PPG Comments on Equitable Transit at Electrify Buffalo Event

Date: September 24, 2022

Sarah Wooton, PPG's Director of Community Research, was asked to speak at the 2023 Electrify Buffalo event about inequitable transportation in our region and potential solutions. Here are the comments she shared. 

Good Afternoon, everyone, and thank you so much for having me. My name is Sarah Wooton, and I’m the Director of Community Research at the Partnership for the Public Good, or PPG. PPG is a community-based think tank with over 300 partner groups. Each year, our partners vote on their top ten policy priorities. Then, we help them with local research and trying to make those policy changes a reality.
Almost every year, we have a transportation-related policy on the agenda. Transportation touches so many of our partners and their work because it’s woven into nearly every aspect of people’s lives. You need reliable transportation to get to your job, to see family and friends, to get to your children’s school, medical appointments, the grocery store, and so much more.
I imagine that most people at this event drove here. I drove here. As drivers, we got in our cars, and it probably took us around 10 min if they live somewhere in the city. Maybe it took them 20 or 30 minutes if they live somewhere in the suburbs. Drivers probably didn’t even consider their transportation to get here. Because for households with cars, and for households with enough money to maintain and pay for the gas in those cars, transportation in Buffalo is simple. You get in your car and go. But this is NOT the case for so many people in our region. Fifty thousand households in our region don’t have cars. For many people and families in Buffalo, transportation means relying on public transportation.  
Unfortunately, in our region, taking public transit means spending much more time getting from place to place than people who drive cars. If you’re taking the bus to work, it means that you’re spending more than double the amount of time it takes someone who’s driving to work. Double the amount of time. That’s time you could be spending with your family, working, helping children with homework, running errands, or anything else. This is called the transportation time penalty—the time you lose simply because you’re relying on public transit.
And this time penalty does not impact everyone the same. Black, Latinx and other workers of color are disproportionately impacted by this time penalty. For example, take two people who rely on public transit to get to work in Buffalo-Niagara. One is Black and one is white. The time penalty for the Black worker is 59 more hours every year. Again, they’re both bus riders in this case. As you can imagine, the time penalty just increases when we bring driving into the picture. So, if we compare a Black worker who rides the bus with a White worker who drives, the Black worker loses 174 hours each year just in their commute. So, not even going to medical appointments or going anywhere else, just riding the bus to and from work, they’re losing 174 hours. That’s more than four full work weeks. This is clearly not an equitable system.  
And this is all if you’re able to take the bus to work. A few years back, we did a study where we looked at how transit access and jobs intersect in Buffalo. We found that there are 5 major job centers in the region—there’s one downtown, one in Amherst, Cheektowaga, and a couple others. Four of those five job centers are located outside of the city of Buffalo. Which, isn’t a problem if  you have a way to get there. But in our case, this means that for people who live within the city and rely on public transit, many of those jobs become inaccessible! In some cases, it simply takes too long to get to the job center, so you can’t feasibly work there. In other cases, you would have enough time to get out to those job centers on the bus, but the buses run so infrequently that the bus schedule wouldn’t match up with the shift schedule for that job. And so you can’t take the job. Obviously, this is also an issue of economic development and where we incentivize job creation, but that’s another story. We’re talking about transportation today.
This is all to say that the solution to an equitable future is not simply electrifying all personal vehicles. Yes, we should electrify vehicles to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Yes, we need to create electric charging stations to make this a viable option. But, like we’ve been talking about, so many people rely on the public transportation system.
So, we need to electrify, yes. But we also need to invest in public transportation.
If we look beyond the U.S., many nations prioritize public transit. They see it as vital infrastructure that everyone can take advantage of. And then they invest in it accordingly. If we want to live in a region where everyone has access to quality jobs, fresh food, and good housing options, and so much more, then we need to invest in public transportation.