VaxTransit: Get Shots in Arms, Beat the Virus, and Build Ridership

Published in USA TODAY Network New Jersey/ – April 16, 2021

More than 500 transit agencies in 46 states provide free transit to vaccines to help their communities build immunity to COVID-19 as they rebuild ridership. Transit agencies in the NYC region, where transit use is six times higher than any other region of the country according to the Pew Research Center, should join their peers in this nationwide VaxTransit movement to ensure vaccine equity.

Why is VaxTransit necessary?

Black and Latino people in New York and New Jersey aren’t getting enough vaccines. Black people, 12% of New Jersey’s population, received just 6% of vaccines, despite suffering 16% of COVID-19 deaths. Latino people, 21% of New Jersey’s population, received just 9% of vaccines, yet they have suffered 20% of COVID-19 deaths. The numbers in New York are only slightly better: 13% of Latino people have received vaccines. They represent 19% of the state’s population, and suffered 21% of COVID-19 deaths. Black people in New York have received 10% of vaccines. They are 16% of NY’s population, and have suffered 20% of deaths. That’s according to data published April 7th by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which tracks racial disparity in vaccination.

60% of transit riders come from communities of color, according to APTA, the American Public Transportation Association, and Black Americans, 24% of riders, are the single largest community of color using transit. In March, Record reporter Colleen Wilson highlighted the hurdles transit riders face in getting to vaccination sites. According to Wilson’s reporting, “Those in lower socioeconomic classes were among the most reliant on NJ Transit for work and non-work related travel during the height of the pandemic. More than 85% of NJ Transit bus customers, who were surveyed by the agency about their travel from June 22 to July 3 last year, own one or no personal vehicle, and about the same percentage of these riders earn less than $75,000 per year.”

On April 5th, Monsy Alvarado reported in the Bergen Record that the racial gap in vaccination is “a problem New Jersey still hasn’t solved.”

Free VaxTransit is critical to closing this gap.

How does VaxTransit work?

Jacksonville Transportation Authority, Houston Metro, Sound Transit, and hundreds of other agencies simply require customers to show proof of appointment on the day they ride free to get their shot. Greater Cleveland RTA provides day passes. A customer can display their pass to a driver when boarding a bus, carry the pass as proof-of-payment on light rail, and use it to pass through fare gates for rapid transit trains.

RideOn in Montgomery County, Maryland runs free shuttle bus service from the Shady Grove Washington DC Metro station to a nearby mass vaccination center. Just across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, LANTA uses paratransit vehicles to provide free VaxTransit for seniors in Lehigh and Northampton counties. More examples are available at:

How can transit agencies afford free VaxTransit? 

Federal COVID-19 relief funding can be used to provide free rides. Nuria Fernandez, Acting Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, says “FTA funding programs can be used to set up and operate vaccination sites at transit facilities and support transportation services to and from COVID-19 vaccination sites.” The FTA has designated $8.4B in American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief funding for transit to the NYC metro area.

Tell a compelling story about how you’re putting the COVID money to work,” says APTA President Paul Skoutelas. Fifteen transit agencies in January to 450 today. Each ensuring equity in its own community. All coming together to collectively protect those most vulnerable. A national movement to overcome a crisis. That’s a compelling story. 

Much of the work to improve transit takes time, investment, and relentless advocacy. But every so often, an opportunity arises to immediately improve people’s lives. Offer free VaxTransit for the next few months to get shots in arms, beat the virus, and build ridership.

Stewart Mader works with agencies and policy makers to build better transit, from advocacy to operations, apps to maps, and wayfinding to payment. He previously served as the first Chief Customer Experience Officer for NJ Transit‘s 270 million annual passenger trips, and guided customer experience for the Port Authority of NY & NJ‘s 80 million annual transit riders as Chair of PATH Riders Council. His insights appear in Mass Transit, Mobility Lab, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other leading publications.

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