This op-ed was originally published in Passenger Transport, the official magazine of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), on Nov. 19, 2021.
A common refrain from our community members in the first year of the pandemic was that they had no desire to go back to “normal.” They rightly demanded, instead, to be authors of a mobility future that is brighter than the past.
This year, that theme has turned into a resounding chorus from public transit leaders, too. We know ridership will rebound because transit remains inextricably linked to creating the types of cities and towns where all of us want to live, work, and play. But lapsed riders won’t resume taking trips solely during rush hours, on the identical days as before, or even to the same destinations. What’s more, customers who never stopped riding transit deserve a greatly improved experience and are our best-placed experts to guide the way ahead.
I know personally and professionally that transit confers opportunity. Transit was my ticket to where I am today and has been my mission ever since. Transit is freedom—connecting to education, career, family, community, and medical care. As agencies, we too are connectors. At King County Metro, we are grateful for the opportunity to be the Puget Sound region’s mobility leader and for the trust placed in us by the communities we serve. We therefore consider it our most important charge to convene and engage with our many neighbors and partners to imagine, plan, and implement what all of us want tomorrow to look like. We believe that building a regional, innovative, and integrated mobility network will deliver immense dividends for our people, our economy, and our environment.
Despite the uncertainties many of our agencies face—from funding to in-person work timelines to workforce availability—the vision of what transit can be and the future it makes possible remain clear. Public transportation means living in neighborhoods that are walkable (and rollable), commuting to school or to work comfortably and reliably regardless of your ability or your income, enjoying cleaner air and water, driving commerce to strengthen the local economy, and empowering all people to be an active part of their community and to connect to the places and experiences that matter most to them. We need to share that vision loudly, especially during this time of nationwide uncertainty.
In short, transit must be accessible, affordable, frequent, reliable, and stress-free. But achieving each of those goals begins with honestly assessing where we can do better.
At Metro, we invest resources and time into sharing power with community members who historically have not had a seat in decision-making. We are intentional and proactive in bringing forward the voices of Priority Populations—people who are Black, Indigenous, of color (BIPOC); have low or no income; are immigrants or refugees; have disabilities; or are linguistically diverse—who have been powerless for far too long. Their counsel isn’t found in any transit planning course, nor is it easy to hear. And the problems Priority Populations and other community members raise have often been decades or even centuries in the making and will sometimes take years or decades to fix. But the time to do right must be now, and these insights are exactly the inspiration that transit needs.
As we at Metro look to 2022, we’re re-committing to our “Long Game” of how we will continue to work with our community to create a healthy region, a thriving economy, and a sustainable environment and to grow a mobility network that keeps us moving forward together. I want to share just a few highlights of what we’re working on.
Most importantly, we are committed to investing where needs are greatest when it comes to transit service. While productivity and geography remain factors, we lead with equity in everything we do. Further, we believe everyone benefits when we put equity first.
Equity extends to improving our organization’s health, too. To paraphrase my colleagues, sometimes our agency’s words don’t match their lived experience in our organization. We acknowledge where we have fallen short of our values, and pledge to build and support a diverse workforce where everyone is respected and valued. We are dedicating resources to back up those promises.
To ensure our buses run on time and serve our customers reliably, Metro is moving to advanced service management. We’re also very fortunate to have partnerships with our cities and jurisdictions that provide the critical infrastructure—from bus lanes and transit-priority traffic lights to piloting innovative projects—to keep transit moving and to make the bus the most reliable way to travel.
During the global racial reckoning of 2020, we launched a Safety, Security and Fare Enforcement (SaFE) reform initiative. We engaged with customers and colleagues to reimagine what safety on transit looks and feels like, especially for BIPOC community members disproportionately harmed by government and by police. We’ll be sharing those community-driven plans later this year.
Lastly, we moved our deadline to transition to a fully zero-emission fleet from 2040 to 2035. As our next-generation battery-electric buses continue to arrive, we are assigning them to routes in BIPOC and lower-income communities that currently suffer from higher levels of pollution.
Having participated in the incredible APTA convention in Florida, I can’t wait to help welcome the transit world to Seattle in October 2022. These forums to share our successes—and our failures—are invaluable. I’m eager to once again learn, share, and reconnect. Together, we must connect even more people to opportunity by any mode necessary.
Terry White is general manager of King County Metro, the Puget Sound region’s largest public transportation agency. Metro provides bus, paratransit, vanpool, and water taxi services, and operates Seattle Streetcar, Sound Transit Link light rail, and Sound Transit Express bus service.