The Future of Transit Should Be Determined by the People, Not Big Tech

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on public transit systems across the country. Ridership has plummeted, budget challenges have worsened, and tragically, thousands of front-line transit workers have fallen ill or died while performing a heroic and essential service. Amid the crisis, large technology and mobility companies are using COVID-19 as an anchor to push an agenda that isn’t about solving our mobility challenges but about cashing in on their big bet on autonomous vehicle technology and eventually, grabbing a piece of the public transit market.

There has been a concerted effort from the autonomous vehicle industry to capitalize on this moment. PR campaigns, public sector partnerships, and aggressive Washington lobbying are underway to make AVs the solution to many mobility challenges, including COVID-19 recovery. While the rest of us are addressing the crisis, members of the AV industry are making every effort to sidestep safety concerns and create and exploit regulatory loopholes. In doing so, they are effectively asking us to abandon the core mission of public transit and ignore the needs of the riders who depend on our transit systems and the working people who operate and maintain them. We’re not buying what they’re selling.

Some of the world’s largest companies – Google’s Waymo, Tesla, Ford, General Motors, Uber and Lyft, to name a few – are placing a huge bet on this automated future. The companies claim they are “reimagining” mobility and “reinventing” public transit and argue that a COVID-19 recovery needs less human involvement. But this vision completely contradicts the goal of our public transit systems: serving the people and their needs.

This is an age-old playbook – corporations are trying to find new ways to monetize strategies that at their core rely on displacing workers, lowering wages and cutting benefits. Many of these same companies showed very little interest in public transit until they got the idea that they could make a profit by taking workers out of the equation. Meanwhile, the working people who actually use, operate and maintain public transit have always been the biggest advocates for our transportation systems. The recovery of these systems should be led by those who have the best interests of the riding public at heart.

As president of the Transport Workers Union of America and a subway track worker by trade, I have seen firsthand how private interests focused on profit can hurt transit service, riders and workers. We have a different vision for the future – one that is built on the idea that everyone should have access to and benefit from safe public transit. The TWU is leading the fight to ensure that new technologies and services are used primarily to serve the public, grow ridership and support good transit jobs. We believe that transit shouldn’t be just about the bottom line.

Public transit has never been about generating profit. It is an essential service that is meant to connect people with jobs, education, health care, friends and family. Our economy needs public transit in order to reduce income inequality and provide all people with a safe, affordable, accessible and reliable way to get where they need to go. Public transit needs to be safe and ready to serve working people as the economy reopens – not in some theoretical distant future when AV technology is capable of meeting increased demand.

Workers are especially good at getting things done for the benefit of public-transit riders. We have seen that time and again during the pandemic as transit workers across the country continue to go to work, serving as the circulatory system for other essential workers as our country fights back against an unprecedented crisis. That was true before the pandemic and it will remain true in the future.

Big Tech and its investors are not aiming to achieve these goals. Lawmakers must keep this at the front of their minds as they craft the next generation of policies that will shape our 21st-century economy. They must take action to raise the level of safety in our transportation systems, ensure that collective bargaining rights are never undermined,and keep workers ready for every new piece of technology they will be required to operate and maintain. As we transition into new technologies, legislators and regulators have a responsibility to the workers, riders and communities – not Big Tech.

As we recover from this crisis, the story about how we restore transit services in this country must not be about how Big Tech gifted us all with autonomous vehicles. Nor should it be about how app-based companies like Uber and Lyft seized market share from buses and subways. As much as these companies pitch that vision, the fact is that they cannot deliver the benefits that our current system provides to the riding public. Any positive outcome for Americans will be provided by our front-line workers, who actually deliver these services and who risk their lives daily doing so. We are already building the next generation of public transit and we are asking our leaders to join us as we create a safe, pro-worker, pro-rider transportation system.

John Samuelsen is the president of the Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, which represents more than 151,000 members across the airline, railroad, transit, universities, utilities and services sectors.

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