WSP USA's Walker-Ford Shares Insight on Improving Transit Equity, Ridership

Photo: WSP USA

Jannet Walker-Ford, SVP/principal director of National Transit and Rail Business line leader at WSP USA, spoke with METRO about social equity, engaging communities, and more.

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 has also become a defining measure of progress for the transportation industry. Transit provides a vital service, creating access and connecting people, places, and opportunities. We need to craft and catalyze strategies that help underserved, marginalized, and disinvested communities. 

To me, leaders in public transportation have a social responsibility we cannot walk away from. Take accessibility to vaccines, as an example. During the height of the pandemic, some states did not put enough thought into how to make vaccines available to all people, including those who can’t travel to a drug store due to lack of transit or transportation options or can’t afford to shop at a specific supermarket. This exposed unintentional inequities with vaccination distribution, which transit now can address. 

In other states, we saw some excellent examples of innovative solutions, such as mobile units taking vaccines to rural, elderly, and disadvantaged communities, and transit partnering with healthcare agencies and hospitals to transport test specimens autonomously, which reduced human exposure and risk. 

Healthcare is just one example of how transit can support a more equitable society. Access to education, voting locations, good jobs, and healthy food sources are also significant opportunities for us to rethink how to ensure equity. 

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

At WSP, we believe it’s critical to be in continuous conversation with the communities in which an agency or service is operating. It’s key to early planning, and it continues to be critical over time. Open dialog about fares, new technologies, and shifting routes isn’t just for the benefit of the people, it also ensures the agency is paying attention to — and addressing — evolving needs and concerns. 

Another aspect that supports equity is language translation. Information needs to be available in the languages spoken in a community. Similarly, transit needs to consider disabilities, elderly travelers, and people with other unique access needs. 

Finally, first- and last-mile transportation continues to be a challenge. How people move from one place to another has changed so much in the past 50 years, and our solutions need to reflect those changes. By offering solutions that provide information about an end-to-end trip is and seamless payment information is an important to ensuring equity because when transit options are limited, life is limited. 

What will some keys be to transit being able to bring back ridership post-pandemic?

This is a huge discussion topic right now, and one that offers us an opportunity to think creatively and expansively. Currently commuter rail is averaging at just 30 percent of its peak ridership for some agencies, and other transit like buses and subways are at 60 percent. I believe it’s reasonable to say that we will not go back to pre-pandemic travel patterns because people continue to work remotely, or at least flexibly, which changes the pattern of typical commuting we’ve built our systems around. For commuting, transit agencies will need to continue to adjust and adapt, looking for the emerging patterns to provide appropriate trip options, while also exceeding expectations of dependability, cleanliness, and accessibility. 

When it comes to things like a sporting event, where lots of people are arriving and leaving at the same time, we’re seeing more creativity in the mix. A transit agency, for example, might partner with a local brewery to incentivize the use of public transit and to influence travel pattern in efforts to minimize and/or help alleviate congestion. As an example, in coordination with a transit agency, a brewery may offer a free drink for people who arrive an hour ahead of the big game or stay an hour later, which helps with congestion management. 

What is your outlook for electric buses in transit? Do you feel it is something that will take hold across the nation, or is it more subjective based on the where the agency is located and what their needs are?

The future for electric buses in transit is very bright. As we try to reduce our carbon footprint, electric buses can assist in a significant way reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the Maryland Transit Administration believes that about 500 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions will be avoided through the use of electric buses instead of diesel between 2025 and 2030. Electric buses can also play a role in the transportation equity discussion by improving air quality in our low-income communities.

We have already seen commitment from states like California to have 100 percent electric city bus fleets by 2040 with the hope of beating that deadline by five years. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has also committed to an all- electric bus fleet by 2040, and Indianapolis with its IndyGo system will be one of the first all-electric transit agencies in our country.