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VOTERS WANT MORE TRANSIT OPTIONS. POLITICIANS SHOULD LISTEN.

With over 70 percent of voters saying the government should fund more public transit, it’s no surprise imaginary transit maps keep going viral.

Not long ago, a user-made map depicting a vastly expanded Atlanta transit system went viral on social media.

Instead of just four branching main lines that intersect like a plus sign, the imaginary map spindles out like a bicycle wheel in 10 directions, with an additional ring around the periphery connecting the spokes.

Comments like “They should’ve done this 25 years ago” and “let’s get this idea in the hands of the politicians ASAP” flooded in. Similar maps imagining expanded transit service have harvested “likes” and enthusiastic comments over the past several years, including several national high-speed rail maps.

“People are starting to dream and have these big ideas of what [transit] should look like,” said Bakari Height, an organizer with the Labor Network for Sustainability. “People are waking up and seeing that this is something that’s really valuable, something that they want to utilize.”

Of course, these ambitious plans will cost money. But polls say voters think the investment is worthwhile.

Most Americans do want more public transportation. In a 2023 nationwide survey of registered voters, 71 percent of respondents agreed that we should be shifting funding from highways to public transit.

This broad consensus shouldn’t surprise us. Public transportation drives economic opportunity and health equity. Public transit offers a 5 to 1 return on investment and saves 37 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually in the U.S. — equivalent to the combined household electricity emissions of New York City, Atlanta, Denver, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

Car-centric infrastructure, by contrast, drives inequality and pollution.

In 2022, low-income households with at least one vehicle spent 38 percent of their income on transportation. And in sprawled, car-dependent metro areas, long commutes can be worse than just an inconvenience. A 2015 Harvard study found commute time to be the most important factor in predicting whether an American kid can escape poverty.

Yet car-centric infrastructure remains a top government priority. For every $4 allocated to highways, Congress typically only allocates $1 to public transit. This disconnect drives inequality and weakens public trust in government.

Things don’t have to be this way. During the pandemic, the federal government broke precedent and ramped up funding to keep U.S. transit systems afloat. Transit advocacy can build off this momentum. If we continue investing in transit infrastructure, and informing the public about its benefits, more riders will come.

MARTA Army — a grassroots action group in Atlanta that Bakari Height co-founded — offers a prime example. The group’s work, Height explains, centers around one basic question: “What can we, as advocates, fix now that’d really send a message to the powers-that-be to fix this system?”

Whether posting laminated route schedules or cleaning up litter and broken glass, MARTA Army has upgraded bus stops throughout Atlanta. Working with Georgia Tech, the group also designed an app that connects riders with real-time arrival information.

“We created these projects to show that transit can be so much better,” says Height. “If you spread this knowledge to folks,” he affirms, “I’d bet they’ll vote differently next time.”

The bottom line: A vast majority of voters already want better transit. They just need convincing that this better transit can become actual policy.

The Stronger Communities Through Better Transit Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), would authorize $20 billion per year over a four-year period for improving service and increasing ridership nationwide. Rep. Johnson’s bill now has 88 cosponsors. Many national organizations like the AFL-CIO have expressed support.

But as MARTA Army teaches us, change begins at the community level. Whether by cleaning up bus stops, joining local riders unions, or inspiring neighbors with transit-themed artwork, we all have a part to play in shaping a better transit future.

Liam Crisan

Liam Crisan is an Editorial Assistant for Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies. This op-ed was adapted from a longer version at Inequality.org and distributed for syndication by OtherWords.org.

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