Public transit ridership has been declining all around the United States for the last five years or so—even in the biggest cities. Experts say one big problem is that the bus and train systems aren’t accessible. They don’t reach the people who need them, and they don’t take people where they want to go. In Albuquerque, a group called Together For Brothers is pushing for greater transit equity, saying it’s tied to income and economic development.
Every day, 17-year-old Isaiah Ventura, a youth organizer with Together For Brothers, waits for the city bus to get to his charter high school. "Then I usually got to work, too," he said. "I work a lot because I got two jobs. And then I go to the farmer’s market, as well, to pick up fresh fruit. So yeah, I use the bus a lot, like every day pretty much."
It was the middle of the afternoon, and we were standing next to one of the busiest bus stops in town at Central Ave. and San Mateo Blvd. Folks took shelter from the sun under the awning, others spilled out onto the sidewalk. For middle and high school students, the city bus costs 35 cents per ride. It might not sound like much. "Before I had work, it definitely was a barrier for me," Ventura said.
He lives in the International District, where household access to vehicles is lower than in most parts of the state, according to Census data. Not being able to get a ride means walking, he said, and that can be trouble when you’re trying to get or keep a job.
"I work at a professional environment as well, so you always have to look professional, talk professional, dress professional," he said. "And when you show up late, it makes you look really bad and really unprofessional."
Together For Brothers fosters leadership in young men of color in Albuquerque. They found through a survey that lack of transportation is a problem for young job-seekers and workers, and that bus fares feed that problem. The group’s been calling on the city to make buses free for people under 18.
Omar Torres is 26 and the civic engagement coordinator for Together For Brothers. "Even though it seems like a little bit, 35 cents, sometimes it’s difficult for young people to come up with even 35 cents," he said.
So far, the city says it’s too expensive to offer free rides to young people all the time, though they did give out 3,000 free summer passes this year. Free public transportation means getting to school, accessing public resources, plus, Torres said, a sense of independence.
"If we have that liberation, that autonomy, where young people get to go anywhere, then we’ll start infecting more areas of the city, and maybe make the city a little more alive with us participating everywhere that we should be participating," he said.
Torres lives out in Westgate, in the far Southwest corner of Albuquerque. It’s City Councilor Klarissa Peña’s district. We met and sat on a bench in a park near her house. Peña said better public transit—though expensive—would be a big benefit to people in Westgate. "There’s tremendous economic benefits. I mean, this is a working- class community."
But bus service out in Westgate, as it stands, is pretty bad, she said.
"My kids, you know, there was not a lot of opportunities even for after-school jobs in the area," she said. "They wanted to work at the mall. It was just not feasible for us, right, to drive 45 minutes to get to the mall and drop them off for a few-hour job and bring them back."
Right now, most of the buses run along Central, through Downtown and Nob Hill. The thinking, Peña said, is that those are the places young people live and work and shop. But that’s not necessarily where all the young people are. Data shows Westgate is one of the youngest parts of town, population-wise. It’s got more millennials than anywhere else in the city, and it’s mostly Hispanic.
"It’s just different here," Peña said. "Albuquerque, New Mexico, is unique to the rest of this country. And when we’re assessing some of what we need, we need to just look in our own backyard."
Dan Majewski is the co-founder of Urban ABQ, an organization focused on improving the city’s built environment. "Public transit is a critical part of an equitable city. Especially for people who are old and young, people who can’t drive, aren’t legally allowed to drive, it’s a critical lifeline."
I met with Majewski at a Downtown stop where buses come through frequently.
"We really need to do an entire route revamp," he said. "I think what we really need to do is put out the map, look at all the routes that we have right now, and really have a conversation about: Are they serving the places that need to be served? Or should we be moving them around?"
Majewski echoed the economic ideas Together For Brothers is championing. There are plenty of unfilled jobs in Albuquerque that job-seekers can’t get to, he says, and revamping routes could fix that. "There is tons of research that shows that access to public transportation has a huge positive impact on a city’s local economy," he said.
Overhauling the system so it’s accessible and available to the people who could most use it, Majewski said, could be a double win for the city’s workers and the businesses that need them.
Together For Brothers is going to hold a series of town halls this fall on transit equity.