How Transportation Departments Can Help the Unhoused

Jacob Wasserman, researcher at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, spoke to Streetsblog USA about how state departments of transportation (DOTs) can help unhoused people. Researchers from the institute created a meta-analysis of how transportation officials respond to encampments on government property. “DOTs do tend to frame [this issue] as a safety problem, and they’re not wrong; these are often dangerous environments, particularly for unhoused people themselves,” Wasserman said. “But there are benefits, too. [Highway overpasses] are often sheltered environments where people can congregate, find community, have eyes on the street.” The report stressed the importance of baseline training for front-line transportation workers on how to interact with unhoused people in humane ways. Wasserman added, “When it comes to making repeat visits to encampments, building trust with unhoused people, giving [them] proof that your interventions are actually going to put them on a path to stability — that work is probably best done by service providers.”


Wasserman on San Francisco’s New Subway Line

Jacob Wasserman, research project manager at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, spoke to the San Francisco Standard about the new Central Subway, the long-awaited transit project connecting eastern San Francisco to Union Square and Chinatown. Among major U.S. metropolitan areas, San Francisco has been one of the slowest to economically recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, raising questions about the current demand for ridership on the new subway. To date, the project is $375 million over budget. Wasserman said that time and cost estimates tend to be highly inaccurate from planning to opening for public transit projects. “Ridership projections are often much higher than ends up being the case, costs overrun by orders of magnitude.”


‘Transit Has to Bear the Burden of Other Social Policy Failures’

A Washington Post story about businesses departing Union Station in Washington, D.C., over safety concerns cited Jacob Wasserman, a research project manager at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin. The presence of homeless people and those suffering mental health crises has become more pronounced at the station, even as officials report that serious crime is down. Meanwhile, rail traffic has struggled to reach pre-pandemic levels. Union Station’s situation is not unique. Public transportation was one of the few climate-controlled options that stayed opened as the pandemic emerged, a time when public libraries closed and shelters implemented capacity restrictions, Wasserman said. “Transit has to bear the burden of other social policy failures, from housing to public safety,” he said. “And that’s hard for transit hubs because they were not designed for housing people … but it has become their issue, their responsibility by necessity.”


Transit Is an Essential Public Service, Wasserman Says

Jacob Wasserman, research project manager at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, spoke to Yahoo News about the state of public transit. Transit ridership was in decline even before the pandemic, due in part to expanded access to cars and the growth of ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft. During the pandemic, public transit plummeted overall but still served as an essential service for those without car access who didn’t have the luxury of working from home. “The pandemic showed that public transit is an essential public good, even if it’s not always profitable,” Wasserman said. Now, many once-frequent commuters are hesitant to return to public transit due to concerns about violence and crime. Even with decreased ridership, public transit remains essential to millions of Americans who lack access to other modes of transportation or for whom owning a car doesn’t make financial sense, Wasserman said.

Wasserman Imagines Possibilities for Fareless Transit

Jacob Wasserman, research project manager at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, joined KCRW’s “Greater L.A.” to discuss the possibility of a fareless Metro. After nearly two years of free bus rides during the pandemic, LA Metro has resumed fare collection, stating that they cannot afford to continue the policy. According to Wasserman, bus and train fares make up 15-20% of Metro’s annual operating funds. “[That] is not nothing, but is also a sum that they could make up through other sources of revenue,” he said. Ridership trends in Los Angeles had declined for years, but ridership during the pandemic was actually much higher than in other cities. Wasserman explained that essential workers, low-income riders and riders of color rely on the bus system to get around. He believes that there is a path to fareless transit “if Metro thinks outside of the box and looks at ways to make transit more accessible for all.”

Wasserman Cautions Against Overinvesting in Rail

Jacob Wasserman, research project manager at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, spoke to the Los Angeles Business Journal about the explosion of rail construction projects in Los Angeles. Four major rail projects are currently under construction in L.A. County, with several more projects in the pipeline. “For the modern era, this is a huge investment in rail transportation on the scale rarely seen in recent memory,” Wasserman said. However, rail transit ridership has been steadily declining in L.A. County, a trend that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Wasserman cautioned against overly investing in rail. “Remember, the vast majority of people taking transit in L.A. County take the bus, so the rail system has drawn a disproportionate amount of funding and resources,” he said. “Rail should be reserved for those instances where the congestion and density are high enough that there’s a demonstrable time savings over other modes of travel.”