Back on Track: Transit Equity

This is part nine of the Streetsblog Denver series covering the RTD Board of Directors. Every Friday, we’ll be looking at the newest updates with RTD and its board members. We’ll explore the issues RTD is facing and the responsibility of the board to address them. Read parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight

Equity in transit has been front and center for RTD this year as COVID-19 and the agency’s financial free fall have revealed the existing inequalities that affect people who depend on transit the most.

The topic of transit equity includes a range of different issues that come together to create unsafe and inaccessible transportation for specific groups of people. These issues can include affordability, safety, security and accessibility to routes. Many of the issues that RTD has been working to resolve in recent years involve equity within Denver’s transit system.

“Transit equity and social justice in transportation are sort of two sides of the same coin,” RTD District O Director Lynn Guissinger told Streetsblog Denver. “Historic inequities are being laid bare now by the disproportionately high rates of infection and death, along with disparities in health care, layoffs and economic difficulties and access to technology for remote schooling.”

COVID-19 has brought to light some of the more serious issues within RTD. While many commuters in the Denver Metro area choose RTD to get to and from work, there are others who don’t have a car and rely on RTD to get to work and for everyday needs, too, like getting groceries, getting to and from doctor’s appointments, and picking up their kids from school or daycare. These people are still taking public transit in the middle of the pandemic because they have no other option.

Gina Jones is a resident of Denver who depends on transit and has been affected by the cuts in service and declining reliability of RTD’s service. Gina participated in a forum last week hosted by the Denver Streets Partnership explaining the difficulties she has faced getting to doctors appointments since the pandemic started. “I used to take the bus right to the hospital until they stopped that service,” Jones stated during the forum. “I’m unable to get Access-a-Ride a lot of times because it’s $4.50 for each trip. So for a person who’s on a budget that gets quite expensive, so I only use it when I have to go further out than five miles.”

Jones’ situation is not a unique one. Currently, RTD has cut service down 40% since the start of the pandemic. According to a study done earlier this year, these cuts affect up to 100,000 residents across the RTD region who are losing access to frequent full day service. Even further, these cuts have a considerable impact on Black residents and people of color. “Black residents currently represent about 5% of our region’s population, but 13% of those who would be affected by these cuts in service,” said Jill Locantore, Executive Director of the Denver Streets Partnership. “Similarly, non-white and Latino residents account for about 36% of the region but 54% of those who would lose access.”

“I think that has really opened up our eyes about who is using transit now,” said Bill Sirois, Senior Manager of Transit Oriented Communities for RTD. “The equity populations are the ones that are relying on transit and refocusing how we are looking at reorienting our service to more appropriately serve those kinds of populations.”

Another concern that plays into transit equity is security. Currently, RTD has two types of transit enforcement: Transit Police and Transit Security. The RTD Transit Police Division is similar to that of an actual police force. They partner with local law enforcement and include uniformed and plain-clothes officers who patrol the system daily to enforce RTD’s Code of Conduct. These officers carry firearms and have arresting power. 

The Transit Security is provided by Allied Security; members of this group are tasked with inspecting fares, discouraging disruptive and inappropriate behavior, and assisting riders in navigating the system. They also carry firearms and are able to make a citizens’ arrest. Allied Universal hires and trains all transit security.

In April of 2018 an Allied security officer beat Denver artist Raverro Stinnet unconscious in a bathroom at Union Station. The attack left Stinnet with permanent brain damage, altering his personality and causing him to struggle with memory, focus and executive functioning according to a lawsuit. Stinnet was waiting to catch a train home and was suspected of no crimes when he was confronted by RTD security guards. 

The assault went unreported by the officers who witnessed the incident and was brought to the attention of RTD through social media and later reported to the police by Stinnet. An investigation was done by police to look further into the situation but RTD still contracts with Allied to supply their transit security officers, which some see as an issue that needs to be addressed at a higher level. 

Jeff Campbell, a local artist, activist and chair of the Justice for Raverro campaign, believes that this problem goes beyond just the attack on Stinnet, and wants to see Allied take more responsibility for the attack. “As we began to dive into the history of Allied Universal security services around the country we began to understand that this was more than just an isolated incident, it was a pathology of a company that had a history of this kind of assault,” Campbell asserted. “The objective is not to be enemies forever with Allied Universal security. The objective is for change. The objective is for people to be treated fairly.”

Director Guissinger states that the board is working to employ some security personnel as RTD employees instead of through a contractor. “The RTD transit police team has been working on a new plan that would bring more of our security positions within RTD as direct employees and would have fewer security people carrying guns,” said Guissiger. 

RTD Board Chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede has established a Safety and Security ad hoc committee to work with the safety staff team and has proposed changes for RTD to move forward with using fewer armed guards. RTD is required to provide two workers on commuter trains to meet the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) requirements, one of them being the operator driving the train the second being a conductor amongst passengers. Traditionally, RTD has used armed security across their system even though there are no requirements for the second worker to be armed. With the new committee, RTD has been exploring alternatives to armed security and testing them on their commuter rail. For example, In September, the N Line that connects Downtown Denver to Thorton opened with what RTD is calling Transit Safety Ambassadors instead of armed security.

These ambassadors are unarmed and their primary duties are to check fares and provide assistance to riders. They do not have the power to issue citations. They have access to radios to call for backup if necessary but are trained specifically in de-escalation. Board member Doug Tisdale states that once additional training is available, the ambassador program will be expanded to other lines. “We’re now moving it out to the other commuter rail lines, the B Line, the W Line, and the University of Colorado A Line. And then we’ll be moving that across the entire system,” Tisdale told Streetsblog.

Campbell states that he believes this is a step in the right direction but has concerns that the new ambassador program might be performative. He is concerned that there are still armed guards with arresting authority on trains going to neighborhoods with higher numbers of Black residents, like Aurora, where demographics are different than in neighborhoods like Thorton, which is majority white. “There’s a hodgepodge of policy and authority that isn’t equitable across the board,” stated Campbell.

According to Cambell, Stinnet was targeted partially because the security guard thought he was homeless, bringing to light the way that people experiencing homeless are treated on public transportation. In an article published in April, the Denver Post wrote: “In interviews with investigators, some of the security guards demeaned the homeless people they met through work.” When people are displaced from their camps and homes, they often rely on public transportation to reach a new place to stay. Lack of money for fares makes them vulnerable to interactions with transit security, like in Stinnet’s case.

“Transit justice does not rely on transit agencies alone. The injustices are symptoms of larger problems and the agencies have to work in tandem to create programmatic solutions that make our community safe and accessible for everyone,” Campbell stated. 

RTD is making some effort to create these “programmatic solutions.” In October, the agency was awarded a $180,000 Helping Obtain Prosperity for Everyone (HOPE) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The grant allows RTD to hire a full-time community outreach coordinator to address issues affecting homeless residents. Before this, they created a homelessness task force to work full time on homelessness issues and services.

While these initiatives are a start to addressing the solution, it doesn’t remove the barrier people experiencing homelessness have to face when riding public transit. Campbell would like to see RTD provide vouchers for people who are unable to pay for their fares, especially people being displaced during the sweeps happening in downtown Denver, as they move from place to place without fear of being attacked. With the growing number of unhoused people in Denver, and a fear of more pandemic-induced evictions, the need to ensure safe access to transit is becoming more acute.

The inequities that exist within RTD and transit across the country are not new issues but are becoming harder to ignore as the pandemic makes life harder for those who rely on transportation. RTD has demonstrated that they are aware these issues exist and need to be addressed. While the possibility of another stimulus package for transportation hangs in the air with the start of the Biden administration, RTD cannot stay inactive on these issues while they wait for more federal relief. 

“One of the solutions that I’m thinking they need to do is consider at least peak hours for a lot of the people who are going to work in this area,” Jones suggested during the forum. While service cannot be returned to normal, RTD could reexamine when and where they provide service to better deliver accessible transit to riders.

They also must seek help from other local agencies and include the public in their decision making. “As we started to have conversations internally, we realized that this is not an RTD solution, or an RTD problem to solve, we need help from a broader array of people and a holistic approach and engaging people that are experts in it is a better way to do it,” Sirois said.

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