(Editor’s Note: This commentary appears in ‘Passenger Transport,’ a publication of the American Public Transportation Association.)

By Rob GannonGeneral Manager, King County Metro

King County Metro and public transit agencies across the nation are transitioning out of their traditional role. By harnessing emerging technologies and service models, we’re beginning to offer our customers new mobility options that can have far-reaching outcomes for society.

As we journey toward this mobility future, our industry is shifting its best practices to meet today’s demands. Many laudable efforts are underway in a variety of cities and systems. The scale of the undertaking ranges from microtargeted solutions focused on serving first and last mile to megaprojects in major urban corridors. Technology is being leveraged to provide riders with better trip planning and payment options and partnerships are sprouting with ride-hailing services.Metro Transit GM Rob Gannon portrait photo

With APTA’s advocacy and leadership, much of this work is being cast not merely as interconnected public transportation, but something broader and more aspirational: integrated mobility—customer-focused transportation solutions, seamlessly provided from one mode to another in a way that is more predictable, more adaptable and more reliable than ever before.

But there is more we can do. We will serve an even greater public good if we set a course by a new constellation of guiding stars. Three issues—tackling the impact of climate change, improving public health and advancing equity and social justice—have been labeled the most urgent challenges of our time. All three present opportunities for the public transportation industry to demonstrate both a pragmatic and profound relevance.

What do we do as leaders? Within the industry, we regularly start from the consensus premise that high-capacity public transportation is better for the environment than single-occupancy vehicles. But outside the industry, that position is not universally endorsed, and the advance of green technology means different things to different communities. Regardless, we can make a bold statement and move vigorously and in unison toward sustainable propulsion systems that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We should look for ways to partner even more than we do today—agency with agency and agency with manufacturer—to accelerate this transition.

The advance of sustainable energy solutions is inseparable from new and emerging technology that requires us to have a workforce with up-to-date skills. Now is the moment to engage with organized labor in a more meaningful and lasting partnership.

The shift to prepare and equip our workforce must take flight in an unquestioned spirit of collaboration. Labor’s movement in this direction will help to reestablish its relevance. For management and our industry, our viability depends on it.

Battery-electric buses are cleaner right now and also the prudent investment for the long term. The moment presents an uncontroversial opportunity to stride forward with critical workforce investments.

We also need to be clear on this point: the greater benefit of clean public transportation accrues to our communities in the form of reduced pollution, improved air quality and healthier neighborhoods. Let’s make this the first statement in the public transportation value proposition: we are doing it for the health of the people we serve.

The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This definition has been in place since 1948 and our progress as a nation toward supporting wellbeing seems distantly behind the resources devoted to disease elimination and treatment.

Could we look at integrated mobility as an inflection point and adjust the arc of our efforts to an even more beneficial trajectory? Zero-emission vehicles could benefit our communities and provide a demonstrable improvement in the health of the environment and people. Mobility as a service can connect people to opportunity: to school and jobs; to healthcare and community engagement; to church, synagogue and mosque; to all those things that strengthen the fabric of interwoven communities and social wellbeing.

The call has already been sounded to improve performance and demand-response service though a new mobility paradigm. Agencies are responding—as we should—both to public need and the direction of governing boards, business leaders and community organizations.

The end we pursue—mobility through improved public transportation infrastructure—is clear enough, but the outcomes are less apparent. This need not be. As provisioners of the public transportation good, it is our duty to assure mobility reaches everyone in a sustainable, healthy and equitable manner. We connect communities to opportunity, allowing every individual the chance to thrive.

The clarion call is for renewal and a plea that we become as an industry what seems increasingly elusive to our country today: many working together in pursuit of one uniting cause. Let us come together right now, catalyze our collected efforts and unify under this guiding belief: mobility is not a privilege, nor simply a service, but a basic and essential right.

What other industry so resolved could be this impactful? Where else could strategically coordinated efforts dislodge the roots of deep-seated problems? While others are distracted, could we as leaders be this focused? The politics of today, perhaps unintelligible, can be wielded to support our excellence. But our excellence, and the authentic power of our service, can redefine the politics of our future.

King County Metro is the recipient of the 2018 APTA Award for Outstanding Public Transportation System for systems providing 20 million or more annual passenger trips.