We Need a Green New Deal for Public Transit

Expanded, free public transit, funded by taxes on the rich, can be at the heart of a just transition to a green economy.

An AC Transit bus in Downtown Oakland, California, in 2013. Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to take our public transportation systems for granted. But the working class, especially its most vulnerable members, rely on public transit to get around.

This is especially true in California’s East Bay, where I live. AC Transit is the public bus system serving Alameda and Contra Costa counties, which includes the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, and my own city of Richmond. AC Transit primarily serves lower-income working people and people of color. A recent survey found that 65 percent of its riders come from households that make under $50,000. One-third of its riders identify as black or African American, about 20 percent identify as Latino or Hispanic, and 18 percent identify as Asian.

The public bus service has also been a major source of good union jobs for working-class people of color. Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 192, representing AC Transit drivers and mechanics, has an 80 percent black membership.

But public transit is in danger — from billionaires who want to privatize everything they can get their hands on, and austerity-crazed politicians using the pandemic as an excuse to cut budgets and service. Rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft are working to replace public transit. Meanwhile, across the country, cities are proposing drastic cuts to public transit service. AC Transit is considering cutting service by up to 30 percent.

These cuts would take our bus system back a century in terms of funding, and they would be a disaster for those who most rely on the bus, especially students, the elderly, and people with disabilities. But public transit shouldn’t be moving backward, especially not in the midst of a pandemic and economic depression.

We should be fighting to defend and expand public transit, and to make it free for all riders. We can put expanded, fare-free public transit at the heart of local Green New Deals.

I want to help build a movement to make this vision a reality in the East Bay. That’s why I’m running for a seat on the AC Transit Board of Directors, which determines policy for our public bus service.

The Green New Deal is a vision for radically transforming our economy in the face of looming climate catastrophe. It’s about replacing an economy that benefits the wealthy few at the expense of the planet with a sustainable economy that works for the many. It calls for a rapid transition to a green economy, which can mitigate the worst effects of climate change while creating millions of good union jobs.

Massive federal investment is needed to fund a Green New Deal at the national level. But local governments don’t need to wait on Washington to start making their own green economic transitions. Cities and counties can do local Green New Deals, beginning with reinvestment in public transit.

We can dramatically reduce emissions by increasing public transit ridership and reducing car use, one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. To bring more riders onto transit, we need to expand service, not cut it.

We can also permanently eliminate fares, which many agencies (including AC Transit) have already done. Public transportation is essential for many people to get to work, school, and elsewhere. That’s why I believe public transit is a right, not a commodity to be bought and sold for profit. But getting rid of fares has also proven effective in increasing ridership and lowering emissions. Just one example: when Corvallis, Oregon, made their public transportation free, ridership increased by two-thirds.

We should transition as rapidly as possible to emissions-free transit. Getting people out of cars and onto green public transit quickly will give us a leg up in the fight against climate change. AC Transit is already moving to a green bus fleet, but we should make the transition happen even faster.

Expanded service and a rapid transition to emissions-free transit is good for riders and for the planet. It also means more secure, union jobs for operators, mechanics, and other transit workers. Creating jobs like this is more important than ever at a time of mass unemployment, when companies like Uber and Lyft are trying to replace public transit with their private drivers, who they exploit ruthlessly.

All of these measures help the most vulnerable members of society: from the public bus riders who are disproportionately low-income and people of color, to the mostly black bus drivers and mechanics who make up AC Transit’s workforce. A Green New Deal for public transit is a move toward a society of racial, economic, and environmental justice. 

These ideas aren’t pie in the sky. Many cities have already made public transit fare-free. AC Transit eliminated fares at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to allow for safe rear-door boarding. Even before the pandemic, fares only paid for 12 percent of the bus system’s operating costs. We can tax corporations and the superrich to make up for the loss of fares, and to fund an expanded, green public bus service.

Now is not the time to cut public transit. Working people need to come together to fight for our public transportation system. Together we can stem climate change, create good union transit jobs, and guarantee everyone the right to get where they need to go.