Episode 067: The Challenges to Equitable Transit are Political and Social, Not Technological with Tabitha Decker

TransLoc Marketing May 27, 2020 Equity, podcast, the movement, leadership, community 0 Comments

To help TransitCenter make cities more just and environmentally sustainable, Tabitha Decker is working to not only expand bus lanes and redesign NYC’s bus network, but also supporting transit agencies and advocates with research and policy recommendations.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT 

Cohen: Josh Cohen
Decker: Tabitha Decker

Cohen: New York City has been hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the public transit system that serves New York City hasn’t been spared. There have already been service cuts that impact essential workers and almost 100 deaths by transit workers from COVID-19 alone, and the worst may be yet to come when tax revenue dries up. Wading into this chaos is advocacy group TransitCenter. My guest today on The Movement podcast, Tabitha Decker, will share how TransitCenter is fighting for transit riders and transit workers in New York City and beyond. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today is Tabitha Decker, the deputy executive director for TransitCenter in New York City. If you don’t know TransitCenter you’re in for a treat, because they are pound-for-pound one of the best transit advocacy organizations on the planet. From her bio, Tabitha is, quote, “committed to radically improving access to everyday mobility as a foundation for fairer cities,” unquote, which is why I wanted to have her as a guest. Welcome to The Movement, Tabitha.

Decker: Thank you.

Cohen: Let’s start by introducing TransitCenter and the work that you do there at a high level. You know, there’s just so much, and I want to make sure that you really kind of set us up here and give us an intro to all the work that TransitCenter is doing.

Decker: Well, at TransitCenter we work nationally to improve transit in ways that make cities more just and environmentally sustainable. We really want to have cities in this country where you can live a full life and do everything that you want to do while getting around on transit. So to that end we do research; we connect people from different aspects of transit to try to solve problems together; and we’re also advocates and support the advocacy of allies of ours around the country.

One thing that we’ve done a lot of work on is improving local bus service, and that work has really been focused on identifying the things that you need to do to make bus service that’s fast, reliable, and frequent. And, you know, the reason that I bring that up is because I think that our work on buses really illustrates our focus on what we think of as the fundamentals. So, you know, I really strongly believe that the challenges that we are facing in this country in terms of creating transit that’s equitable and that really works for people, those are challenges that are political and social; they’re not technological challenges.

Cohen: So you’re speaking my language. That’s exactly my belief.

Decker: Yeah, and in terms of my own role, as TransitCenter has grown a lot over the last five years I’ve had a variety of different roles in the organization. So my first project was setting up our effort to improve buses in New York City. That’s now a major campaign that has won commitments for a full redesign of the bus network in New York, a major expansion of bus lanes and other kinds of street priority here, all-door boarding on buses system-wide. And those are things that have yet to be realized, but the city and the MTA have committed to them. And we and our allies, you know, we’re sort of hard at work at making sure that those things were realized in a way that’s equitable.

And at this point I’m the deputy executive director, as you motioned. That means that I work with other leaders of the organization to set our strategy, and more specifically I work with the research, the advocacy, and the agency practice teams to make sure that their efforts are really well coordinated so that we can produce our strongest work.

Cohen: Yeah. I love this focus on the bus too, because I feel like the bus is having this renaissance right now where everyone is kind of acknowledging that while the rail has kind of held the attention of the folks that maybe aren’t transit nerds, the bus is kind of the quiet workhorse that is actually moving a majority of the people in most communities.

I mean, you know, New York City obviously has got a level of infrastructure that most other cities don’t here in the U.S., but most everywhere else in the U.S. the buses are really moving a majority of the people. So I’m really happy to see that you’re putting a lot of effort behind that workhorse that probably doesn’t get as much love as it probably needs; right?

Decker: Yeah, absolutely. I think if you want to grow excellent transit in this country you should start with the transit that’s serving the most people now, you know, kind of build from that network, build from the needs of people who are using transit; and that will kind of keep you on track to make transit that works for the people who are relying on it. And that will kind of help to keep you grounded, again, in fundamentals. You know, instead of creating a sort of speculative new line, start from the position of strength and go from there.

Cohen: I had a conversation with a transit director the other day, and we were talking about a community’s focus on a light rail project. I think it was actually—I think it was our local director of transportation here in Durham, Sean Egan. And we were talking a little bit about kind of the community’s focus on light rail. We had a big project that unfortunately didn’t end up going forward. And we were kind of trying to think through like, you know, why it’s so hard to communicate the improvements to buses compared to a new, fixed-infrastructure rail project. You know? Because—and what he said I thought was just kind of really critical, which is that you can improve bus service, and it’s going to be hard to kind of see.

You know, obviously if you’re riding it every day you’ll notice it, the frequencies are increased and so forth, compared to a fixed-route, fixed-rail infrastructure project that, you know, you can tangibly see something; whereas with a bus you can increase a frequency, you can increase some of the amenities, and increase the service hours, so forth, but it’s a lot harder to kind of really see. And I feel like that’s kind of this challenge that when you go to that political part of this that you talk about, you have to overcome that because it’s like we can make this huge, huge investment, and it’s a little bit harder for people to really touch and see. And I feel like that’s why a lot of communities really kind of fall in love with some of the rail projects.

Decker: I think that’s a part of it. I also think that we have a sort of unfortunate historical precedent in this country of tending to build rail at least in the second half of the 20th century with an emphasis on higher-income riders, whiter riders, riders—[INDISCERNIBLE].

Cohen: Yeah, totally.

Decker: At least a part of this is that we don’t kind of connect bus service with the idea of a sort of very strong change to better service. We’ve tended to view bus service as more of—we tend to have more of an emphasis on just sort of keeping it running as opposed to making it excellent. And I think that’s—you know, as we start to get more and more examples in this country of cities that are actually providing really excellent bus service, you know, the bus service that you don’t have to think twice about depending on, we can start to change the perception of what’s possible there.

Cohen: Totally. So you’re based in New York City. That has been one of the hardest hit areas in the U.S. by COVID-19. I’m curious what TransitCenter is doing there locally to support transit riders and transit workers both in New York City and maybe even beyond too.

Decker: Yeah, since the start of the crisis we have been focused on three major themes. The first is making sure that the transit service that’s provided now and the service that’s going to be provided as cities start to reopen is both sufficient and equitable. So, you know, if you look at who is relying on transit now it’s predominantly essential workers and in particular essential workers with low income. And if you’re trying to provide service that really meets their needs and keeps them safe by having adequate levels of frequency so that it’s not crowded, you know, what you need is something different than just a reduced version of the regular network.

You need to really think carefully about reallocating service from places where there’s no longer high demand to places where there continues to be high demand. And at a moment when agencies are facing all kinds of constraints, especially a reduced workforce, that can be difficult. And so we’ve found it useful to put a focus on best practices in that kind of service reallocation. I should also point out that those essential workers with low incomes tend to be disproportionately black and brown, so getting this right is also a matter of racial justice.

The second main theme that we’ve been focused on is the safety of transit workers. So, so many transit workers have been on the frontlines of this crisis, and they too often haven’t had adequate protection. So we’ve been working with allies in labor and other advocates to fight to make sure that they’ve got adequate protective gear and other needs like, you know, paid leave so that if they do become sick they can take time off.

The third thing that we’ve been focused on is really just the financial health of agencies themselves. We’ve been putting out analysis of the budget shortfalls that agencies are facing nationally and trying to be sure that we and other advocates really have an accurate understanding of those budget shortfalls. You know, those shortfalls are a result of both the decreased ridership at this time as well as the reduced tax revenues that agencies rely on. And beyond the focus on those themes, you know, how we work has changed a bit at this time. We’ve been collaborating more frequently and more intensively with allies, you know, both other transit advocates as well as allies in labor.

Cohen: Wow. And I know that the MTA in particular has been particularly hit by COVID, their workforce. I mean, I don’t recall the latest stats, but the last one I saw was 50, 60-plus folks had died because of—the MTA workers, which is just heartbreaking to consider because you know that—I’m guessing—maybe not all of them, but some of them at least were potentially exposed on the job, which is obviously providing this critical movement for a city like New York City that really depends on public transportation.

Decker: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there have been a really tragic number of lives lost by transit workers in New York and elsewhere around the country. You know, we have been calling for stronger federal guidance regarding the ways that agencies can be protecting their workforce because, you know, in the beginning of this crisis we saw that we didn’t have a kind of good, consistent message from federal authorities about the steps that agencies could be taking.

In addition, you know, kind of like other frontline workers, you know, the fact that transit workers have not had access to sufficient protective gear is partly an issue of availability of those supplies, which is, again, something that agencies really should be able to turn to the federal government for support on. And so we’ve been doing things that are sort of unprecedented for us like, you know, we wrote along with allies a letter to the White House Coronavirus Task Force kind of calling for the stronger federal guidance that’s needed and also raising attention to the fact that a lot of the things that agencies are going to need to do as they plan for recovery to keep transit safe are going to really cost a lot.

Cohen: Yeah.

Decker: So if you want to maintain, you know, right now what’s a very good practice that many major agencies around the country have adopted of boarding through the rear door and kind of not having to come in contact with the bus operator to pay a fare, you’re going to need to have a good contactless fare payment system. And that’s something that New York, for example, doesn’t yet have in place. And so that’s just one example of something that agencies will need sufficient funding if they’re going to be able to use that technique to provide safer service.

Cohen: Yeah, for sure. I guess it was earlier this week or maybe last week—I can’t remember when it was. An op-ed by the New York Times came out talking about kind of the future of cities and so forth and really calling out the disparity of mixed-income folks kind of living together and how over the course of the last I guess probably 60 to 80 years with redlining and with other changes to policy and so forth there has just been this kind of segregation of income levels. And so I think there’s a lot to unpack from that. I mean, I think this is one of those kind of op-eds, kind of see the New York Times at an editorial board level kind of write a really compelling argument for the need for there to be a change in housing policy and a change in kind of how everyone kind of gets together.

I’m really curious to see what impact COVID has on that, you know, because I think there’s a couple different ways to go. And I think we’re seeing this a little bit with transit. Right? This can either be our opportunity to make some changes that need to be made, whether it’s around transit funding, whether it’s around other policies in our communities, or we might see there’s going to be some negative changes, and people might say, “You know what? I’m not getting back on a subway train, and I’m going to drive instead if I have that option,” and that’s going to cause increased congestion.

I’m curious what you think are going to be some of these changes or impacts, you know, specifically on New York City or maybe on other places because of COVID and whether you think they’re going to be positive or negative. I don’t—I mean, I’m a little nervous about that.

Decker: Yeah. I mean, New York City like many major American cities had a major inequality based on race and income going into this crisis. And COVID could represent a turning point where we begin to center and honor what’s needed to make cities real places of possibility and strength for everyone, you know, starting with the people who have been most excluded. But, you know, one thing I would say is we can’t be aiming to restore what New York City was.

You know, we had significant and growing race and income inequality, and that was unacceptable; and we should be focused on creating the city that we want to be. And the “we” is really important to get that right, by which I mean those who are most affected by the shortcomings of our current transportation system need to be centered and engaged in a meaningful way in the planning process. So in terms of the kind of future of New York with regard to public transit, if we do the hard work that’s necessary New York could be a city where riding the bus is a good way to get around.

You know, the bus network could be designed with a real emphasis on making quicker and reliable trips with improvements that specifically target marginalized black and brown communities. And that could help to make the city more equitable coming out of the crisis. You know, one really positive impact could be greater recognition by city leaders of how transit fits with making this a fairer city. And, you know, if transit gets elevated as a political priority in that way we would stand a greater chance to make really ambitious changes.

On the other hand, if we don’t take proactive steps to alter who is prioritized into how we plan and who sits at the table when decisions are made, we could intensify and accelerate the growth of inequality in cities. And so traffic is already starting to come back here and elsewhere around the country, and we need to really take quick steps to commit to things like bus lanes that allow buses to kind of run frequently enough so that they’re not crowded so that they remain safe. You know, it’s easy to imagine a situation where traffic congestion gets worse and where inequality in terms of how we get around actually becomes worse in New York City in the future than it was before the pandemic. And those who don’t have the option to get into a car or a for-hire vehicle will be on slow and potentially dangerously crowded buses in that case. So we can avoid that—right—by taking action now, by putting down bus lanes with strong enforcement, and keeping riders moving instead of getting stuck in traffic.

Cohen: I mean, obviously in the last year New York City did the 14th Street Busway. Obviously that has been, from what I can tell being not in New York City, an unqualified success. I mean, the bus times are good, are better than they obviously were; the traffic has not been an Armageddon on the other streets, you know, as spillover, you know, increased pedestrian access, so forth. So to me that’s been a really good sign.

I guess my question to you is—as someone who has taken public transit from two of the New York City airports but not JFK, I mean, you know, getting from Newark is not bad, you know, getting from LaGuardia on public transit is really not great. It’s challenging. You know, the Select Bus service is not really that much faster it feels like than—you know, so without those real dedicated lanes it seems like you’re not really getting there. Do you think there’s appetite for more of that now potentially?

Decker: You know what? I’m not sure about what the crisis has meant in terms of the appetite for bus lanes. You know, what we do know is that they can work well in New York. I think that what the 14th Street Busway shows us is that if you give buses real priority on the streets, they will move, and they will actually be a dependable way to get around. And what we need in New York is a comprehensive network of such lanes; and we should start by prioritizing speeding up transit in historically marginalized communities.

And so what we really need to see are bus riders who are in the outer boroughs taking the bus, for example, to connect to the subway or taking the bus from one part of an outer borough to another to be able to hop on transit and get somewhere as smoothly and quickly as people who are now traveling across 14th Street. And really that’s just a question of the political will in this city to put those people who tend to have lower incomes and tend to be people of color first on our streets. And so, you know, I think that if we can kind of build a consensus that we really do want to use transit as a tool to make the city fairer, then we should be able to make it work in New York.

Cohen: Yeah. Well, and I think obviously having the conversations is a good step in that direction, and it just keeps the conversation going, which I think is important. I’d like to transition a little bit towards who some of the leaders have been that have really influenced you as you’ve gone through your career.

Decker: Well, the first person who comes to mind is someone who doesn’t shy away from difficult or uncomfortable conversations, and that’s Dara Baldwin at the Center for Disability Rights. I met Dara when we were on a panel together, and I was really in awe of the way that she was direct when she called out bias. You know, she on the panel talked about the ways that so many of our bike lanes exclude people with disabilities. She called out the way that people who were envisioning a future centered around autonomous vehicles were overlooking important differences that could be experienced by people of color or people of different religions, for example.

And, you know, what I took away from Dara and that first encounter is just how powerful and productive it can be to be blunt and talk about things that may make people uncomfortable in a candid way. And, you know, I really respect her bravery and aspire to be more like her. And, you know, I think that if we’re willing to be uncomfortable ourselves and risk making people uncomfortable, that we can get to the heart of some of these difficult, difficult problems that we’re facing in terms of our unequal cities.

Cohen: That’s a great example. And certainly in my experience whenever I’ve been around someone like that they almost give me more courage—right—just by kind of seeing them kind of leading from that point of saying like calling a spade a spade and just saying, “You know what? This is not fair.”

Decker: Yeah. I mean, another thing that kind of in my life has shaped me are strong women who are not afraid to create really ambitious visions for themselves or for the world. And so I had numerous professors who kind of, I think, held me to a high standard and held all of their students to a high standard in terms of the work that we produced. And I really saw a reflection of that in Elizabeth Warren. I had so much respect for her bold and detailed plans. And so that’s just a recent example of a political leader who I found really inspiring.

Cohen: Have there been any ways that you’ve been able to integrate some of those lessons that you’ve learned from some of those folks like Dara and like Elizabeth? You know, have you been able to integrate any of that into your work?

Decker: Well, I think at this moment, you know, folks who work in transit have had the opportunity to pause and to reconsider the extent to which we have been centering equity in our work. And so that’s also an opportunity to engage in some of those more difficult conversations, to do self reflection, to really think about how we can be sure that we’re working hard enough to advance racial equity both in this moment and in the recovery for transits. And I definitely draw on Dara and have a kind of Dara angel on my shoulder whenever I’m considering softening my language or not acknowledging, for example, racism in planning. So, yes; I absolutely feel her influence in my work day-to-day.

Cohen: That’s awesome. How can folks learn more about the work you’re doing at TransitCenter and stay in touch with you if they’re so interested?

Decker: Well, TransitCenter has a really excellent and very active blog that you can find at TransitCenter.org. We’re also very active on Twitter, so you can follow TransitCenter on Twitter. You can follow me on Twitter at @Metrophile, and I’m always happy to talk to folks about our work.

Cohen: Tabitha, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us a little bit about New York City and beyond and the work that TransitCenter is doing there to help make sure that we’re taking care of everyone including folks that have been discriminated against either intentionally or unintentionally over the course of the last 100 years in transportation and elsewhere. So thank you so much for centering equity in the work you’re doing and making buses and our cities better. Thank you.

Decker: Thanks for the opportunity to chat with you about our work.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.

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