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Meet The Brains Behind South Florida's #PublicTransitDay

Katie Lepri
Rebecca Fishman Lipsey (left) and Marta Viciedo, who initiated South Florida's Public Transit Day project, stand outside the Omni Metromover station.

Do you take public transportation regularly? If not, what would make you want to use it? 

On Friday Dec. 9, South Florida residents are invited to take public transit to work and back. It's part of a public strategy organized by folks from Radical Partners and Urban Impact Lab. They gathered ideas from the community to improve public transportation in our region. And the consensus from those ideas was to challenge people who don't use public transit to actually try it.

Marta Viciedo, co-founder and strategy director for Urban Impact Lab, and Rebecca Fishman Lipsey of Radical Partners recently discussed why South Florida residents should care about Public Transit Day and where they would like to see this conversation go. 

Rebecca: We want to see all of our elected leaders and engage locals riding public transit, especially those who haven't been on it before.

Marta: And what we really want to feel - it's not so much about see; it's about feel- is that the community is really galvanizing behind transit and giving their support to our elected leaders, to our transportation department to make the changes that are necessary.

WLRN: Who's this really for? Is it for the commuters or is it for public leaders?

Rebecca: In the long term, strengthening public transit is for the vitality of the entire city. And we believe in order to make the kind of changes necessary our elected leaders are going to need to make this a top priority.  And they're going to need to feel the community's wind on their back. We are trying to facilitate that wind. 

Marta: I would agree this is not for any particular group of people. It's for the city. And that's our focus.

There is a National Transportation Day. There actually is a ‘Dump the Pump Day.' So there have been efforts like this nationally and in other communities. What makes yours different?

Rebecca: This isn't just about not riding your car and finding other solutions. This is about strengthening our public transit system and specifically rallying out our public leaders and engaged locals to say, 'Look, this is going to be a priority for us.' 

Marta: And National Dump the Pump Day as well as National Transit Day and many other similar initiatives like that are actually government-led or agency-led. This is community-led. It's born out of the community; it's facilitated by community people. And that's, I think, what makes a difference.

This came from a campaign you had back in the spring called '100 Great Ideas on Transit.' How does that work exactly? How did you eventually  come up with Public Transit Day from that?

Rebecca: We co-hosted a campaign for five days inviting anyone who's living in Miami and who has an idea to strengthen public transit to share it. We had 1,700 people come on and contribute. And the one idea that was really resonating with people was, 'Hey, all of you with ideas, how many of you have been on transit, and our elected leaders who are making decisions about transit, how many of them ride it? Let's facilitate a space where we can make that happen.' We loved the idea so much we said we were going to make it come alive.

What have you heard from public leaders about how many of them actually have used public transit? 

Marta:  It’s a mix. So there are elected leaders that have taken transit and they state that they have taken it on a regular basis. Some of them take it less, maybe because it's not available to them. I think almost all of our elected officials, particularly our county leaders, take transit at least to Government Center when they have commission meetings.

We have seen a crazy outpouring of support from municipal commissioners and mayors, much more than we expected. They have taken the pledge and so many of them say, 'I take transit all the time.' And then Broward County and Palm Beach County reached out to us and said, 'Hey guys, this is really a regional effort,' which we agree with. And they asked us to expand the conversation to Palm Beach and Broward County, which we did.

Credit WLRN
Florida Roundup: Complaints plague Miami-Dade bus system.

Have you spoken to any public officials about their answer to why we have public transit challenges and what exactly they're trying to do to fix those?

Marta: One of the other things that I do is run a nonprofit called Transit Alliance Miami. I have talked to a lot of elected officials over the last couple of years about this, and the No. 1 issue almost always boils down to the lack of funds.

It's a complex problem. It requires a lot of money. And the lack of funds isn't just the elected leaders' complaint, it's also a community complaint. People don't necessarily want to pay more taxes. But I feel more and more certain the more I see things moving that there is a concerted effort to begin addressing that.

About a week ago, Rebecca and I wrote an op-ed published in The Miami Herald, and we talked about a recent meeting with a few elected officials and how they're talking about how to make the TriRail coastal link that will eventually run up the north corridor much more financially sustainable. So I see them making concerted efforts and taking steps to make that happen. And the relationship between urban planning, between land and us, and how we're going to build around our transit lines and make them sustainable is the conversation everybody's in right now.

Public transit projects take a long time. They take years, sometimes decades, and can cost tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars. So how do you convince taxpayers this is a good investment especially if they are in their car?

Rebecca: So first of all, a lot of people do currently use public transit and when you will ride it on Friday you will see stations packed in the morning. But the question is how far north-south does it go? How far east-west does it go? And how long does it take some individuals to get from where they live to where they're trying to go and what solutions can we create for them?  And it is going to be very costly.

It's going to be, at first, disruptive and take time and cost money, and so we need the community to be ready. If people want change for the sake of the resilience of the community, for the economy , the environment and for the lifestyle benefits of having a strong transit system, people are going to need to be ready for that, committed for that, and trust leaders to be able to deliver on that. And so we're trying to create a space where, once again, the community says, 'Look, we understand the benefits, we're willing to support the long haul for this' and where our leaders are willing to stand for a long time and not asking for it.

Credit Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Tri-Rail heading north arrives at the Tri-Rail/Metrorail transfer station in Hialeah.

Why do you think asking people to ride public transit for one day is going to convince them that this is a good investment for the community?

Rebecca: I think there's going to be a range of experiences on the day. But already in the weeks leading up to it, people are going through an educational process.  For the first time learning what would it take for me to get from where I am to where I need to go. And it's creating empathy and a sense of urgency that people just didn't have before.

It creates  an opportunity people actually learn what it would take to do it [use public transportation] and for them to think that there's actually many, many people in my community for whom this is their only option. 

Marta: I don't think that we want to put out there that public transit will exist in a bubble of one day and that's it. I think that this is the development of getting people engaged in an issue and discussing an issue.

There's clearly people that have been engaged over many years on the public transportation issue. People that have reached out lately have been using the phrase 'I really want to get more transit literate.' This is people that have never used the system before they're like 'OK I'm going. I'm going to really do that this time. This gives me an excuse almost to really figure out what my transit route is.' But Public Transit Day is about creating a movement that lasts beyond the day. It's creating advocacy, it's creating much more space for conversation. And then there's different partners that will come to the table to carry that forward. 

How do you host an event like this without trivializing life for those who depend on public transportation every day?

Rebecca: We cannot be scared of having difficult conversations. And for many people our transit system is their only option for transportation, and our entire city needs to understand what it's like to ride it, what the strengths are, what the challenges are. We need to think through things like first-mile, last-line solutions and what Uber and Lyft do for our community. I think we need to expect and demand that our leaders and our locals engage respectfully, but we cannot shy away from experiences like this because we're worried that some people won't handle the responsibility of a conversation like this. 

Marta: One of  the things that we have tried to do on publictransitday.com website , where people go and take the pledge,  is to  give space for folks to comment. Interestingl,y what we've seen is a lot of comments of ‘I use transit every day and here is my story.’ Our intention beyond Dec. 9  is to create a findings report, kind of a final report of what we've done and highlight those experiences. But to be honest, this was born out of like 100 great ideas, that transit campaign, that drew upon thousands of people that do use transit regularly and they gave us feedback. So transit day is essentially born out of people that supported and liked the idea of getting more and more people involved in the system.

What other ideas about transit came from that 100 Great Ideas of Transit?

Rebecca: Yeah, we had some good ideas and some of them actually are already being implemented. People were really excited about there being Wi-Fi on transit. I think that actually already exists in many spaces. There was a lot of asking for more north-south, more Eest-west, frequency, reliability, safety for some people. 

Marta: There were, going back to the land use planning, there were some very technical requests of being organized in developing around transit corridors better. There was a lot of like smart city infrastructure so that we had better signal privatization to allow buses to move more efficiently. There was a lot of talk of water taxis.

Rebecca Fishman Lipsey, founder of Radical Partners, that led to the creation of Public Transit Day

How will you know this was successful?

Rebecca: Well there's one thing that has happened already that has made me feel like, regardless of what happens on Friday,  this event was a success:  The city of Miami sent an email out to all of their employees saying that Friday is Public Transit Day [and] we urge you all to take public transit. And on our end one of our reflections was how important it is for the people who run this city to experience and ride transit and reflect on our system. And so the fact that this happened it warmed my heart and made me feel like this event was an incredible success.

I've also seen a lot of people learning for the first time. Reading and reflecting on their experience of just being educated about their own system has made me feel like this was successful. But at the end of the day I feel like this is this is just going to be a first step. It's a baby step for us and hopefully a good direction. 

Marta: Seeing Public Transit Day become a regular thing is already a success. The county [Miami-Dade] proclaimed Dec. 9 as Public Transit Day. Having worked a little bit in this space over the last couple of years, I have never before seen community and elected officials and transit agencies sort of meet in the middle, and begin to have a dialogue. Everybody feels like they’re a little bit unwilling, maybe feeling a little bit vulnerable, but everybody is coming out and saying,  "OK, let's see what can happen here.' And that's the beauty of it. You know, like let's explore, let's at least ask a question. That's where doors open. 

Rebecca: Just one more thought for you. It's a success to be able to say, 'I as a local take responsibility for my city.' We have ideas as locals that we want to implement and to have those ideas taken seriously by elected leaders and government officials and community members, and for it turn into an official thing that is sanctioned and attended by more than 40 elected leaders across three counties, for me, I just feel proud of Miami and proud to be a local here and a part of a community of people who are engaged in taking group responsibility for the future of our city.

You can share your story, and follow others, using the hashtag #PublicTransitDay.