New Multi-Foundation Matching Fund Recognizes Public Transit’s Importance to Social Justice and Environmental Sustainability

Thursday, September 17, 2020

New Multi-Foundation Matching Fund Recognizes Public Transit’s Importance to Social Justice and Environmental Sustainability
By: David Bragdon, Executive Director, TransitCenter

2020 has shone a spotlight on the weaknesses of many U.S. institutions, and the widening racial, gender and socio-economic disparities in how people are served (or not) by public services. Our fragile public health system and biased criminal justice system are the most glaring systemic examples, but our transportation systems are another, where longstanding weaknesses are increasingly evident. Philanthropy has an important role to play in amplifying community-based voices calling for reform and improvement of public transit, instrumental to more just and sustainable cities. 

Before the pandemic, inequitable access to transportation was already a leading barrier to economic opportunity and societal participation, due to government policies that prioritize automobiles over transit. Actual mobility – the ability to get places, like work or school – correlates directly to socio-economic mobility.  Even in the best of times, public transit in New York City is far below global standard, and very inequitably distributed across the five boroughs, reinforcing racial disparities. (In all other U.S. metropolitan regions, it’s even worse: public transit is less abundant and of even lower quality than here.) In this worst of times, the consequences of under-invested transit have become deadly. Over one-third of habitual transit riders are employed in “essential” jobs, in health care, food supply, critical retail, and other services.[1]During the pandemic, those workers are the vast majority of transit riders. Public transit is a primary means of access to medical facilities for staff and clients, particularly the elderly, people with low income, or otherwise unable to drive. Transit workers, themselves essential because they get the other essential workers to work, are disproportionately people of color, and suffered horrific exposure to COVID without suitable protective gear. Over one hundred MTA workers have lost their lives. 

The pandemic, the need to build a more just society, and equitable economic recovery all depend on better public transit. Environmental sustainability also requires transit, since automobiles are the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. But we won’t obtain better public transportation by simply hoping that government will do the right thing, any more than it will spontaneously reform health care or policing without pressure from constituents. We will only obtain change through civic activism that causes government to change. That theory of change is as true in transportation as in health care, law enforcement, environmental protection or other areas where government policy needs to change. 

Without organized political pressure for change, the economic recession will inertially exacerbate the transportation disparities in our city and country, particularly for low-income people for whom the costs and debt involved in operating an automobile is often now the dominant drain on household budgets. Growing needs for more public transit are likely to coincide with a reduction of transit service as local government revenues decline. If auto traffic increases, GHG emissions would soar and climate change would accelerate. Now is the moment that civic action is urgently needed, funded by philanthropy. 

Recognizing the importance of transit to socio-economic access, racial justice and clean air, a collaborative of foundations[2]recently concluded that the key to improving urban transportation is more effective community-based advocacy.[3]This philanthropic strategy[4]amplifies civic voices for expanded transit. The needs of transit riders, often marginalized in government planning, are at the center of much of this activism. 

In July, a group of foundations contributed to a national fund that will match local foundation contributions to support advocacy for more equitable and environmentally beneficial transportation. The initial participants in the collaborative include the Summit Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Barr Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, the Houston Endowment, the Bullitt Foundation, the SRAM Fund for Bikes, the Energy Foundation, and TransitCenter.  Nearly one hundred other foundations participate in group calls to shape philanthropic engagement in transportation advocacy. For more on the collaborative see: 

The fund itself is administered by the Global Philanthropy Partnership, GPP.    The first round of grants will be awarded in the fall of 2020, with subsequent rounds planned for 2021. GPP is currently soliciting grant applications from qualified civic organizations. Applicants must show how their activities will lead to transit that helps bring cities back more equitably and sustainably than they were before. The collaborative is continually recruiting additional funders who recognize that their goals, whether greater racial justice, cleaner air or more shared prosperity, are served by improved public transportation. 

David Bragdon is Executive Director of TransitCenter, a foundation based in New York City that is a member of Philanthropy New York. He can be reached at, 646 395 9104.


[2] The Collaborative on Mobility and Access under the umbrella of the Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, supported by the participating foundations.

[3] See Peoples History of Recent Urban Transportation Innovation.

[4] See TransitCenter foundation Strategic Plan.




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