Fund the Bus, Abolish the Police
The following piece is part of Progressive City's series The Future of Planning: Insights From Emerging Planners, in which current or recently graduated Planning students reflect on the state of the planning profession and how our activities as planners can be oriented towards justice as opposed to perpetuating ongoing racial, colonial, economic, environmental, and ability-related injustices. More information on this series can be found here.
In a world of Elon Musk megaproject dystopia and flashy ribbon-cutting transit projects, the humble bus is often left out of the equation. Buses often transport more people during a given day than heavy rail or light rail in a city, and buses also transport more Black and Latinx riders than rail.
Operations funding has often been neglected since before the pandemic and if cities are serious about addressing racial injustices, permanently increasing bus service is a good place to start. Better bus service can be achieved by diverting funding away from sources that harm marginalized communities.
A great step in ensuring that bus operations stay funded is abolishing transit police. Transit agencies across the United States spend a lot of money on hefty policing contracts, while neglecting to provide high-quality transit service. Data shows many Black and brown riders do not necessarily feel safe with excessive police presence. Meanwhile, money that could be going towards increased frequencies or hiring more operators is going towards officer salaries, overtime, and fare enforcement. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) has been a leader in the industry by starting a transit ambassador program where 10 non-armed personnel trained in de-escalation ride the trains between 2pm and midnight 7 days a week in the busiest parts of the BART network. This model could be expanded until there is no need for transit police. Los Angeles County is exploring alternatives to policing and adding social workers on transit as their massive $645 million multiagency police contract expires in 2022. LA Metro contracted with PATH to deploy outreach professionals to assist those who are unhoused and connect them to services and housing.
If transit systems eliminated fares through sales tax revenues or had a permanent federal operations fund, the need for fare checking and farebox maintenance would be nonexistent, greatly reducing the need for law enforcement. Abolishing police from transit systems is a small step in a greater fight to abolish the police, abolish ICE, and ending the carceral state.
It is important to have personnel on the transit system who will protect riders from harm, however that work can be done by individuals employed by the transit agency without a badge and a gun. We have seen many instances of Black and brown teenagers being harassed and manhandled by law enforcement on transit - one horrifying incident involved a police officer using excessive force to pull a teenager off the Metro Red Line in Los Angeles for the crime of putting her feet up on the seat. No one feels safe in a system where those who are sworn to protect are the aggressors. The time has come to ask transit riders what sort of protection they would like to see on their systems instead of defaulting to the affluent suburban response of adding more cops.
American cities have neglected transit funding for decades, however with the pandemic pushing agencies to the brink of collapse, now is the time to put a historic amount of funding into bus operations. Frequent bus service across the city will prevent buses from being overcrowded and allow Black and brown people, people with children, immigrants, and the elderly to travel across the city without fear of missing the last bus home. That funding can come in multiple forms, however if transit agencies are serious about racial justice, they would divert funds from policing their riders to providing a more frequent system, especially for bus riders.
Aziz Fellague Ariouat is a first-year master's student in Urban and Regional Planning at UCLA, studying mobility justice for bus riders. He holds a BA in Geography from California State University, Long Beach.