How to save transit in California

Joshua Stark Headshot

Paratransit passenger and driverBefore talking about how to address transit’s emergency in light of COVID-19, we must first be very clear: do not take transit unless you absolutely must for your essential needs or for your livelihood as an essential worker. Transit is a literal lifeline right now for those who need it. Many transit users are high-risk and seriously threatened by coronavirus. Stay off of transit to protect those who must take it, and the frontline workers who bravely keep it going.

Public transportation is currently faced with a deeply troubling contradiction — while we are sheltering in place and most people are avoiding riding transit, it is still a necessary public service that must continue to operate for those who depend on it. Transit-dependent people still need to get to grocery stores and care for family, and TransitCenter recently found that 2.8 million essential workers nationwide rely on transit to get to their jobs.

According to TransitCenter, more than 305,171 essential workers in California and 142,873 in the Bay Area commute by transit. Nearly a third of all transit commuters are essential workers: 33% statewide, and 31% in the Bay Area. While those are pre-COVID-19 numbers and some may have found other ways to get to work, many have no other option.

Transit will also be vital to our economic and social recovery. For a time after the public health crisis eases, many people may not be able to afford to drive or keep their cars, but will need to get to work, job interviews, visit family, and get back to school. Commute time is the single biggest factor for economic mobility.

And yet, ridership will not bounce back to previous levels as soon as shelter-in-place orders are lifted — people may understandably be wary of crowds for some time, many with the option to continue working from home may keep doing so. And sales tax revenues that transit systems depend on will take as long to recover as our economy. Transit will face long-term negative impacts of this crisis for a long time to come, but a just recovery will depend on keeping them running safely and effectively.

Thankfully, both our federal and state governments have powerful options to help transit survive the COVID-19 pandemic. On the federal level, TransForm joined with almost 300 organizations to urge Congress to include emergency funding for public transportation in the relief package — as of this writing, the Senate has approved $25 billion for transit agencies around the country, and the House is expected to follow suit soon. This is a big win — transit got $0 in the 2008 stimulus package and took a heavy hit that many operators never recovered from.

Extra federal funding will help, but it won’t be enough. State leaders in Sacramento have a critical role to play. These are TransForm’s state-level recommendations to both support transit now and lay the groundwork for the service we’ll need once more people can use it again.

A few notes about these recommendations:

  • Our goal is to use existing transportation dollars where they are most needed now. We believe it’s wrong, during an emergency, to force transit agencies to compete for money that could be used on ventilators or unemployment insurance, when there is so much money already in the transportation sector. Every sector should be spending its available resource to best address the needs of the moment. The coronavirus is not posing an existential threat to roads, bridges, and highways. 
  • These recommendations should fund only transit operations — actual services for riders. None of these shifts should go to capital projects, with the exception of zero-emission bus/van purchases that can happen quickly, as a way to tactically deploy necessary service. That means increasing service and frequency where needed to allow greater space between passengers and drivers. Changes to routes and schedules may make sense during this shelter-in-place period that help keep necessary service viable and safe. Short-term, we choose safety over efficiency; but extra service will support ridership growth as we move from crisis to recovery.
  • These recommendations are also about setting us up for a just recovery. We must look ahead to ensure transit is there to support our communities in the long term as millions face unemployment, reduced wages, and an uncertain future. We don’t yet know the impact this will have, but many transit agencies underestimated the negative effects of the Great Recession. This is likely to be much worse.

RECOMMENDATION #1: Temporarily move all funds from the Transit and Intercity Rail and Capital Program (TIRCP, a competitive grant program for big capital projects) to the Low Carbon Transit Operations Program (LCTOP, funding distributed by formula to almost every transit agency in the state).

Right now, California needs to re-prioritize transit funding away from expensive, new and improved stations and regional transit hubs and towards more effective and nimble bus service and vital rail operations. That’s critical now, and will still be important for some time as we move from immediate crisis to social and economic recovery. This could yield over $1 billion per year for operations that are vitally needed.

RECOMMENDATION #2: Move all legally-moveable funds (minus bicycle and pedestrian projects) from the State Transportation Improvement Program to transit operations, as well as a minimum of 1/3 of the Trade Corridor Enhancement (TCEP) and Solutions for Congested Corridors (SCCP) programs. Shifting a third of just one year’s funds for TCEP and SCCP would provide nearly $180 million.

Bike and pedestrian projects have become vital for short trips that folks have to take now, as safe, healthy ways to get exercise and leave transit for those who need it. More and better space for those modes should remain a priority.

As we recover economically, the TCEP and SCCP competitive grant programs provide construction jobs and rapid transit service we will desperately need. However, these freight and congested corridor programs rely on transit solutions like bus rapid transit and bus-only lanes to achieve their traffic and pollution reduction goals. If transit isn’t fully functional, these programs won’t provide the benefits previously expected.

RECOMMENDATION #3: Move to fare-free service across operators as quickly as possible — both for the safety of short-term emergency operations, and for more effective transit service long-term.

Right now it is dangerous to force close interactions between passengers and drivers, or for passengers to all be touching payment kiosks. AC Transit and Valley Transit Agency in the Bay Area have both waived fares, and our allies are calling on LA Metro to do the same. Smaller agencies need incentives to do this, and knowing that lost fare revenue will be covered through the investments in our first two recommendations would help.

After we can stop sheltering in place, fare-free service would be a lifeline for those looking to get back to work, interviews, postponed medical appointments, and school. In the long run, fare-free service can dramatically increase transit use and, paradoxically, provide the high quality service we all want and need.

Currently, transit fares only cover about 20% of transit investments in California — $2.16 billion. This is a fraction of what the state spends on transportation overall. We recognize that as fares are reduced or eliminated, ridership would dramatically increase, thus causing more need for funding. To that we say: a hard-to-manage success is far better than the decline we’ve seen in recent years. Climate change and the affordability crisis in California already demand this investment. California has ambitious climate goals, but the transportation sector isn’t meeting them —it's past time to put the state’s money where its mouth is.

The easiest way to support the transition to fare-free service in the long run is to support Assembly bills 1350 (Gonzalez-Fletcher), 2176 (Holden), and 2012 (Chu) with budget allocations from the above-mentioned funds. These bills grant fare-free service to youth, college students, and seniors —three groups that will need extra help in the aftermath of COVID-19.

That brings us to our final recommendation.

RECOMMENDATION #4: Institute a universal statewide transit pass system as soon as possible, so that fare-free transit can work more efficiently long term, and even allow riders with the ability to pay continue to do so. For later flare-ups of COVID-19, this would allow an easier transition to safety measures like back-of-the-bus loading.

Eliminating the need for money at the point of use has benefits for efficiency, cost-savings, public safety, hygiene, and service reliability. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that users don’t pay for transit. A universal pass system with one revenue "pot" can more easily target particular groups for discounts while still collecting fares from higher income users. Picture a Clipper Card or LA’s Tap card (reloadable fare cards that provide flexible payment options and fare-capping capability) that would be tied to your identity — a “transit license” as it were.

We’ll pull through by pulling together

As is often the case with disasters, this public health and economic crisis is most dangerous for the most vulnerable among us — people who are poor, elderly, sick and disabled, transit-dependent, uninsured, undocumented, living in underserved communities, working in the service industry or otherwise unable to work from home, unhoused or insecurely housed. But right now, everyone's health and well-being literally depends on ensuring nobody is left behind.

Transit itself is also vulnerable. Protecting it means moving as quickly as possible to shore up transit operators for the short-term, and setting transit up to be a foundation for a just recovery that re-shapes our economy and communities to be more fair and sustainable in the long run.

Our recommendations are bold, and they run counter to how many transportation decision-makers (even transit leaders) think and operate. Let’s not let that stop us from demanding what is truly needed now and for the future. Transportation funding is arcane and complex, but it is also unsustainable in its current form and could be changed if we have the will. Our representatives in Washington D.C. are demonstrating the will to work across party lines to provide unprecedented relief — there’s no reason we can’t do the same or better in Sacramento.

If you agree with us, please let me know and I can add your organization to our joint letter with ClimatePlan calling on the Governor and legislature to act on these recommendations. An action alert for individuals to sign will be available soon.


About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit