Inaugurating relief

Jan. 29, 2021

As the new administration enters, talk of COVID funding for transit persists

Since the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, one image from that day has captured the zeitgeist of a country still battling the threat of coronavirus in the dead of winter.

I am, of course, referring to the photo of Senator Bernard Sanders (I-VT) sitting cross-legged while wearing a sensible winter coat, a pair of hand-knit mittens, and a disposable mask over his face during the inauguration ceremony for President Joe Biden. Since that day, the image has appeared in an endless supply of internet memes all over social media, a collection that by many has been affectionately dubbed “Bernie memes”. 

As this cultural phenomenon has taken the internet by storm, public transit providers have gotten in on the fun. As a Chicagoan, I follow the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) on Twitter, and was delighted to see that on the day of the inauguration, the transit agency posted their own version of the meme. This image shows the senator sitting on an otherwise empty CTA passenger railcar. The folded arms, crossed legs, and masked face of Senator Sanders captures my own recent experience on the CTA. 

My car needed emergency repairs a few weeks ago, and though I currently work from home, I had to rely on public transit for a few trips. Chicago was experiencing temps in the 20s and 30s at the time, so I was just about as bundled up as Bernie. On top of that, the way he sits in the photo captures my own closed-off posture as I am reluctant to touch or be close to anyone while riding the Blue Line during the pandemic. Of course, I was assured by the CTA in an interview back in August that the agency has “one of the most rigorous cleaning regimens of any U.S. transit agency.” Despite that assurance—coupled with the fact that as depicted in the Bernie meme, the train was relatively empty—I try to remain cautious in any public setting these days. 

The subject of riding public transportation during COVID brings us to some recent news. A few days before the inauguration, President Biden announced his plans for a coronavirus relief package. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) applauded the plan’s inclusion of relief for public transit. "The proposed emergency transit funding included in the American Rescue Plan is vital to the industry’s survival and will help prevent massive labor cuts and drastic service reductions," APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas said in a statement. According to NBC News, the president is planning to focus on getting a COVID relief package passed through Congress as early as next week.

The question remains just how might relief for public transportation take shape in terms of distribution. In another piece of news from this month, the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) highlighted its survey of small-urban and rural transit systems that the association says face major service cuts and the inability to continue providing the essential services they do everyday as CARES Act funding dwindles. The CTAA says the results of the survey reveals a need for additional COVID-19 funding aid for these smaller public transportation systems.

In other news, on the day of the inauguration, the nation’s largest coalition of traffic safety organizations—Road to Zero—along with Toward Zero Deaths, Vision Zero Network, Families for Safe Streets and 74 partner organizations and individuals, sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to commit the efforts of the federal government to achieve zero roadway deaths by 2050. The group said roadway deaths have a leading killer in the U.S. for decades, while acknowledging the need for the administration to focus on pandemic relief efforts.

With that, we turn to our featured articles for the month. Chris McCarthy, Global Transportation Lead from North Highland Worldwide Consulting, tackles the case for public transportation COVID-19 relief funding in the feature “The Future of Transit: Where do we go from here?”. McCarthy says that while ridership has decreased for public transit since the beginning of the pandemic, “the core mission of transit is to provide transportation to those who have no alternatives, providing access to economic opportunity and health care.” He says transportation agencies should prioritize investment in bus improvements, such as BRT and route optimization, that are cheaper and faster to operationalize. They also should be looking at how to better integrate Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) into first- and last-mile connections, especially to reach the economically disadvantaged, essential workers, and others who cannot work from home, he says.

In the feature “Mapping the Future of Rural Transportation Research,” Carla Little from the Western Transportation Institute discusses the needs of rural transportation networks to improve safety and mobility through research. Little explains how in 2018, the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) approved funding for a project to develop a Research Roadmap for Rural Transportation Issues. The goal was to develop a detailed, long-term agenda for research aimed at improving rural transportation throughout the U.S., including the creation of a series of research needs statements on specific topics. According to Little, the recently established TRB Rural Transportation Issues Coordination Council will provide guidance, coordinate strategies, and convene forums of experts on critical rural issues and has agreed to take on the Roadmap as one of its initiatives.

From all of us at Traffic & Transit, stay warm, stay safe, and happy reading!

About The Author: Bruns is associate managing editor of Traffic & Transit.

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