America’s public transportation agencies suffered great financial losses over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. What seemed to be a temporary “work from home” order issued by most employers, has shown to be more permanent for much of the public, even as society slowly returns to normalcy. With Washington D.C.’s Metro usage falling to around half of its peak ridership of 1.2 million per year and the New Jersey Transit losing around 90% of its riders, people are not only beginning to take note of the effect of the pandemic on transportation but also the underlying racial issue that comes with transit fares and the system as a whole.
Accompanying changes in work patterns stemming from the pandemic, another reason riders mention for abandoning public transport includes the inconvenience of having to wait extra time for less occupied buses and needing to get off at earlier stops due to drivers allowing larger groups of travelers on at a time. Riders also fear for the lack of control over their own safety as the claustrophobic nature of local trains and buses allows for close contact with citizens who have chosen against the vaccine and refuse to follow mask protocols.
The debate surrounding reducing or eliminating fares from bus and subway tickets reached Congress in 2020 and extended past the purpose of simply reinvigorating the prior customer pool, becoming an issue of equity. The same year, a survey held by Metrobus in DC revealed that about 82% of Metro commuters are black, and 70% of riders fall into the low-income category. With an overwhelming majority of riders being African American and/or low income, the decision to remove transportation fares is one that carries more weight. The weight of being a step towards unraveling years of systemic oppression against people of color. Thankfully, legislators have slowly begun to pass bills in an attempt to promote racial equity into an inherently discriminatory system, and transportation systems seem to be following suit.
With DC’s Mayor Muriel Bowser working with Metro to reduce fares and enforce mask protocols, New York State instilling a new “Fair Fares” program for low-income riders, Secretary Pete Buttigieg encouraging the boost of public transit while following CDC guidelines, and Albuquerque’s Mayor Tim Keller offering free summer bus passes to all under 25, the progress towards a fairer, safer, and more accessible America moves forth. A recent $70 billion allotment for public transportation made by President Biden earlier this year, is also expected to cover deficits from lost revenue as companies innovate new ways to connect and encourage riders to continue using their services.
Expected to be fully recovered by 2023-2024, transit systems in America remain hopeful as employees are encouraged to continue following mask and vaccine guidelines.
Teen Quotes: Do you believe that public transit should have fares? Explain your opinion.
“I don’t think that public transit should charge fare, or it should only charge fares if you are going a certain distance. For example, if someone is going to take the bus for 10 minutes, they shouldn’t be charged -- but if they are taking a 2 hour bus ride, they should. It’s not fair to force those who are unable to pay, to walk around constantly.”
Yasmin Kudrati-Plummer, 15, Sophomore at Jefferson Sci/Tech High School, Virginia
“I do believe public transit within the confines of a small city, with short public transport tides should have fares. In an ideal capitalist society everyone would have enough assistance from the government to survive, however some people might lack certain amenities that other more hardworking/luckier/more skilled/more privileged people have. Of course, even in the United States it is not like this and some people go hungry within our relatively rich country. However, given the ideals that the United States is built upon, in most cases, short rides on public transport are not “necessary” but rather chosen since they are far more safe, quick, comfortable; one could always walk provided the distance is under 2 or so miles. Therefore, in small cities, public transport should not be paid for by the government.”
Oscar Persky, 15, Sophomore at W.T. Woodson High School, Virginia
“Public transit should be free of charge. Most citizens that use public transportation are taxpayers and should not have to pay extra for services that should be funded by the government.”
Nandini Pisupati, 19, Sophomore at George Mason University, Virginia