Take the Public Transit Challenge, just like the Minimum Wage Challenge

As anyone who relies on the local bus or train lines to get around can show by example, public mass transit is a necessity in modern life. Without a decent transportation system, people are forced to choose among all bad choices: the basic ability to get to work, a personal car that blows a hole in their budget every month, or extreme tradeoffs like a daily 21 mile walking commute. These economic impacts also tend to fall on Americans of color the hardest, so it’s no wonder that public transit has its champions in the civil rights movement as well as the anti-poverty field. Just look up Rosa Parks in the history books to see how the movement of people has long been a powerful leverage point for those with state power to include or exclude entire groups.

Those lived experiences are borne out in an increasing body of academic research showing that transportation policy is surprisingly pivotal to lifting people out of poverty. In fact, one startling research study published by Harvard economists found that “commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty,” as The New York Times reported. Even as study co-author Nathaniel Hendren expressed caution and uncertainty about the exact causes, he remarked that the connection between transportation and mobility is “off the charts.” Part of the chorus too are economists and business leaders who’ve long recognized that when a nation’s transportation infrastructure crumbles, so does its economy.

There’s another immensely important reason to champion public mass transit: humanity’s survival amid climate change. As Scientific American succinctly put it, “Cars Will Cook the Planet Absent Shift to Public Transportation.” Cars running on fossil fuels also unfortunately expel a lot of carbon pollution that’s destabilizing our climate—but the good news is that one bus can move the same number of people as many individual cars. The photo below illustrates the concept well:


Now, policy experts can attest to the vital importance of public mass transportation, as can ordinary folks who actually use public mass transportation. Yet convincing elite leaders, including lawmakers, to prioritize and fund the issue is an ongoing dilemma. What can we do to change the mindset of those holding power—if they don’t have direct experience with public mass transit themselves?

Here’s an idea: push them to take the Public Transit Challenge.

As with the popular Minimum Wage Challenge, where participants like Members of Congress and state legislators try to feed themselves on poverty wages (and discover it’s really hard!), we should call on politicians to try getting around for a week using solely the local transit system and their own two feet. The minimum wage challenges have been a useful part of state advocacy efforts to raise the wage floor, as well as generate publicity for the participants’ efforts. Likewise, the Public Transit Challenge would be a useful part of the strategy to boost support for high quality public mass transit and related economic policy approaches like Transit-Oriented Development. That is, in order to instill more understanding and empathy in our elected leaders on the importance of mass transit, the best way might just be to get them to experience it directly themselves.

For more information, see “Public Transportation,” Smart Growth America (accessed 2016); “Transportation Equity,” The Leadership Conference (accessed 2016); and “Transit-Oriented Development,” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Community Investments (2010).