Every day I go through the same gantlet of Seattle traffic, spending about three hours in my car for a 100-mile round trip. Teaching parkour and acrobatics in youth enrichment programs throughout King County gives me great joy and gets young bodies moving, but I have to drive because I haul 500 pounds of equipment with me.
The Seattle Squeeze has traffic moving at a snail’s pace as the city reacts to the rapid growth of the past decade, and
53 percent of all carbon emissions in our city is generated by cars and trucks.
What if more people who could utilize our transit system … did?
The Transit Riders Union (TRU) campaign ORCA for All seeks to attain that future. ORCA for All envisions a step-by-step plan to ensure every Seattleite is given a transit pass as a right of mobility. The aims are to empower us working and poor people via increased mobility, cut greenhouse gas emissions, reduce traffic and congestion and get Seattle moving more sustainably.
The first step is to increase transit access for commuters. Many Seattleites receive a transit benefit subsidized by their employer, yet many do not. There are deep equity issues at play: A Seattle Commuter Project survey conducted in spring 2018 found that 85 percent of workers earning upward of $100,000 a year received some sort of transit subsidy from their employers, while only 50 percent of workers making $50,000 a year or less received the same.
As the Seattle median household income soars to $93,500 in 2019, the wealth inequality gap widens and low-income individuals are left behind. When analyzing median income by race, we see that it is an issue of race inequity. With the median Black household earning under that threshold of $50,000 in Seattle and the median Native American and Latinx households bringing in only slightly more, the Cleveland State University study relating increased transit access to decreases in poverty is all the more prescient.
TRU is working for transit subsidies to help bridge the racial wealth-inequality gap in two major ways.
First, requiring all large employers in Seattle to significantly subsidize transit for their employees will increase transit options for low-income earners who may drive to work because they can’t access inexpensive transit due to Seattle’s seemingly ever-expanding transit rates and fare enforcement.
Second, increasing options for those with nearby transit will also decrease traffic for those who must drive — vitally, people of color displaced by gentrification and living in “transit deserts.”
Transit access varies even within workforces. Workers receive a full transit benefit at Amazon, but not at its sister company, Whole Foods. Workers at the Starbucks Corporate HQ receive a full transit benefit, but not their baristas. Clearly, these corporations see the benefits of increased transit use. One common business argument is that lower congestion and traffic rates mean that employees get to work on time. More customers can patronize their establishments — an argument levied by the Seattle Streetcar Coalition of business, community and labor organizations, which pressured the City Council to complete the Center City Connector. The resulting increase in foot traffic through downtown Seattle estimates a 14 percent increase in sales for downtown businesses.
Will it help me, and each individual commuter, if more people take transit? Absolutely. I would spend less time driving and more time focusing on the youth I work with and growing my fledgling business. It won’t only help me, though.
A transit benefit can make the difference in a family being able to afford rent, avoiding displacement or homelessness.
ORCA for All is key to realizing Seattle’s stated racial equity and commute trip reduction goals, and will be healthy for our environment. Getting more cars off the road will make patronizing businesses throughout the city easier and ensure everyone has the best chance to be on time for work. ORCA for All is a sound policy that protects workers and makes for good business.
The Transit Riders Union, a democratic organization for poor and working people that builds power for change, is represented by its Lead Organizer Matthew Lang.
Read the full Nov. 13 - 19 issue.
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