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In the wake of covid-19, how to safely and fully reopen public transportation has become a major point of discussion at both local and federal levels. Much of the conversation so far has focused on logistical challenges like sanitation, overcrowding and lost revenue.

However, public transit directly affects access to different opportunities based on a variety of factors, including riders' neighborhoods, income levels and now -- during the pandemic -- whether they can work remotely.

These are all issues policymakers will have to consider in their long-term plans. And while underinvestment in transit infrastructure is not new, these inequities to access are being brought to the forefront in the coronavirus era.

"It's the ripple effects of inequality," said Ariel Bierbaum, assistant professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland. "[It's] the exacerbation of inequality at every level."

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The latest census data from before the pandemic showed that 5% of all U.S. commuters typically use public transportation, but in major cities, that number jumps to 10%. The rates are much higher for members of minority groups. Among African American and Asian workers in large cities, almost 1 in 6 use public transit.

The New York metro area has the largest percentage of people who use public transportation to commute to work, followed by San Francisco, Boston and the District of Columbia.

New York has become the center of one of America's largest outbreaks, with many pointing to the city's density. However, some experts have been quick to note density itself is not necessarily the problem.

Meli Harvey, an urban planner based in New York City, said density is instead often a "proxy or stand-in" for other factors -- like the number of people per household or types of occupations -- that may contribute to community transmission in a pandemic.

While people of all income levels use public transportation, a crucial population of people depend on it more than others. Doug Johnson, the transportation planning manager at the San Francisco Planning department, said these riders are often lower-income, minority-group members who may not own cars and who rely on transit for access to opportunities like jobs and schools.

These same people are also disproportionately affected by the current pandemic. A recent study found that counties where residents are predominantly black account for over half of coronavirus cases in the United States and almost 60% of deaths. The same study also pointed to socioeconomic factors like employment, access to health insurance and medical care as being predictive of infection and death from covid-19.

Many of these people also hold essential jobs that require them to continue to commute to work and come into contact with others, adding to the likelihood of community transmission.

"They still have to take the bus because they didn't have another way to get to their service jobs or the hospital or to the grocery store," said Sean Kennedy, transit planning manager at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Lower-income groups are also some of those most vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus. A deadly combination of increased exposure and subsequent poor access to health care or sick leave can leave many front line workers in a dangerous position.

High- and low-income workers alike use public transportation to get to work. However, the key difference is highly paid workers, like lawyers and software developers, are also more likely to be able to work remotely.

In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, systems will continue to implement methods to help maintain social distancing and cleanliness. The District's metro, for example, will maintain reduced service and try to limit passengers on buses and rail cars. Metrobus riders will also continue to board through the rear doors and ride free, as collecting fares would expose bus operators to passengers.

But the financial costs of reduced service remain a looming question for transit agencies. Losses, possibly into the billions, could reverberate for months or even years into the future.

A Section on 05/17/2020

Print Headline: Transit talk shifts focus on inequities

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