We need a new story about public transit – and we’re helping to tell it.
Improving public transit is the answer to many problems ailing American society. More and better transit could provide mobility to vast numbers of people who do not have dependable transportation to get to jobs, doctor’s appointments, and schools. It could bring more opportunities to Black and brown communities cut off by past planning decisions. And it would dramatically improve air quality by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from personal vehicles. Excellent transit could provide genuine freedom to people of all ages, incomes, and abilities – freedom from expensive car payments, freedom from traffic, freedom to live where you want, buy groceries where you want, visit the healthcare provider you want—freedom to visit your friends and family, freedom to thrive.
And yet transit champions face an uphill battle when talking about transit. We are fighting against a long-standing association in Americans’ minds between “freedom” and the automobile and the idea that transit is inevitably an inferior product. Transit also suffers from perception issues – that it is only for people with low incomes, that it is a haven for crime – that have worsened in some places over the past few years as agencies face real challenges recovering from COVID. We are also battling ever-increasing cynicism that our government can still deliver the type of big projects and reforms needed for us to have great transit.
The national movement for better transit has achieved some big victories over the last couple of years, like securing an unprecedented level of COVID relief funding for transit from the federal government. But to shift the current transportation paradigm and give people genuine freedom to move, we need a coordinated movement with a strong, consistent message that carries the public from interest to action. And to do that, we need an inspiring message that unites people across race and place, paints an irresistible picture of the world we’re fighting for, and inspires them to take action. We must move beyond talking about the policy steps needed to achieve better transit and start talking about how life will be better for people with the policy changes we support.
TransitCenter and the National Network for Transit Justice and Sustainability partnered with Anat Shenker-Osorio’s firm, ASO Communications, to research what messages inspire Americans to take action for better transit. This groundbreaking work brings important messaging insights to grassroots groups on the front lines of building power to secure social, racial, and environmental justice in America. Despite the real challenges coming out of the pandemic, our findings reveal that Americans still see transit as something that will benefit their communities and is worth fighting for.
But having this unified message is only the first step – we need to build consensus, integrate the messages into our ongoing communications, and use them to educate and agitate.
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