As we all know, we are facing a dual crisis: a global pandemic, intertwined with the start of an economic depression. As restaurants, bars and stores are forced to close to curb the progression of COVID-19, hundreds of thousands in Washington State are losing their jobs. According to official statistics, nearly 630,000 Washingtonians filed for unemployment in the four weeks between the 15th of March and 11th of April; twenty-six times as many as the same time last year.
The damage won’t stop there, of course: as the confinement goes on, more businesses will close their doors, more people will find themselves without a source of revenue, consumption will decrease, yet more businesses will shutter, and so on. A full-scale economic crisis is at hand.
The Democratic Socialists of America have proposed many ideas to alleviate the impact of this crisis on the working people, including Medicare 4 All (which would protect our collective health), a moratorium on evictions and utility shut-offs, and a Green New Deal. The latter – on top of creating millions of jobs at a time where they’re sorely needed – would help prevent or at least mitigate a climate disaster whose magnitude would dwarf our current situation.
In this context, transportation policy would seem to be low priority: after all, nobody is supposed to be traveling, let alone traveling in groups. If anything, it’s even tempting to conclude that every bus and streetcar is a potential hotbed of infection, whereas the private, individual car is a biologically secure way to move around. Is the car-first American urban policy of the past 50 years being vindicated?
Well, no. As discussed above, the overarching issue of carbon-fueled climate change and its devastating impacts remains. And while some of us temporarily enjoy the shelter of our automotive bunkers, all of us urban dwellers have had the opportunity to preview the clean air and quiet skies of a world with fewer cars and airplanes.
But more to the point: this, too, shall pass. Talk of reopening society is in the news every day, and when it does happen, two contradictory things will occur: people’s savings and disposable income will be at record lows after months of crisis, and there will be renewed demand for transportation, as millions return to work or look for jobs, and start on trips and errands they had deferred during the quarantine. Most of the jobs will be in the cities, as they always are, while persistently high rental prices in downtown Seattle will keep workers living away from the workplaces. Thousands of people with reduced means to afford and maintain a car will need to find a way to commute and go to the dentist. What’s the solution? Free public transit.
Seattle Transit Blog has already discussed this topic. The advantages of free transit are manifold: it reduces the inequality of housing by ensuring that workers don’t have to spend a large portion of their wages to purchase, fuel and maintain a car – the total yearly cost of owning a car could be anywhere from $4,000 for a small, used sedan, all the way to $10,000 for a new pickup truck. Public transit also reduces congestion on the road, which improves air quality (particularly important as many will want to spend time outside after months of isolation), and makes the roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
We don’t have to imagine it: free public transit is already a reality in King County since the 21st of March, and will continue to apply for the foreseeable future to protect drivers and passengers from close contact. This has helped the most vulnerable among us get around during this period. But this does not include the necessary reforms to the budget of public transit agencies that will allow them to fund their operations without relying on fare, as they do, for example, in Olympia and Kansas City.
As a result of revenue losses related to COVID, we’re headed for reduced service and need to pursue new funding sources that are a departure from the reliance on regressive sales taxes. While fares are far from being the primary source of funding for King County Metro, representing only 15% of their revenue, a serious free transit plan will also involve new sources of revenues to compensate for their disappearance . One example would be a City of Seattle tax on its largest companies. This is what Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders Union advocated in late March, along with a City non-residential parking tax. She also indicates that ultimately State legislators must greatly expand the taxing authority for Transportation Benefit Districts like Seattle, King County and Sound Transit. A payroll tax or an employee hours tax are examples of more progressive options. And eliminating fare would also potentially eliminate costs, such as for ticket control, card readers, the production and distribution of ORCA cards, and associated bookkeeping operations.
Continuing Fare-Free Transit in King County beyond the COVID emergency would be a tremendous contribution to economic recovery: a way to grease the gears of our society by helping people who took the brunt of the crisis move around, a boon to our air quality, and a way to put a public good back into the hands of the people. And by reducing the reliance on fossil-fuel intensive automobiles in a non-punitive manner, the continuation of Fare-Free Transit starts us on the road to fighting climate change via a just transition to the decarbonized economy of the future.
Timothy is a volunteer for the Green New Deal Committee of the Seattle chapter of the Democractic Socialists of America (DSA). We’re a political organization dedicated to trying to achieve a more just and democratic society. If you’re interested in free public transit and other topics related to environmental justice, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.