Working downtown, Rob McNair-Huff says he sees the transportation challenges that low-income individuals and those in need of critical social services face almost every day.
“We see this kind of thing all the time,” said McNair-Huff, who works as the spokesman for MDC, a nonprofit service provider with offices on Fawcett Avenue.
“At MDC, it is often … a case where a client in outpatient substance use disorder counseling needs to get from their home somewhere in Pierce County — often outside major cities and far from public transportation — to come in to counseling sessions multiple times each week, and the client cannot afford the transportation cost.
“Or a veteran who needs help re-establishing their official identity so that they can begin receiving benefits that they are eligible for, but they need to go across town to fill out paperwork,” he told me. “I have seen how access to transportation becomes a major barrier.”
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McNair-Huff and I weren’t just shooting the breeze. Two days later, he was scheduled to be one of three panelists discussing “equity and opportunity through transit” at Downtown on the Go’s monthly Friday Forum.
This discussion impacts people throughout Pierce County — where the mean travel time to work, according to U.S. Census Bureau Data, is nearly 30 minutes, and 12.3 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The heart of the issue is access to reliable transportation and what that looks like to different populations.
For someone like me, that might mean utilizing public transportation when it works with my schedule. Or when I think it sounds like fun, secure in the knowledge that there’s a reliable car at my disposal when a bus, Link light rail or Sounder train would cross over into the realm of inconvenience.
But for so many others, there’s no reliable car in the driveway, and our county’s public transit system — still limited in service area and hours of operation, and hobbled by cuts dating back to the Great Recession — isn’t just an enjoyable, virtuous dalliance. It’s a daily necessity.
The barriers to getting a decent-paying job are the vehicle or public transportation, passing a drug test, and showing up on time. Folks already know about showing up on time, they already know they’ve got to pass a drug test. It’s the reliable transportation that’s the issue.
Jeff Klein, executive director of Sound Outreach
Reliance on this system can make life a lot harder than it should be. And not just for MDC’s clientele.
According to Jeff Klein, executive director of Sound Outreach, who also took part in the Downtown on the Go Friday Forum panel, transportation is often one of the biggest barriers preventing people throughout the county from obtaining living-wage work.
Whether it’s a reliable, affordable car, or a reliable public transit system that can get people where their jobs demand at the time they demand it, Klein says a lack of equitable access to transportation is often at the center of a cycle of poverty.
“The barriers to getting a decent-paying job are the vehicle or public transportation, passing a drug test, and showing up on time,” Klein said. “Folks already know about showing up on time, they already know they’ve got to pass a drug test. It’s the reliable transportation that’s the issue.”
Klein says one of Sound Outreach’s current priorities is making sure “people living on the Hilltop or the East Side or wherever aren’t priced out of their neighborhoods from economic development.” It’s a trend, he says, “we’re seeing all over.”
That matters to this conversation because the farther people are pushed out of the city, the more difficult it becomes to rely on public transportation.
“Rising rents are inevitable as you rezone for businesses to come along, and it will drive people out — poor people,” Klein explained. “So where do they go? To places where transit’s not accessible.”
The good news is that viewing our transportation needs through the lens of equity is not a new idea. There’s a reason Tacoma’s Link light rail expansion is headed to Martin Luther King Jr. Way on Hilltop. And one of the reasons Pierce Transit’s Route 13, which connects Old Town and Proctor to the Tacoma Dome Station, was ultimately retained during the recent comprehensive route analysis and redesign, according to Downtown on the Go Executive Director Kristina Walker, was because it was a way for less-advantaged populations to access Tacoma’s waterfront.
If things don’t work in one part of town, the system doesn’t work.
Kristina Walker, executive director of Downtown on the Go
But the cause of building equity through transportation still demands vigilance — in Tacoma and beyond.
While Downtown on the Go focuses much of its transit advocacy on downtown, Walker is quick to acknowledge that the county’s transit network is all connected, and that, “If things don’t work in one part of town, the system doesn’t work.”
So, as McNair-Huff put it, “As citizens, we can remember to think outside our own bubbles, to think about the barriers that other people in our community face and keep those in mind.”