Transit Equity Day- New Jersey Must Create a Transportation System Accessible for All
Orlando Riley, Chairman, Amalgamated Transit Union NJ State Council
Norah Langweiler, Jersey Renews Campaign Organizer, New Jersey Work Environment Council
New Jersey suffers from dual problems associated with the same root cause: poor air quality and some of the worst traffic congestion and longest commutes in the country. The cause of this issue can be traced through a mess of policy and cultural phenomena – investments in car travel over public transit paired with America’s unique culture of individualism and self-reliance creates systemic inequity throughout our systems. The lack of adequate public transit can often exacerbate those inequities.
Transit Equity Day, held on Rosa Parks’ birthday each year in honor of her infamous refusal to give up her seat, which sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, highlights the need for equitable transportation. An equitable transportation policy includes expanded service and hours, affordable access, and clean transportation. For NJ Transit, this also means dedicated funding for operations and improvements.
With our advanced road infrastructure, the state is well set up for private vehicles, ideal for the majority of residents who commute via car. However, along with our car-heavy culture comes standstill traffic, polluted air (NJ had some of the worst air quality in the country according to the American Lung Association), and poor mental and physical health from hours spent behind the wheel. While the electric vehicle bill Governor Murphy signed into law on January 17 will address the pollution coming from our tailpipes (a major win for New Jersey communities) and directs NJ Transit to transition to an all zero-emission bus fleet by 2032, it will not address the mega commutes and car congestion on our roads.
The investments that prioritize our car-based transportation system also mean that many destinations are unavailable to those without a car, predominantly impacting low-income or urban commuters. Gripes about our public transit system are well-known (and often shared by other transit systems) – unreliable, late, expensive, and running on a schedule that seems to only serve those with 9-5 jobs.
City living is expensive, as is car ownership. Many low-wage workers choose to live further away from work in densely populated cities to reap the benefits of cleaner air and more affordable housing. But, for many even living within the city, the lack of reliable and affordable transit is more than just an annoyance – it can be a massive barrier to accessing necessities.
When Atoya Wilkins’ car broke down in 2017 and she could not afford to fix it, she became reliant on public transit. “It’s been a whirlwind for me,” she said. Atoya takes 2 different bus lines – one to get to work and one to get home. But the bus line to get home only runs every two hours, and never on Sundays. In addition to confusing bus schedules, she’s also experienced public transportation that has been late or never showed up.
“If I’m getting to work on time, that’s great. If I’m not – that’s going to be a problem.” Atoya has already been notified by her job that if public transit cannot get her to work on time, she must rely on another mode of transportation like Lyft or Uber. “I work five days a week, I can’t afford that,” she said.
Atoya has struggled to get her special needs son the medical care he needs for essential annual appointments or getting herself to appointments at his school due to unreliable public transportation. “Not being able to get somewhere because the transit system won’t show up when it says it will or doesn’t run when I need it to – that’s the last thing I need on top of all my other responsibilities.”
The experience Atoya shares in not unique and the root cause of the problem can be traced back to Governor Chris Christie. For eight years under his leadership and austerity measures the agency was starved of new investment and the result was that the agency cannibalized itself in order to keep operating. Money had to be moved from the capital budget, investment in the agency, to the operating budget in order to keep the buses and trains running.
Studies show that investing in public transportation can generate anywhere from $1.5 million to $1.8 billion dollars in economic activity. While that range is broad and most cities will see benefits somewhere in between those two numbers, having that evidence can support arguments for city and state funding for public transit.
The benefits are more far-reaching than economic activity. Good transit can improve quality of life for many by making grocery stores, doctors’ offices, schools and jobs more accessible. Instead of taking two buses and a train to go food shopping, an equitable transit system would make those residential and commercial hubs easy to get to.
Clearly, our elected leaders know this is a problem. Governor Murphy referenced a forthcoming NJ Transit strategic plan in his State of the State last month and has championed increased funding for NJ Transit, and Senate President Sweeney has held special hearings on how to fix NJ Transit. At his next hearing, which is coming up in just a few short weeks – in addition to developing a dedicated funding source, transit accessibility, equity, and civil rights must be part of the conversation.