Stantec's Rodriguez Talks Social Equity, Electric Buses

Photo: Stantec

Greg Rodriguez, mobility policy principal for Stantec, discussed transit agencies focusing on inclusion and social equity and the issues of adding electric buses to a fleet.

Outside of the pandemic, the idea of inclusion and social equity have 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?

Transit is the backbone of any resilient transportation system. During the pandemic, public transportation continued to provide a critical service to frontline workers considered essential to keep our communities healthy, safe, fed, and educated. So, from an equity and resilience perspective, public transportation did what it does best — continued to operate to the best of its abilities to provide an essential service. This is directly in line with our Smart(ER) Mobility focus, where ‘equity’ and ‘resilience’ are central ideas. We think of ‘resilience’ as making sure there are viable, safe, affordable, convenient, and dignified mobility options available within community. Regarding ‘equity,’ it is more than just a bullet point in a plan, it is carefully developing metrics that align with the transportation needs of a community and prioritizing new innovative solutions to fill mobility gaps. 

The pandemic has taught us all a lesson around adaptability and flexibility. Transit has been able to harness the power of data to focus on its most needed routes. Also, it is investing in opportunities to provide transportation services, including for paratransit, which are more demand responsive focused by leveraging on-demand platforms. Public transportation needs to be able to compete with vehicle ownership, which is often the most convenient form of transportation. To that end, public transportation needs to focus on the customer experience and modernize to ensure Wi-Fi is available, continue to incorporate flexible demand-responsive routes, prioritize services for the underserved and most vulnerable, and continue to work with cities to invest in bus-only lanes. 

But, as a society, we need to better tie transportation decisions to impacts and consider how we want to prioritize infrastructure — i.e. for single occupancy driving or shared mobility and public transportation. 

What do you feel are ways transit can engage with the communities they serve to improve equity and inclusion?

Community leaders and transit officials need to collaborate to show the critical foundation that public transportation provides to the health, economic vitality, and livability of communities. In too many communities across the country, riding transit has a negative stigma attached to it. Instead, incorporating transit into one’s transportation options should be seen as supporting a greener, more efficient, and resilient transportation system. A partner in this effort also needs to be employers to help incentivize the use of transit. 

Just like private companies providing transportation services through on-demand platforms are obtaining billion-dollar valuations and going public, transit agencies should be working with community and regional leaders in completing their own valuations that focus on the diverse demographics they serve, how many people they move in an hour, and the critical services they provide to underserved and vulnerable users. With such information, transit agencies can have a fact-focused dialogue on how investments in transit support a community, particularly through a lens of equity and inclusion. 

With the support of a community, new partnerships with transit can also be forged to support access to jobs and community focused services, including access to healthy groceries, health care, libraries, schools, and recreational events. While technology has helped bring many conveniences to our fingertips, not everyone has access to reliable internet access in their homes, and we cannot underestimate the value of human interaction over screens. Public transportation provides mobility access to so many people who have no other options and this fact is often overlooked and underappreciated. 

In the past, transit’s biggest issue has been funding. Now that a large share of funding is in place, what are transit’s biggest issues and how do you think they can overcome them?

I am guessing the most consistent response to this question is — getting riders back. While we are slowly seeing riders return to transit, even leaders of transit systems in metropolitan areas like New York and Washington, D.C., are saying that transit ridership may not return to pre-pandemic levels for a very long time. This is due to a number of factors, including health concerns, work from home flexibility by employers, and people who purchased vehicles during the pandemic. 

On the other hand, with offices starting to open again and people still going into the office one or two days a week, we are seeing commute patterns change and there no longer being peak travels times. So, with more traffic on the roads due to increased vehicle ownership, we may see transit become the faster means of travel, especially in those areas that have invested in light rail, bus-only lanes, and transit-oriented development. 

In line with the discussion around modernization and convenience, transit needs to consider changing commute patterns with its route planning, more flexible routes and on-demand partnership opportunities, and investing in the customer experience through amenities to draw people out of their cars and onto public transit. Before the pandemic, a lot of systems were investing in expansion, now transit agencies have the opportunity to invest in modernizing the existing system to bring riders back. An important part of spending needs to include planning for and having a strategy around the future of mobility — including zero-emission, automated and connected, and on-demand solutions. And, making sure the most needed routes — i.e. those that serve vulnerable and underserved populations — are not cut due to budget concerns. 

Future planning and strategy need to consider the evolution of the mobility ecosystem with a priority on equitably and resilient approaches that leverage innovation.

What are some issues transit agencies are experiencing as they look to add electric buses to the mix? How can these issues be resolved?

The energy around a transition to zero-emission buses for transit is both exciting and challenging to harness. With another cycle of fuel price volatility due to geo-political concerns, including the war in Ukraine, we are seeing the transition to electric vehicles move faster than many anticipated. This is bringing to the forefront a number of issues that show the new interconnections between emerging policy issues and next generation mobility solutions.

Some examples include: 

  • Buy America: When using federal funding, Buy America requirements must be met. This is why we are seeing a number of announcements around battery manufacturing facilities being constructed in the U.S. and the recent invocation of the Defense Production Act around ensuring the materials are available to support the production of clean energy sources. 
  • Workforce: While the maintenance of electric buses is not as intensive as internal combustion engines, maintenance is still required that requires new training. Transit agencies are currently experiencing workforce shortages, so ensuring a workforce that aligns with zero emission buses is critical. Maintenance needs also transition from the vehicle to the electric charging stations that are being installed in bus facilities across the country. Whether these electric charging stations should be maintained by a transit agency or the private companies is an important consideration. 
  • Energy Storage: Many transit agencies are seeking to maximize the use of renewable energy to power electric buses. This includes the capture and storage of energy from renewable energy sources like solar so that charging can occur on a rolling basis over a 24-hour period. This may come through either the use of emerging power storage technologies or being able to change out vehicle batteries, which becomes more complicated the larger the vehicle. There are also important considerations around the lifecycle of batteries and the need to consider safe disposal and hopefully recycling opportunities. 
  • Fleet Transition: In line with the discussion around ‘right-sizing’ a fleet, understanding what size vehicles, and when to invest in them is an important consideration and first step. As we see the introduction of a more ‘on-demand’ fleet for transit, such vehicles will likely be smaller and nimbler. Also, given issues discussed above around Buy America and considering ongoing supply chain shortages, leaving appropriate lead time to procure vehicles and allow for delivery is important. In other words, now is the time to invest in a transition plan over the short, medium, and long-term.