We All Need Public Transit…Whether We Ride It or Not

I owe my college education to a lot of things, but two come especially to mind. One was a scholarship. The other was public transit.

I can still remember my commute on those early winter days. Not five minutes since I’d walked from my car to the train station, I could feel strands of hair, still wet from the shower, turning into icicles.

My scholarship required me to transfer to the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, from community college in Santa Fe. But Santa Fe and Albuquerque are an hour apart.

So each day I took the New Mexico Rail Runner — one of the few rail ridership options in New Mexico — into Albuquerque. I rode alongside many students, workers, and daily commuters. The Rail Runner connects many cities and counties in the state, making stops in metro areas as well as rural areas like the Pueblo lands.

As soon as I’d arrive at my train stop, I’d run to catch the Rapid Ride, Albuquerque’s public, fixed-route bus service. I’d board the red line, and in less than 10 minutes I was in front of the university.

Had it not been for the Rail Runner and Rapid Ride systems, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten my degree. As a first generation college student, transit made a huge difference in my life.

I’m hardly alone. In communities big and small, public transportation makes lives work. There are close to 930 urban public transit systems in place across the country — and 1,300 rural services, too.

More and more Americans are opting for public transportation. Since the mid-1990s, the number of public transit passengers has gone up by over a quarter — and the number of rail passengers has increased by 57 percent. In 2019, before the pandemic, people in this country took nearly 10 billion trips on public transportation.

That’s good news for the climate. The greatest and fastest growing greenhouse gas source in the U.S. is transportation. But Americans who take transit instead of driving save over 4 billion gallons of gasoline a year — and subway ridership alone lowers carbon emissions by a stunning 73 percent compared to driving.

Finally, transit makes our country more equal. Around 60 percent of riders are people of color, who — like me — might not otherwise have a way to get to school, work, or the grocery store.

That’s why Rosa Parks, who helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, is remembered as a major figure in the transit equity movement. And it’s why, on Parks’ birthday this February, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg promised his department would be “honoring her legacy by ensuring equity is central to everything we do.”

Still, nearly half of Americans don’t have access to public transit, and the pandemic has badly exacerbated this imbalance. Many systems have cut jobs, service, or routes. The New Mexico Rail Runner shut down altogether for nearly a year, only reopening this March.

Fortunately, the American Rescue Plan recently signed by President Biden included over $30 billion in emergency relief funds for America’s hard-hit transit agencies.

Coming next is a major infrastructure and “green jobs” package, which Congress hopes to pass this spring or summer. We will have to fight for this package to include funds to keep today’s transit agencies working, as well as for the investments they’ll need to make for the future.

Millions of Americans rely on transit — to meet their daily needs as well as their long-term goals. Hundreds of thousands more rely on it for good union jobs. And all of us need it to keep our planet livable.

Samantha Garcia is the New Mexico Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.