Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion

Biden’s infrastructure plan will boost public transit. But we must do more

March 30, 2021, 11:00 PM UTC
Commentary-SF-Milan-Mass Transit invest
Investing in public infrastructure and transportation is crucial for a just COVID-19 recovery, write London N. Breed and Giuseppe Sala.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Public transit systems around the world, and the workers who keep them running every day, have kept our communities moving safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They are also crucial to social justice and equality, enabling affordable access to the economic, social, and cultural opportunities our cities provide, especially for those who cannot afford to own a vehicle. On top of that, these transit networks underpin our ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions, improve air quality, and tackle climate change.

Yet as transit ridership has fallen over the past year, so has revenue. The pandemic has exacerbated already huge funding gaps for these services. 

To recover from COVID-19, we need to invest in public infrastructure and transportation services now. Our future is counting on it.

As part of the Future Is Public Transport initiative, co-organized by C40 Cities—a coalition of nearly 100 mayors of the world’s leading cities and the International Transport Workers’ Federation—we are joining with other mayors, union leaders, and city residents around the world to demand transformative investment in public transit. This call for global investment is part of C40 Cities’ global mobilization of mayors for a green and just recovery from COVID-19.

We are grateful for the leadership shown by President Biden in his American Rescue Plan. It’s a good start to help our cities and our workers through this crisis; however, making sure our cities keep moving for generations to come will require continued investment.

New research shows that investment in global public transit systems will not only safeguard existing jobs, but will also create tens of millions of decent, sustainable jobs globally, reduce pollution by up to 45% in some cities, and cut emissions from urban transit in half by 2030.

These investments will protect the frontline workers who have risked their lives every day for the past year to protect us, especially workers in lower-income and service sector jobs who rely on public transit for their livelihoods, including hospital staff, retail workers, restaurant employees, and service workers.

San Francisco has one of the most comprehensive and greenest transit systems in the U.S. Our transit-first focus during the pandemic has allowed our public transit system to serve as a critical lifeline for our essential workforce and most impacted neighborhoods. 

While daily ridership plummeted from 750,000 to under 200,000 people, it never went to zero. Many people, particularly our lowest-wage workers and communities, continue to rely on public transit to reach their place of work or to perform essential activities like grocery shopping, going to medical appointments, or getting their COVID-19 vaccine.

In Milan, we know how crucial a resilient and well-resourced mass transit system is to urban life. Public transport is key to not only our economic recovery, but also essential in supporting the social fabric of the city. Cheap, reliable, and environmentally friendly public transport systems help cut emissions from traffic, support diverse communities, and enable workers to reach their jobs delivering essential services—all while allowing visitors to explore our historic city.

Achieving a green and just economy requires bold thinking about our future destination, instead of reversing to the previous stop. We need to see investments like new trains and safer, more accessible stations. Our cities deserve integrated ticketing and real-time information systems and investments in electric ferries and electric bus fleets. 

We must envision, build, and invest in a future where any person can easily, safely, and affordably take a bus or a train to get to work, school, the doctor’s office, or the market. These policies will empower city residents around the world to not only survive, but to thrive.

Bold investments in public transit must be the priority for every city, for the millions of people who depend on these services. At a time of significant unemployment and the growing threat posed by climate change, public transit is the future.

London N. Breed is mayor of San Francisco.

Giuseppe Sala is mayor of Milan.