As cities, states, and provinces throughout the U.S. and Canada slowly begin to reopen, there is no doubt there will be a new normal not only in the way people commute, but in the way capital projects are planned and executed.
Jannet Walker-Ford, senior VP, transit and rail market leader for WSP USA, spoke with METRO for a consultant roundtable in the July issue about how to get transit back ridership, the intersection of transit and social equity and much more.
Transit was making some real gains in ridership pre-pandemic. How do you think transit can get back some of that ridership both in the short- and long-term?
I am confident that the social and market forces in play before COVID-19 are returning as the dominant trends. Early in the pandemic, transportation agencies worked tirelessly to create safe environments for those who continued to rely on public transportation. I believe that success was a key factor in helping the public regain confidence in the safety and reliability of public transit.
While there was some early concern that the pandemic would drive populations away from city centers and reduce public transportation demand, that has not been the case. The economic opportunity and excitement of cities continues to appeal to younger demographics and by developing a strong, reliable public transportation system, that migration to vibrant urban communities should continue. The transit community and its partners view transit planning as vital to the creation of a future that will be more sustainable, more resilient, more customer centric, and more equitable. Transit is also recognized as a key strategy for addressing the broader national priorities of climate change and social/racial equity. It is a time of opportunity for transformational change.
Outside of the pandemic, the idea of inclusion and social equity have also come to the forefront during this time, what are some ways transit has effectively dealt with these issues and what can they continue to do to address them?
Equity is the defining economic issue of this generation. Accessible, affordable transportation is critical to the lives we lead. Residents of communities of color and poor communities, whether rural or urban, must travel to obtain better jobs, secure educational opportunities, and get quality healthcare. Too often competing interests result in transportation policies that leave low-income populations stranded. To achieve equity in transportation, we need to craft and catalyze strategies that help rural and urban communities of color get the investments needed to spur mobility in every sense of the word. Taking steps to pilot policies and projects that protect and enhance equity can help communities and decision makers understand how to move towards more equitable outcomes and prevent repeating past mistakes.
Last year WSP launched an 18-month equity plan that examined how we can broaden our commitment to inclusion and diversity both internally and in the industry. Recently, WSP launched an expanded effort on ways infrastructure and our work for clients can improve social equity outcomes to help our clients achieve equity-related objectives. WSP also conducted research of the effects of COVID-19 on transit systems, providing insights into how health/infrastructure inequities are bringing light to some disparities.
In late May, President Joe Biden set a new goal for the next phase of the vaccination program: 70 percent of adult Americans with at least one shot and 160 million Americans fully vaccinated by July 4. That is roughly 100 million shots in 60 days between May 4 and July 4. This brings to light the importance of distinguishing the gap that can exist between ‘availability’ and ‘accessibility.’ Vaccines are available, but does everyone eligible have adequate access? This is where infrastructure and transportation come to play … ensuring access. COVID-19 brought to light social inequities, which has more people addressing the problem. The Notice of Funding Opportunity recently released for the next round of INFRA grants identified racial equity as a criterion for projects. We have not seen that before.
The Obama Administration’s USDOT highlighted ‘Ladders of Opportunity,’ but the Biden administration is calling it ‘racial equity.’ If there has been any downside, it is that this requires the public sector to re-evaluate its capital programs to confirm projects in the pipeline achieve social equity. The same also applies to climate change. No longer will the return on investment of future projects be based solely on economics; social and environmental impact will factor into all projects.
What trends are going on right now outside the U.S. that could eventually make its way over here or perhaps grow in popularity?
The first thing that comes to my mind is the emergence of zero-emission transit. Hundreds of thousands of zero-emission vehicles, both battery-electric and fuel-cell vehicles, are already in service in cities around the world, transporting millions of passengers and tons of freight daily. Lessons learned from those early adopters go a long way to helping advance the state-of-the-art, which is evolving at a rapid pace. Outside the U.S., Transport for London (TfL) is one such agency committed to converting its entire fleet to zero-emission technology and has begun the transition by adding hybrid buses to its fleet and creating zero emissions zones within the city that will continue to expand as the fleet is converted to all-electric buses.
The U.S. is doing more than just watching TfL. Urban transportation agencies are conducting similar studies, and some areas are deep into the planning stages. WSP has been working with L.A. Metro to develop a master plan that will help them achieve a 100-percent zero-emissions bus fleet by 2030 — the largest such commitment we have seen so far in the U.S. In the Bay Area’s Solano County, we are leading design services to construct four inductive charging stations for the SolanoExpress commuter bus service network, a critical first step in developing the infrastructure that will support an all-electric fleet.
What is your outlook for the future of public transportation?
The transit community and its many partners see transit as a fundamental strategy to position for the future in ways that will be more sustainable, more resilient, more customer centric, and more equitable. Transit is recognized as a key strategy for addressing the broader national priorities of climate change and social/racial equity. We are seeing a growing commitment from the federal government in funding improvements and expansion of U.S. infrastructure. But we need to be ready to provide commuters with the tools and services that they expect and deserve. That requires the sharing of big data and mobility tools across multiple lines to provide seamless service no matter how someone travels. We are seeing a demand not just for mobility apps, but intuitive, real-time apps that provide information that merge all travel options, whether it is by vehicle, train, bus, or alternative transportation methods. There is a public desire to move away from individual service apps that can overlook some transportation opportunities. When we provide them with these opportunities, they can make better choices for themselves and help transit create more reliable and practical services.
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