PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania — From point A to point B, public transit connects people to their communities. Some people, like Teaira Collins, know what it feels like for those rides to be a lifeline.
"Currently I am right above low income but not too long ago I was low income," Collins said. "2015 I had back surgery, 2016 I had double back surgery, so I went from making $40,000 a year to making zero."
Regardless of her own needs, she finds herself out in the community advocating for others. Collins shares a story about a mother whose life just drastically changed.
"She's able to take her kids to the doctors, she's able to take her kids to a basketball game or to the park to play, and now have to worry about how to get there," Collins said.
That's because Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is located, just embarked on a new pilot program that is providing low or no cost public transportation to low income families who are currently SNAP recipients. Those who get accepted into the pilot, will be divided into three different groups; free fares, half-price and full price. After about three months, information from the pilot will be sent to researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Harvard University to analyze data. They will look at where and how people traveled.
"It improves people's lives, improves communities and improves the overall economic growth of the region," said Rich Fitzgerald, the County Executive. "This is one more way we think we can improve people's lives. We also have employers that need workers, so it helps them get workers to their facilities."
There's a connection between transportation and access to necessities. About 45% of Americans have no available public transit.
"It's often times things as basic as not getting quality food or not going to the grocery store as often as they would, not going to hospitals or seeing doctors as often as they would, not being able to get jobs because you don't' have the fare to get there," said Laura Chu Wiens, the executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit. "We are a grassroots community organization. We consider ourselves a transit rider union. We work really closely with the transit workers as well to fight for more affordable, more accessible and expanded public transit."
They have been fighting for this opportunity for years and she says, the pandemic only made the necessity more clear.
"Our fares have been unaffordable right like we have transit fares that are $2.75 per trip and for folks that are paying with cash, that's every time they transfer and so there's penalties that accrue on the people that have the least quality service that have to do multiple transfers and it really adds up in costs," Chu Wiens said. "During the pandemic in particular and some of the communities particularly where people have been pushed out to with gentrification and unaffordable housing costs, have been poorly served by public transit."
Free transportation has been picking up speed in the U.S. Cities like Olympia, Washington, Kansas City, Missouri and Boston, Massachusetts are just a few places with programs. One thing that stands out about this pilot, Chu Wiens says, is the fact that it's led by the department of human services.
"Transit is a human service, it's also like a public utility, it's a public good," Chu Wiens said.
Her goal is to ensure all snap households are given zero fares at the end of this pilot, but many questions need to be answered before that becomes a reality.
"The transit system, the Pittsburgh regional transit system, is funded in large part by the state as are department of human services," Fitzgerald said. "Now the question becomes if it's successful how is it funded?"