Social Justice as a Policy Priority in Mass Transit After COVID-19

Among the institutions and industries that took a big hit during the pandemic was mass transit, both financially and reputationally aspects. IFinancially, income sources for mass transit have plunged, since state and local income tax revenue has decreased due to uncertain market conditions, and fare revenue has dropped precipitously because transit ridership fell by 79% nationally as a result of the pandemic and lockdowns. Transit programs have also lost valuable social capital; the belief that mass transit is unsafe and unsanitary has skyrocketed since March 2020 (as evidenced by public surveys in the US and New Zealand), and experts project that these beliefs may be durable and outlast the pandemic. Thus, this drain on mass transit’s resources may be long-lasting, and poses a serious danger to mass transit’s future. 

In choosing how to proceed, leaders in the transportation space may have to prioritize which values are most important to them: public health, technological advancement, or political prowessdimensions. Evidence regarding the impact of lockdowns of mass transit on people’s daily lives, focusing on urban and suburban communities, emphasizes that the pandemic’s impacts have fallen most heavily on socioeconomically disadvantaged populations. Therefore, the political considerations of social justice and equity should have a central place in the planning of mass transit in cities and suburbs going forward, since these are the primary populations affected.

Although ridership of mass transit declined across the board, it declined the least in areas with more “essential” jobs and lower percentages of white, educated, and high-income individuals. Thus, public transit remains most relevant to the lives of people with lower socioeconomic status and with jobs that were deemed “essential” during lockdowns. As researchers have written, this research suggests that the inevitable adjustments to public transit should be based on socioeconomic qualities, and keep a higher level of services in areas with higher concentrations of vulnerable people. This policy implication is further bolstered by research finding that women and disabled people’s access to essential services (grocery shopping, commuting to work, and taking care of or supporting family) were disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s impact on mass transit. Furthermore, somewhat ironically, the public health measures of the pandemic resulted in many people deferring or forgoing essential services like healthcare because of difficulties traveling to the location of healthcare, especially if they are non-white, disabled or low-income. 

The research seems to clearly show that the pandemic had its greatest impacts on people already dealing with transport disadvantage: people of color, disabled people, poor people, and service workers. Therefore, in planning for the future of mass transit, leaders should prioritize the needs and concerns of these populations over and above economic and technological considerations. This only makes sense as a matter of political economy, because these are the people using these resources.