Janet Gonzalez-Tudor, transportation operational resiliency director at HDR, addressed a number of topics including transit equity, adding electric buses, and bringing back ridership post-pandemic.
How are consultants helping transit agencies, if at all, with the idea of transit equity and inclusion?
Historically, public transit has been a connector for marginalized and underserved communities. Just by the nature of services provided, public transport is offering connectivity at highly reduced or fully subsidized rates to individuals who often have no other way to reach jobs, schools, and critical services. Equity and inclusion are not new concepts for agencies.
However, the strategies and best practices for reaching equity goals have evolved and advanced in recent years. New data availability is offering unprecedented insights into community needs. Public engagement at the scaled down community level is reaching residents neglected or overlooked in previous efforts to expand understanding of rider’s needs. And transit agencies are turning their equity lens inward, to take stock of their own organizations in parallel to external efforts.
As this all takes place, transit agencies want to know what’s going on in other communities. Particularly in the last couple of years, transit agencies have been understandably focused on their own residents. But they want to know what’s working elsewhere. This is one important way that national and global consultants add value. With less travel and peer learning, transit agencies often look to consultants for ideas and lessons learned in other communities.
As we work with agencies across the globe, we see equity advancements and practices that others could also apply in their communities for their own users. These include partnerships in Los Angeles to improve transit access to residents in affordable housing, workforce development in the trades and professional services and recruiting efforts in Chicago, and even broadband expansions within utility right-of-way that will improve feedback from previously unconnected transit customers. Consultants are not educating transit agencies on the importance of equity and inclusion, but they are helping to spread best practices on the topics as so many explore and implement pilots.
Has transit’s focus on diversity and inclusion increased their desire to use DBE, WBEs, and MBEs for projects?
Transit agencies have traditionally been a strong proponent of small and disadvantaged businesses of all types. At large transit agencies in metropolitan areas, projects regularly include aggressive goals that teams comprise 30% to 35% or more of these firms. Small and mid-size transit agencies are also very interested in encouraging small business development.
The desire to support and encourage these businesses has been strong for quite some time. The challenge the industry faces today is a lack of qualified businesses to meet that desire and/or often the lack of depth of talent available in the workforce. Especially as funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act start flowing, there’s more work to go around than people to do it.
To address this shortfall in qualified firms, HDR works with agencies and communities to build proactive programs that encourage participation and certification. Through formal local mentoring programs, on-the-job training, and business outreach, HDR has assisted firms throughout North America to become certified, gain experience, and ultimately provide additional capacity for transit agencies in need of expertise.
Industry outreach and education has made progress in developing and encouraging new firms, and entrepreneurs continue to set out their shingle. But depending on the region, demand for DBE involvement can quickly exceed availability. In this environment, transit agencies may need to be flexible in their requirements, with some even potentially needing to ask larger firms to formally mentor smaller ones, for instance, in return for lowering aggressive goals.
Building the next generation of leaders is critical to addressing this shortfall; this is one significant reason that our HDR Foundation continues to support efforts to interest students in STEAM education and introduce young people to the opportunities of engineering and transportation careers, including those in transit. Many industry associations — including WTS International, the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers — are also providing leadership, assistance and valuable networking opportunities to entrepreneurs and firms, connecting qualified firms with transit opportunities and smaller entrepreneurs and new leaders with larger firms that can serve as more experienced industry partners.
In the past, transit’s biggest issue has been funding. With the funds now coming in via IIJA and other programs, what must the industry do to capitalize on that infusion of money?
The IIJA’s historic investment will provide a consistent stream of federal money for U.S. transit agencies for the next decade or more. With that in mind, there are two things agencies can do to best capitalize on those funds.
First, step back. If they have not already, agencies should review their strategic plans to ensure they align with the increase in funding they will receive, have already received, or qualify for. Agencies that don’t have their own policy experts on staff can call upon outside experts to ensure they understand the programs they qualify for, new requirements, and new funding options. Strategic plans should also consider the ‘new’ world we’re living in, with new commuter habits and community concerns. Plans created two, three, or five years ago likely need to be updated to match today’s circumstances.
Second, agencies need to prioritize. After scraping by in some lean years, transit agencies are now finding themselves with new resources and funds. That’s wonderful and much needed, but not everything can be done at once. Agencies should take a hard look at what to do first and what’s most important. Today, that often means looking at plans with a keen equity lens, more so than even a few years ago. Are new programs or projects getting to communities that may have been cut off before? Does route frequency and schedule match the needs of residents who may work second or third shifts? Do programs help community members with varying school schedules or afterschool programs, or who need access to community services?
As funding is made available, taking these steps will help agencies make the case that their projects will not only support their strategic goals but will also support IIJA goals for access, equity, and climate. One good place to start is the ‘Moving the Nation Through Crisis’ report from the American Public Transportation Association. The report, from APTA’s Mobility Recovery & Restoration Task Force, addressed many of these questions and provided insights and resources for mapping out a long-term, post-pandemic recovery.
What will some keys be to transit being able to bring back ridership post-pandemic?
To attract riders back to transit and to serve current riders, two priorities stand out. We need to be nimbler, and we need to continue to focus on operator and user safety.
As the pandemic showed us, changes to routes and frequency can’t take months to approve if transit systems want to efficiently meet riders’ needs. What we learned as an industry, sometimes to our chagrin, is that we need to be nimbler in planning and implementing routes based on immediate need. It’s important for systems to be flexible and able to shift on demand, even though it might be painful. Fortunately, we have new tools that can accomplish these changes and respond to riders’ needs. Data-informed community analysis can help us understand the neighborhoods we serve and their residents’ largest needs, even as they shift. And ever-improving planning technology and route analysis tools can map out routes and schedules that maximize the efficiency of buses and trains and paratransit networks.
The other key is safety, both real and perceived. After multiple years of pandemic, agencies across the globe have adapted well to more stringent cleaning, distancing, and other health measures. But pre-pandemic safety worries persist — from riders and employees, and in some communities — even more so as COVID-19 recovery efforts get underway.
On one recent late-night trip (due to travel delays) to a large city, my Lyft driver was a former bus driver, who said that she was scared to go back to driving a bus because of the fights and weapons she had to deal with from unruly passengers. Fed up with what she saw as a lack of support for the safety of herself and her other passengers, she was considering upgrading her license to become a truck driver instead. This issue isn’t new, and transit agencies are continuing to explore solutions, including ambassador programs, the addition of mental health and crisis intervention specialists, increased surveillance, and more. The FTA’s Enhanced Transit Safety and Crime Prevention Initiative, launched last year, has provided welcome support. But the work continues, and to bring back riders, and operators, we need them to feel safe.
What are the main hurdles for agencies in areas like California and New York in meeting the electric bus mandates? Is it feasible to believe they can overcome these issues to meet the mandates put into place?
According to my colleague Rob Mowat, leader of HDR’s Electrified Mobility Practice, we know it is possible for agencies to meet their looming deadlines for zero emissions fleets, but there are certainly challenges ahead, most notably funding, ongoing technology advancement, agency focus, and securing energy delivery.
Capital costs are considerable for vehicles and infrastructure. Agencies will need a funding strategy spanning multiple years for fleet replacements and infrastructure, as well as any additional vehicles needed due to current technology limitations and operational demands.
Vehicle technology continues to advance, which is both good news and a challenge as capabilities change, requiring new investments to take advantage of improved system operation opportunities. Battery-electric buses continue to improve, both in reliability and range, as does the charging technology that powers them. Fuel-cell electric buses also continue to improve their vehicle performance, but with those advancements come new requirements for facility modifications, hydrogen generation, storage, and dispensing. A focused, complete-fleet transition plan with a phased approach allows a transit agency the ability to adapt and incorporate industry changes over time.
Depending on the agency and its resources, allocating the needed personnel to focus on this conversion can also be a challenge. New zero emissions programs are labor intensive. Dedicating program management and agency support is a requirement in all areas from operations, finance, executives, planning, and capital planning/facilities to implement new programs and proactively address potential issues as the new system is established and expanded if/when needed.
Finally, energy supply and distribution needs will change, requiring agencies to secure new partnerships with energy providers. Battery-electric buses require reliable electricity at the depot and any en-route charging locations. Fuel-cell electric buses will require reasonable local access to clean hydrogen. These new agreements, leading often to new infrastructure, can be complex and take years to bring to reality. Evaluating energy supply and distribution needs should be a central part of developing an agency’s transition plan. Engaging local energy providers early in the planning process will help with understanding energy demands and identifying strategies to meet those needs. Both key steps will help to avoid program implementation delays or operational issues during pilot programs.