A passenger boards the trolley at the Old Town station. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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What if I told you that people who ride and operate our trolleys, trains and buses are heroes? What if I told you that people who don’t own cars, pickups or SUVs are pioneers of tomorrow’s transportation? Does that challenge your way of thinking?

Many believe that personal vehicles are a necessity. And understandably so, given the way our nation has relied on the automobile and severely underinvested in public transportation. We don’t have buses that run when we need them or the closest bus stop may be more than a mile from where you live, shop, learn, recreate, worship or work. But that’s not always been the case. 

People walked or rode bicycles short distances before the personal car became the norm. And they traveled farther distances with publicly accessible mass transit. When everyone uses it, it is easy to make transit very accessible, affordable and convenient. 

Feb. 4 is Transit Equity Day, a date chosen because it is Rosa Parks’ birthday. Parks was, and continues to be, a civil rights icon who chose to use access to a bus seat as a lightning rod for organizing a movement and to shine a spotlight on inequity. This day is important to acknowledge the challenges for people who use public transit in the U.S.

A deficient public transit system, like we have in most parts of San Diego County and most parts of the country, means long travel times, long wait times between buses or trains, no nighttime service and complete gaps in how you can use transit to get to where you need to go. 

It’s critical that we work to improve and expand transit, lift up riders’ mobility, and ensure safety and convenience for people to use transit for their transportation needs. Funding transit is a matter of racial, economic and climate justice.

So, why are transit riders and transit workers heroes and pioneers? 

We are deep in the middle of a very dangerous climate crisis. Most people assume the move to electric cars, SUVs, and pickups will be the obvious solution, and the Governor of California, the President of the United States, and the car manufacturers agree. We will need electric vehicles to slash emissions at the rate the climate crisis requires. But plugging into EVs is not enough. We must use multiple levers of change to quickly slash climate and air pollution while making it easier for people to access their jobs, schools, and healthcare. We need to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on roads, by making sure public transit is reliable and our city streets are safe for people to walk, roll, and bike on. Those who are taking the train, trolley and bus, because they ride in greater numbers, have the lowest emissions impact, and will even more so, as we electrify all transit. 

Planners who are actually tasked with doing the math on carbon emissions for transportation understand that electric trains and trolleys are the most efficient way to move people long distances, and coupled with e-bikes, we arrive at the lowest emissions way of moving people. In fact, it may be the only sustainable way we currently know to continue to have mobility under deep decarbonization.

As I write this, I’m listening to SANDAG’s executive director at a meeting entitled Investing In Sustainable Mobility talking about the challenges of mode-shifting people out of cars and about community members who are “transit dependent,” meaning they have no choice but to take transit. But on Transit Equity Day, I’d like to work to retire the phrase “transit dependent.” I’d like to begin the discussion about “transit enabled” and “climate sustainable transit” because this better describes transit riders and the trains and buses they ride, as critical to our future.

Let us celebrate today’s transit riders and transit workers who are heroes and pioneers in tomorrow’s transit-centric travel. Let us learn from their lived experiences about what is working and what needs to be improved to make public-transit-for-everyone our sustainable tomorrow.

Karl Aldinger

Karl Aldinger is the Conservation Organizer for Sierra Club San Diego. He works with volunteers and coalition partners to advocate for sustainable and...

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