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Only 0.7 percent of federal transportation funds are spent on improving pedestrian facilities.

A local champion for transportation justice

Active Trans is thrilled to be recognizing US Representative Jesús García for our 35th Anniversary celebration.

Known to most people as “Chuy,” Rep. García is receiving Active Trans’ Public Leadership Award for his tireless efforts fighting for better public transportation, walking, and biking.

Having served as a Chicago alderman, a Cook County Board member, and a state senator, he now represents Illinois’ fourth district for the US House of Representatives, where he founded the Future of Transportation Caucus.

In the past year, Rep. García successfully led the call to include adequate support for public transportation as part of the federal pandemic relief funding. In recent months, he introduced a measure with other members of Congress that would boost transit funding so that it’s equal to what the federal government spends on highways.

Having also worked as a community advocate in Chicago, Rep. García is passionate about making transportation more equitable for people in Black and Brown communities. He is the rare leader who is fighting for a well-functioning public transit system because he knows how closely it’s connected to accessing economic opportunity and a better quality of life.

We recently caught up with Rep. García to ask him some questions about his work.

 

How do you use active transportation in your everyday life?

When I’m in DC, I’m constantly walking and even running to get to places around the Capitol. One of these days, I might feel adventurous and ride a bike to work like Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg! When at home in my district, I try to walk instead of using my car whenever I can, especially when it’s nice out. I’m also blessed that the area around where I live is pedestrian friendly.


You’ve been a great champion for improving public transportation, as well as walking and biking, in Black and Brown communities where there is a great need for affordable, efficient transportation options. Why are transportation justice issues so important to you and what do you think are key ways we can get people to work together to create better transportation options in the region?

These issues are important to me because transportation policy is just as much a social justice issue as education, criminal justice reform, and healthcare. Physical barriers like highways and train tracks have carved up Black and Latino communities and transit systems have been prevented or removed to limit the mobility of working people for decades. Transportation policy is deeply intertwined with the racial and socioeconomic stratification of our cities.

I think a lot of people want to fix our broken transit systems, but for too long we have been forced to work inside the existing funding formulas. We need to break out of those funding formulas and embrace new and creative ways to put more money into public transit.

In the same way community groups and advocacy organizations have been formed to tackle voting rights, gun violence, immigration reform, and health care policy – the same must be done for transportation equity.

Collectively, we must first build public awareness about the very concrete social justice implications of our transportation policies, and then foster an ecosystem and environment of activists, community-based organizations, and advocacy organizations to fight for more equitable transportation policies that promote sustainability, walkability, and affordable mobility options to get to and from work, health care, school, and other essential or recreational services.

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Recently, Rep. García participated in a couple of Active Trans events, including an online transit justice forum to call attention to the federal budget shortfall for transit agencies.

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You recently introduced a resolution with other members of Congress that would boost transit funding so that it’s equal to what the federal government spends on highways. How would this resolution change public transportation in the nation?

Currently, most federal transportation funding gets split based on a 1982 formula where 80 percent of the funding goes to highways and 20 percent will go to public transit. This formula is one of the biggest problems we face when it comes to making our public transit systems truly work for people. I like to break it down to a “chicken or the egg” example:

  • Folks argue we have a lot of roads, so we need to plan our policy and funding proportionately;
  • The result: we fund more highways and roads, and less transit, and the cycle is perpetuated, urban sprawl continues unabated, and transit continues to look less and less viable.

But if we flip the narrative:

  • If we invest significantly more in transit, all of a sudden, developers in the private market and decision makers in government looking to leverage federal dollars will go where the money incentives are — transit-oriented development and more transit lines.
  • With time, you get denser development, more transit, and significantly greener, more affordable, walkable cities.

By being open to change and accepting that we need to alter our current formulas, we can truly create positive change for people and make drastic improvements to our public transit systems.

This resolution sets a marker down to start to demystify the idea of changing these longstanding formulas currently viewed as taboo to discuss. We need to end the stigma that talking about the 80/20 formula is the third rail of transportation policy debates, and begin an open conversation about how to reform it.


In the past year, you led the call to include adequate support for public transportation as part of the federal pandemic relief funding. Your efforts — as well as those of other lawmakers, advocates, and advocacy organizations — clearly paid off. If that funding didn’t come through, what might have been the result?   

I think if we all didn’t come together and get the funding that our public transit systems needed, we would have been facing some seriously troubling issues. We would be seeing a wave of service reductions and cuts as well as lay-offs.

Hard working people would have not only lost jobs in the public transit systems, but people who rely on public transit, many of whom are essential workers, immigrants, and communities of color, would have been left stranded without access to jobs, school, healthcare, or other essential services.


What role does an advocacy organization like the Active Transportation Alliance play in helping advance key transportation issues?

Advocates are key to the success in advancing these issues in Congress. Stories matter, and hearing from advocates, people who rely on public transit, is crucial for building support. We see its success in a lot of different areas, but we need more in public transit.

We need the Active Transportation Alliance and other advocates meeting with elected officials and staff, talking about these issues, making sure that transit issues are at the front of everyone’s mind. This is how we will get victories and see change. We need you all to tell us your stories! Most of all — organizations like Active Transportation can help build public awareness about the intersections of social, economic, and racial justice with transportation policy.


You’ve been involved in efforts to establish federal funding to help local communities that want to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries. Why are these Vision Zero efforts important for people who walk and bike and why do they need federal funding?

Every year we see thousands of bikers and pedestrians tragically lose their lives to 100 percent preventable traffic incidents. To save lives and make our streets safer, we must look at a holistic solution. Vision Zero will take more than just bike infrastructure, crosswalks, and better intersection design, and planning.

In order truly achieve zero roadway deaths, we must make transformational changes. We need to rethink the systems that incentivize long-distance commutes and car ownership, we need to rethink how we zone and plan entire communities around access and mobility.

We need to end the 80/20 funding split and invest in our public transit systems the funding they need in order to get people out of cars and provide pedestrians and bikers the protection they need.

 

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