Like many individuals and organizations, the protests against racial injustice across the United States have both saddened and galvanized us. They are raising important questions about how race, amongst other factors, affects access to opportunity.
As software providers of public transit, we are very aware of the power that transportation has for determining who can get to a job, a school or a hospital. Spare was built on what we see as a fundamental right to accessibility, but it is difficult to watch the protests and not consider the long road of progress that remains ahead of us.
Nevertheless, many of the systemic issues that might appear hardwired into the fabric of our cities can be reversed. The power of transit must be harnessed to do so. Our thinking has been evolving against the backdrop of COVID-19, and it is now being rapidly shaped by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
BLM extends far beyond what we do of course, but in moving people from A to B, our business impacts thousands of lives every day. So we have made it our responsibility to move everybody as fairly as possible.
We have always supported equitable transit, because it seems evident that marginalized groups require the greatest support. However, all too often, public transit has failed those who need it most. That’s why we are working with transit agencies all over the world to improve riders’ experience, by combining on-demand technology with fleets of smaller vehicles. This approach is commonly known as microtransit.
Minneapolis, which has been central to the protests, is a city close to our heart, because we provide a vital microtransit service in its suburbs. This proximity has prompted us to think deeply about the role we play in communities all around the world.
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Transit ridership is laced with inequality. Areas with the poorest access to transit are often the most impoverished, meaning that those who are most dependent on transit are left high and dry. This is the great paradox of public transit: it should be a great equalizer, but more often than not it entrenches differences between wealth and race.
This was dramatically exposed by the COVID-19 crisis, where the poorest and the least educated had a disproportionately greater risk of becoming infected on transit. Marginalized communities are overrepresented among bus and subway drivers, which has led to alarming death rates and huge economic impacts from job layoffs.
In response to these issues, we designed a clear roadmap to help transit agencies and their dependent communities to cope with and recover from the crisis. With our support, cities in the United States and Spain adapted their services or launched entirely new ones in the midst of the pandemic.
As the COVID-19 crisis progressed, a flurry of commentators jumped to link the pandemic to wider issues such as climate change and the changing nature of work. There was much talk about the ‘new normal’ we would expect once lockdown was lifted.
But the BLM protests show us we were barking up the wrong tree. The changes we imagined during the pandemic pale in comparison to the changes needed to overturn centuries of oppression of marginalized groups. We cannot allow the underlying structures that shape our society for the worse to remain in place. Over the next few weeks, we hope the public debate will shift towards how to dismantle the myriad barriers that currently exist for our fellow human beings all around the world.
At Spare, we are lucky to work in an industry where we can enact change immediately: we can use our skills to develop excellent software that breaks down bias in transportation rather than reinforcing it, and we can put pressure on our partner transit agencies to make decisions through a thick lens of equity.
A raft of strategies, including income-tiered pricing and inclusive measures that tackle transit’s logistical and psychological barriers, will help make public transportation more accessible to those who rely on it most. But above all, we must ensure that all voices are heard when transit is planned, designed and operated.
An important lesson we have taken from the BLM protests is that it is our duty to fight for the causes we believe in. For us at Spare, that cause is making transit fair for everyone. Sometimes, we might get it wrong, but we will keep fighting, harder than ever before.