Transit Equity: Research and Advocacy Inspires Government Action

Harvard data-smart city

“If you want to tackle historic racism and inequality, but you don’t understand the current needs, then you make decisions for the average population,”said Jeff Rosenblum, a transit activist and PhD candidate studying reduced price fare, during a conversation we had last summer. Rosenblum’s reduced-fare study caught the attention of the Green Justice Coalition (GJC), a community-based coalition that advocates for a green economy and environmental justice. The GJC has been instrumental in advocating for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to adopt the current Youth Pass, which provides discounted fares for young adults aged 18-25. With the support of their target communities, the GJC brought the issue of an income-based reduced fare to the MBTA and prompted them to conduct a feasibility study on means-tested fares. And in August 2019, the MBTA hired its first Transit Equity Programs Specialist, Katie Kalugin, to understand and address the current mobility needs for groups that fall outside that supposed “average population.”

Katie Kalugin headshot

Katie Kalugin

Kalugin’s role is to increase access to the MBTA’s existing reduced fare programs by identifying and addressing barriers to participation, working with external stakeholders and MBTA staff to streamline application and fulfillment processes. Kalugin is also a part of the MBTA group exploring a means-tested fares option for low-income individuals who are not currently served by one of the existing reduced fare programs. That is especially crucial work during the current pandemic, as unemployment has risen dramatically; many front-line workers still need to use public transit to reach their jobs; and communities of color are disproportionately affected by the virus. Kalugin is working closely with Rosenblum, the GJC, and other transit activists and nonprofits to collect information on how the MBTA could potentially pilot a means-tested fares program to help riders with low-income access to the system.

As the first Transit Equity Programs Specialist, Kalugin is bolstering the MBTA’s commitment to underserved populations. Kalugin will review existing and potential reduced fare programs, while also tackling a few broader equity areas. Despite the focus on Boston-area transit, the challenges she is identifying and the solutions to be tested are applicable to most urban areas, and it is imperative that transit officials learn from the lessons below. Otherwise, the “design for the average” mindset continues to promote the harmful idea that there is an able-bodied and non-marginalized “average” transit user, and will continue to hinder groups that are already systematically disadvantaged.

Identifying barriers:

When Kalugin began at the MBTA, she joined the group studying the potential implementation of a means-tested fares program. A “sticking point” immediately identified around eligibility criteria was if the reduced fares are for low-income populations, then how does the MBTA verify income? There are a few options that she and the group are exploring, including linking eligibility to existing benefits programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This was the measure that Rosemblum used for his transit equity study, and it helps transit providers by removing the step of income verification on their part. However, some transit providers do link their means-tested programs to the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). For example, New York City provides half-priced fares for residents who are at or below the FPL through the Fair Fares NYC program; originally linked to SNAP eligibility, recipients can now verify their income and apply directly through the NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Working with experts:

Kalugin has learned a lot from peer agencies like the Fair Fares NYC program. She has also engaged with local experts and advocates like the GJC, as their efforts helped ignite the means-tested study. Additionally, Kalugin is breaking down silos by engaging with government agencies like the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA). DTA has significant expertise working with low-income individuals, and Kalugin wants to improve the channels between the MBTA and DTA to increase awareness of current reduced fare programs like the Youth Pass, which offers  reduced fare cards for eligible young adults with low-income. The MBTA also successfully integrated the use of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards as valid form of payment at all MBTA points of sale, such as fare vending machines and retail sales locations that accept EBT cards. Kalugin is also working closely with local community-based organizations (CBOs); the MBTA sent out a recent call for CBOs to partner on a potential means-tested fares program pilot.

Making applications accessible:

“Right now folks don’t have an online option to apply for reduced fares,” said Kalugin, a barrier that became extremely problematic during the pandemic, and one that she and other staff at the MBTA hope to address. There is only one CharlieCard store located in the Downtown Crossing T station in downtown Boston, and that is where the majority of riders must go to apply for a reduced fare CharlieCard, including the Senior CharlieCard or Blind Access Pass; while normally a challenge, the process is nearly impossible right now. The MBTA is working on a solution to receive and process reduced fare applications in a secure, remote manner so that residents have more options to apply and don’t need to submit an in-person application. While redesigning and migrating forms online is normally an important equity practice for cities, the issue is even more urgent during a pandemic.

Focusing on service improvements:

“Let’s say we implemented a means tested fares program but did nothing to improve our service; somebody may still be waiting half an hour to take a bus. And so you have to do those things in tandem. You can’t just do one over the other,” said Kalugin. For her, this demonstrates the broader aspects of transit equity. Reduced fares are important for improving access, but to have an equitable transit system, service has to be reliable and streamlined for those without other forms of transportation, particularly during the current pandemic. The MBTA initially had to limit services to address uncertainty in ridership and workforce availability due to COVID-19, so that it could balance reliability with flexibility. But recently, they increased service to reduce crowding and promote social distancing for essential workers or residents without cars. Cities that are considering means-tested fares should also do a scan of their network and identify reliability or timeliness gaps that impede mobility for low-income communities, regardless of fare costs.

Engaging the community:

Most importantly, Kalugin is working with the affected communities and nonprofit partners; groups like the GJC are helping make sure that a means-tested fare will serve the most overburdened communities. The MBTA wants to hear from a variety of voices to understand their current needs, in order to inform the decision-making process. While the pandemic has limited in-person engagement, online events with CBOs are helping to gather feedback on a potential means-tested fares program.

Inspired by equity data, research, and advocacy, the MBTA is modeling data-driven governance that prioritizes equity. There have been many quick pivots in the past several months as stark race and income inequalities have emerged in public transit ridership. To address this, the MBTA is again accepting Zone 1A fares at Lynn and Riverworks Commuter Rail Stations on a pilot basis through December 31, meaning that travel between Lynn Station and Downtown Boston is the same price as taking the subway. This pilot is meant to promote additional travel options and social distancing efforts. And from now until September 30, the Youth Pass will give riders access to the Commuter Rail as well, a section of the transportation network that previously wasn’t included in the reduced fare program. Additionally, the MBTA is asking the legislature to decriminalize fare evasion (ticketing or arresting someone who skips paying a fare often unfairly impacts people of color and in New York City police were investigated for targeting riders of color) and there is legislation asking the MBTA to implement a means-tested fares program.

While challenged by reduced ridership, decreased fares, and uncertainty over post-pandemic public transit, the MBTA is still focusing on increasing equity and equal access. Kalugin remains hopeful that the post-pandemic transportation landscape will have made great strides in equity. “This has forced us to be creative and try new innovative things,” she said. “It’s a challenging time, but also a time that has allowed us to experiment. At the end of the day, the MBTA has been able to learn and adapt in ways that have improved responsiveness to the demands and needs of its riders.

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