Momentum: Issue #53

August 31, 2020

Tilly Chang on the Intersection of COVID-19, Equity, and Transportation

Before COVID-19, San Francisco had some of the worst congestion in the United States, with commuters averaging 5-10 mph on city streets during peak periods. Almost overnight, traffic became nearly non-existent but now, as the economy begins to recover, traffic and congestion levels are rising and in some cases are worse. Transit, in the ‘before world,’ saw about 720,000 trips per day – now it averages about 160,000 trips per day.

Nearly six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, San Francisco – like metropolitan areas across the country – is managing and adjusting transportation services based on the needs of its residents, particularly essential workers who heavily depend on transit.

 “The pandemic is magnifying disparities that already existed,” said Tilly Chang, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) and ITS America board member, such as the housing and affordability crises playing out in the Bay Area. “Essential workers are really struggling – either with how to get to work or with the ability to stay in the Bay Area due to the lack of affordable housing.”

Chang, for whom equity and advocacy have been core values since she was young, said family members, mentors and leaders helped expose her to the many forces at play within our communities. After studying urban planning, she was ultimately drawn to transportation because that is where all her interests converged – social, economic, and technical – to bring about solutions. 

“Transportation became a way to make a difference – one that would be very meaningful, particularly for those who don’t have a lot of choices,” she said.

SFCTA and its partner agencies in the Bay area have launched critical initiatives during the pandemic. The Transportation Authority Board in May expanded funding for San Francisco Department on the Environment’s Essential Worker Ride Home Program, which covers the cost of up to 10 taxi rides home, per person, per month, and up to $70 per ride for essential workers. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, known as Muni, launched its Essential Trip Card, a discount program to help seniors and people with disabilities make essential trips in taxis.

A big focus before the pandemic hit was the Downtown Congestion Pricing study, which Chang discussed in testimony to Congress last year.

“The other major crisis we’re dealing with is about racial justice, and the reality is we are all dealing more head on with how race intersects our work,” she said. “When we have major policy proposals, we have to ensure we have the right conversations with the right people.”

For just these reasons, SFCTA created a 35-member policy advisory committee, comprised of a cross section of stakeholders with many community nonprofit and social justice organizations. As Chang noted in her testimony to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, congestion disproportionately harms the poor and vulnerable, from slowing down buses, to increasing safety conflicts and crashes, to generating harmful emissions.

Public outreach on the study paused early on during the pandemic, but as congestion started to rise, SFCTA reached out to committee members for guidance on how to proceed. Although some of the groups were very stretched given the current circumstances, the vast majority are still participating and said it was important to move forward given the intersection of gridlock and public health.

Chang said they are now planning for two scenarios – one based on normal times and another on reduced employment, reduced transit supply, less willingness to use transit, and more people working from home – and determining what the fee level or discount policies for low-income travelers would look like in both cases. She added that while no one knows what traffic and commuting will look like in 6-12 months, having this “COVID” scenario can provide a range of potential demand effects – e.g., lower congestion and fewer commuters who would pay the fees or use transit because they are telecommuting. That said, Chang noted SFCTA’s COVID-Congestion tracker, which shows week by week traffic speeds, including some places where traffic congestion is even higher than pre-pandemic levels, an indication of the risk of higher car use as the economy re-opens.

SFCTA’s study will continue to evaluate scenarios and configuration options through the fall and winter, with results expected in Spring 2021. Thereafter, if a solution is agreed upon, legislative authority by the state is required to implement a congestion pricing program. “Nothing will happen overnight,” she said, “but we need to be ready for when we have a vaccine.”

In the meantime, the local transit provider and city DOT, the SFMTA, is creating more dedicated bus and pedestrian lanes to move traffic as swiftly as possible. Dedicated bus lanes and adhering to schedules, she pointed out, are critical during this time when the goal is to avoid crowded bus stops and get people to their destinations with as little delay as possible.

As for what looks promising on the technology front, Chang is excited about the next generation of regional payment programs. As co-chair of the ITS America Smart Infrastructure Task Force, one of the concepts they discussed for the association’s FAST Act reauthorization platform was a ‘mobility wallet.’ Most people use different modes of transportation at different times, and it is important to integrate people’s choices in a more seamless way.

“People aren’t doing just one thing on any given day,” Chang said. “We want the use of multiple modes to be as convenient as possible and ensure subsidies are easy to access – maybe transponders and associated mobility accounts would be pre-loaded or free for certain households.” 

She said the key is implementation. “It’s one thing to come up with policies, but it’s another thing to actually make them happen.”

To do so, SFCTA has been coordinating with MTC and other payment partners to develop Mobility on Demand (MOD) solutions. The state is taking a lead role through the California Integrated Travel Project (Cal-ITP), created by a group of agencies and partners to make public transit easier to use, easier to access, and more cost-effective statewide. “We are on the cusp of truly being able to emulate other places around the world that have this ability, but we really need industry collaboration and leadership,” Chang said.