As the COVID-19 pandemic makes its relentless sweep across the world’s cities, it is revealing the vital importance of urban public transport systems in delivering essential workers to hospitals, grocery stores, and other critical services the entire community relies on. At WRI’s most recent webinar  on how to build back better after the pandemic, panelists pointed to this moment as an opportunity to invest deeper in public transit—not just as an essential system, but as a path to economic recovery.
“While many of us may not be required to take transit to get to the grocery, or to get to the hospital, it doesn’t do us any good to get to those places if they’re not running,” said Transportation for America Director Beth Osborne. “If your nurse isn’t there, you haven’t gotten anything.”
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Essential workers make up 36% of transit users, and by bringing the importance of these workers into sharper focus, the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates that “we are all transit dependent now,” said Osborne. Public transit, she noted, is finally being recognized as an essential public utility in itself.
Though this outlook on transit is “very new for the United States,” she added, it is already having noticeable effects on public policy. For the first time in U.S. history, the federal government is supporting public transit in a meaningful way, with Congress earmarking US$25 billion of its latest stimulus package to support transit operations. The new policy climate presents an opening for low-carbon transit development that “we have never seen in the United States,” said Osborne.
But one key to making progress in this moment will be to avoid repeating the poor decisions of the past. As Congress debates the next round of stimulus measures, Osborne and her colleagues are working with lawmakers to help them learn from the mistakes that were made during the rollout of the 2008-2009 stimulus package.
During that time—now known as the Great Recession—Osborne was manager of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, working alongside Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) and overseeing the distribution of stimulus funds in the transportation sector. She recalled seeing flaws arise in that program as the funding was delivered, most notably that the states did not always spend the grant money in the most equitable or effective way. Funding was sent out to state and local governments in “big lumps” with few strings attached, and was often spent slowly on “projects that don’t create that many jobs per dollar,” she said.
At that time, states still tended to favour highway spending over transit, even though transit consistently creates more jobs in both the short and long term. Those decisions contributed to a slow, inefficient economic recovery.
“When you build new highways or roadways, or you expand them, you have to purchase a lot of right-of-way,” Osborne recalled. “While there will be a handful of lawyers who will be very grateful for the work, that’s really not the sort of economic stimulus that most of us are seeking.”
Another key barrier to the delivery of effective stimulus funding during the Great Recession was that “Congress has a propensity to not want to create a new project to meet its goals,” added Osborne. Lawmakers generally want to “pull something off the shelf,” but that doesn’t typically get the job done. “If you want to generate economic recovery or stimulate jobs, you really need to design a program that targets your spending in that direction.”
Today, she noted, “big interest” groups like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the American Public Transit Association (APTA) understand Congress’ tendencies all too well—and have already asked for the next COVID-19 stimulus package to include long-term reauthorizations of their current programs. But as those groups reach out for public funds, Osborne also sees “a huge opportunity” for those who are interested in climate equity and public safety. The U.S. has traditionally paid for highway programs with gas taxes—effectively a user fee—but by “throwing their hands up and saying, ‘Forget it, we’re just going to pay for a program with general funds and debt,” AASHTO and APTA have changed the field of play dramatically, she said.
“If there’s no user fee, the old rule about how all the money should go to highways and highway expansion is gone,” she said. “Why shouldn’t at least as much money go to transit, if not more?”
Maruxa Cardama, secretary general of the Partnership for Sustainable Low-Carbon Transit (SLOCAT), said the COVID-19 crisis has led national governments and multilateral institutions to move quickly to both protect the “common good” and safeguard the public from what she called “the common bads”. She said she hoped to see that momentum carry over into climate issues.
There are early signs that many people are learning to “value things differently” in the wake of COVID-19, said Cardama. If this tendency persists, it could be an opportunity to present public transit and mobility as part of “that common good, that public service that we need to protect.”
Meanwhile, industry liquidity schemes and bailouts will need to be scrutinized carefully. Cardama pointed to Denmark’s refusal to bail out companies headquartered in tax havens, saying that while advocates can’t necessarily “transpose” this strategy directly onto the transportation sector, it definitely offers a model to consider.
“If we are going to bail out airlines, we should also be bailing out public transport,” she said.
Recovery packages must also be considered within the context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Cardama added. Under the Paris Agreement, countries are required to submit two sets of documents in 2020: their short-term emission reduction commitments, and their long-term climate action strategies. If countries adopt significantly more ambitious targets in the transportation sector as they prepare their short-term plans, and begin adopting “avoid and shift” strategies  that commit to far deeper long-term changes, major climate impacts could result.
Cardama pointed to the need for a “financial and investment revolution” rather than the “extraordinarily slow” progress in funding sustainable low-carbon transport. Aligning the investment portfolios of multilateral banks with the objectives of the Paris Agreement would be a major step forward.
The good news is that there have already been some moves in that direction, Cardama added: in November 2019, the European Investment Bank (EIB) announced  it would no longer fund energy projects related to coal, oil, or gas. More recently, the EIB extended this approach into transportation by revisiting its lending criteria for transport, and the organization seems to keeping up those commitments despite the intrusion of the COVID-19 crisis.
Just “a few days after European countries went into lockdown,” Cardama said, the EIB assured participants at a launch event that “this crisis is not going to derail us from the objective of aligning our transport portfolio to Paris Agreement compatibility.”
The strength of these commitments may yet be tested, but the first round of interventions has left open a number of “entry points for ambition,” said Cardama. The next step is to fill those openings with “all the knowledge, all the advocacy, and all the dialogue that we can pump into them.”