that COVID-19 has affected transit services. They also stressed that providing more bus lines and better hours is good for the economy because it provides businesses with the needed workforce.

Starting the conversation, David Bragdon said, “Dynamic and creative economies need to be more diverse and inclusive and there’s a clear correlation between physical mobility … and socio-economic mobility. Places that have obstacles based on race, obstacles based on class, based on gender, that inhibit people’s ability to move around a region, also inhibits its economy.”

When asked how Baltimore is doing in general, Bragdon mentioned Governor Larry Hogan’s cancellation of the Red Line and said, “There are some real challenges. Some of the official policy at the state level in Maryland is taking you in the wrong direction.”

According to Bragdon, 33% of transit riders nationally are in service occupations and in Baltimore the number is closer to 40%. “The proposal to cut bus service in Baltimore by 21% is the definition of inequity. …It’s not a coincidence, it’s not an accident. …It is systemic. These numbers are manifestations of systemic racism built into our systems.”

Nathaniel Ford said the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) uses public-private partnerships to fill the gaps in service, with such offerings as complimentary shuttles.

Ford also noted that route optimization and extended evening hours are key because it allows more people to work full-time and improves the quality of life.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt strongly advocated for considering the communities that are being served, bringing them into the conversation and working with people who have all different kinds of identities and backgrounds.

“Transportation and housing and economic development all have to work together. …There is such a disconnect and now that disconnect is becoming even worse,” she said.

In response to how transportation agencies are being affected by COVID-19, Tibbits-Nutt acknowledged that tough decisions related to fare increases and service cuts are on the table for consideration. She said it is important to identify “transit-critical populations to ensure we’re providing service where it’s needed and cutting where it’s not needed.”

Tibbits-Nutt recommended that transportation agencies need to look at what money can be shifted and what projects might need to be shelved for now. “Every problem we had before pandemic is still there and way, way worse,” she said.

“When it comes to equity, when it comes to safety, when you make snap decisions it is [imperative that you take the time] to think about all these very intricate decisions that are going to be impacted by a larger policy.”

Jess Zimbabwe suggested that the pandemic may provide new ways to engage and involve communities to make meetings more accessible. “It takes real intersectionality to make sure you’re reaching everyone. There has always been a digital divide and COVID has laid it bare.”

In noting factors that must be taken into consideration when building, improving or maintaining transportation systems, Bragdon listed frequency, weekend service and late night service. “[Having a] sense of the importance of the rider — people who use transit the most — who are often marginalized and not part of the discussion” needs to be a principal factor.

3 Capacities of LeadershipZimbabwe outlined three capacities of leadership needed for equitable transit:

  • Relating — Make transportation make sense to lots of different people. Adapt the message to see what people will be moved to support.
  • Visioning — Make sure you get all people behind the same vision.
  • Inventing — Use all different kinds of communities and spaces. Get beyond the usual suspects.

“Transit has to happen for people, not to people,” Zimbabwe said.

Ford emphasized the value of diversity of thought in terms of research, participation and problem-solving around transportation. “We are a great equalizer as public transportation practitioners. We help people in terms of cars or other alternative transportation modes. We provide them the opportunity to achieve their dreams.”

On proposed cuts in transit funding and service in the Baltimore region and suggestions for connecting with legislators, Ford emphasized the importance of explaining the actual financial benefit — that improvements and investment gives stakeholders better access to the workforce. “Investment and support from our business community has led to economic vitality.”

Bragdon added that one current issue in the Greater Baltimore Region is the plan to widen highways before making improvements to existing systems. “States should adopt a ‘fix it first’ philosophy,” he said. “Take care of the maintenance issues first. Widening highways is a very poor return on investment and the height of irresponsibility. For job growth, you need to have transit.”

Tibbits-Nutt added that “Everyone wants the same thing, they just want it for different reasons.” She said companies are usually amenable to building near transit lines because they understand that will make them money and that building parking lots is expensive.

The panelists also discussed emerging technologies and ways to ensure that advancements in mobility are equitable.

Ford said that JTA is currently replacing its downtown monorail service with a road intended to be used by autonomous vehicles. “This will allow us to tailor services to certain communities in need.”

Tibbits-Nutt noted that autonomous vehicles are often tested in high-income areas with good roads and sidewalks. “If you are going to apply this equitably, how do they work in other communities? How do they work in streets that aren’t paved? These are the things that are not being tested. That is the biggest concern with this technology. We need to … not slow down the technological process but to enhance it and enrich it.”

On the topic of some short-term, low-cost fixes that could be enacted relatively quickly, the panel suggested bus service expansion and more amenities. “Buses can scale pretty quickly. It’s good ROI,” said Bragdon.

Ford suggested diversification of service delivery “could be much more efficient and give better quality of service.”

Tibbits-Nutt recommended bus shelters and better communication. “Give people a place to stand. Give people the dignity to actually be able to use the bus.”

Zimbabwe added: “Frequent and reliable bus service to historically disinvested communities of color … and it’s really critical we make biking and walking safe.”

In his closing comments, Fry said, “Transportation advocacy has been a hallmark of the GBC throughout its 65 year history. A superior transportation infrastructure that provides reliable and efficient options to move people, goods and services is a key pillar for economic growth and job creation.”

He urged attendees to join with the GBC in the fight to ensure equity in transportation planning and funding.

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