It’s 106 degrees Fahrenheit, the kind of heat that makes the air here in El Paso, Texas, feel like sandpaper. Sitting in the shade at one of Sun Metro Bus’ 3,437 bus spots across El Paso doesn’t make the heat much more bearable, but it at least provides respite from the glaring sun.
While waiting for a bus to take me to the Downtown Transit Center, I have to acknowledge that this oppressive heat is nothing unique. This month, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) asked residents twice to save energy to cushion the power grid due to extreme heat. In July alone, unprecedented heat waves have put 100 million people under heat warnings across the U.S. Even outside the U.S., Europe is reckoning with melting roads, wildfires, and thousands of heat-related deaths.
These extreme temperatures and their effects are not temporary. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, possibly more than 1,300 deaths per year result from heat-related complications in the U.S. These deaths go up when temperatures rise and heat waves become more frequent. Which is precisely what’s happening. The World Meteorological Organization has stated just this month that heat waves will continue and become more frequent into the 2060s regardless of any successful steps in tackling climate change. The increase in average temperatures isn’t temporary either; the WMO also warns that each successive decade has been, and will be, hotter than the last.
The arrival of the bus, with its especially welcome air conditioning, saved me from ruminating on the imminent escalation of climate-related disasters. But buses and public transit are solutions for more than just obsessive contemplation. As extreme temperatures become increasingly prevalent, public transit will become more necessary than ever.
Especially for low-income, Latinx-majority communities like El Paso.
Nationwide, Latinx individuals living in urban areas already use public transportation at rates that are nearly double those of white residents living in urban areas, according to Pew Research Center. Similarly, Latinx and Black individuals have the fewest cars per household out of five racial groups (White, Black, Asian, Latinx, Other), according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Much of the Sun Metro’s specific ridership demographics follow national trends, but not just because over 80% of El Paso’s population is Latinx. The metro’s managing director, Ellen Smyth, recently revealed that one-third of Sun Metro riders come from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, El Paso’s sister city. The metro serves the thousands of people crossing the border every year to go to school or shop or visit family on foot. Students and seniors also make a significant portion of the metro’s ridership.
As extreme temperatures become more prevalent, public transport becomes even more crucial for the demographics that make up a significant portion of the metro’s ridership.
“Those who cannot drive, such as the elderly or those who lack car ownership, could have trouble accessing cooling centers without a robust public transit system,” said Dr. Nicole Ngo, a professor at the University of Oregon who has a Ph.D. from Columbia University in sustainable development. Ngo previously researched the effects of extreme weather on bus ridership at different income levels. Her study, published in the journal Transportation Research Part D, encouraged policies that make transportation more accessible as the effects of climate change worsen.
Ngo said that when her home state of Oregon experienced heat waves last year, “many of the Oregonians who died were the elderly and people with disabilities or preexisting conditions.” The two latter demographics make up much of the metro’s ridership. Additionally, Smyth noted that the metro’s buses serve El Paso cooling centers during heat waves like the ones El Paso is experiencing now.
Apart from helping people access respite during extreme weather, public transportation is a lifeline to jobs, health care, food, and education for marginalized communities.
Marginalized communities that depend on the metro are more likely to live in food deserts and live farther away from work where it is impossible to walk or bike safely in hot weather. As extreme temperatures become more prevalent, “there will be limited commuting options because walking and biking could be dangerous,” Ngo said. Groups already disproportionately dependent on public transit will become more so. “It’s important that cities account for accessibility, especially for their most vulnerable populations.”
My conversations on the bus ride to the Downtown Transit Center proved Ngo right. I spoke to a man, who chose not to give out his name, about his commute. On that particular Thursday, he was on his way to go grocery shopping. His stop was only a little over a mile away.
“Twenty years ago, I would’ve walked that,” he said. “My knees were a lot different 20 years ago.”
Another regular passenger, 17-year-old Alexa Naciff, uses the metro at least twice a day Monday through Friday for summer school. Naciff explained that many of her friends use it in the same way because they don’t have the resources to get private transportation.
“Since I have to go to school, it is extremely important that the public transportation system keeps running at least at the same capacity.”
I asked her whether she would have gone to summer school if public transit had not been an option.
“Walk? In an El Paso summer?” she said.
Unfortunately, Texans might have to face a future without or with limited public transportation. Many people already are. Cities across the U.S. are cutting funding for public transit. It has happened in Los Angeles and New York and is happening in Washington, D.C. The main reason? Pandemic-related lower ridership. During the pandemic, many commuters were quarantined or working remotely. While mass quarantines are over, ridership has not recovered. When ridership declines, public transit systems make less money. In response, they raise fares or cut service, leading to even lower ridership. This is a downward spiral.
On the other hand, increasing funding for public transportation actually increases ridership. In March, Boston eliminated fares for three bus lines in low-income areas that mostly served people of color. Ridership for the first bus line increased 48%.
Every individual I spoke to during my ride to Downtown Transit will feel the effects of worsening the problem. Many of them depend on public transportation for access to jobs, health care, food, and education. When cities cut routes and limit access to public transportation, people will still need access to jobs, health care, food, and education but will be forced to find less safe alternatives to getting to them. By slashing funding for transit during ever- more-frequent extreme weather, we are hitting marginalized communities with two disasters.