Negotiating Transportation Insecurity: Local Responses and Coping Strategies in San Jose, CA

By Andrew Ng, San Jose State University

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to face transportation insecurity in some capacity. Transportation insecurity is the lack of resources necessary for a person to move regularly from place to place in a safe and timely manner. This issue directly affects people’s access to other resources such as food, health, or even job opportunities. However, transportation insecurity is not a new concept that appeared with the pandemic. In many cases, people and communities experience transportation insecurity due to the uneven development of transportation infrastructure and the inequitable implementation of transportation systems. The pandemic exacerbated transportation insecurity due to reductions in public transit services, fears about public safety and public health, and personal shifts to other transportation options. But people find ways to get to where they need to go.

Ethnographers can identify and highlight people’s coping strategies to transportation insecurity within an urban setting to offer important insights into people’s behavior towards transportation systems; discover the ways transportation insecurity may be a product of the current transportation system, even before the pandemic; and suggest improvements to transportation systems during and after the pandemic. Even as the effects of the pandemic wane, transportation insecurity still makes access to necessary resources difficult to obtain, especially when resources are spread out around a large city. Transportation insecurity within locations like San Jose, California is also heightened by the fact that more places are built for car access and are not as accessible by public transportation.

The inspiration for my research came from Human Factors researcher, Dan Nathan-Roberts, who suggested I study “transportation deserts”—areas of a city that lack adequate access to transportation—but I eventually broaden that research to transportation insecurity because I am a non-driving commuter in the San Francisco Bay Area. I wanted to learn more about how people deal with transportation insecurity and how their knowledge can be used to create more inclusive transportation systems. In addition, my research contributes to broader theories of how humans adapt to resource insecurity in the field of anthropology and suggests possible changes to the transportation system based on people’s experiences. This research is possible from funding by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University and in partnership with my master’s thesis advisor, Dr. Melissa Beresford.

In my second interview, I talked to Don, a twenty-nine-year-old male living down the street from SJSU. Over Zoom, I interviewed him on his experience with transportation in San Jose as he spent most of his life using public transit until recently where the pandemic forced him to buy a car. Don shared with me a recent experience that made him appreciate the public transportation service (VTA) before the pandemic when his girlfriend borrowed his car. Well, I didn’t expect to be, you know, left out in the cold for about an hour. So that's something that really, I wasn't really expecting from VTA. There is this, it's kind of just opened up my eyes to how much I took it for granted. Then, he comments on comparing the cost of his car and taking the bus. You know, so, I, like I said, these gas prices given me with the car, it comes with insurance and registration, you know, and, you know, that's annual, so and then with the gas as well, you know, it's, it's kind of kind of painted, but yeah, gotta keep paying these gas prices. So definitely, I'm just paying, you know, paying a stranger $2 to get me to work, you know. We ended our chat with Don talking a bit more about his personal experience on public transit and how physical appearance could affect what happens on the bus or not.

In another interview, I talked to Marilyn over Zoom, a 40-year-old female, where she told me about how she feels about her current transportation. [I asked her a question on if her current transportation situation causes worry] Yes, it does. … I have Muscular Dystrophy and my mobility is very limited, you know. [As she moves her power chair around to show me on Zoom] I used to enjoy used to go to the mall, you know, to go to the friends, to go to the movies, to go outside. I like to use the bus because that gave me the freedom to feel a little bit more normal, you know, to see different people in places, hear them talking and all that, you know. And now that I am inside most of the time, I've been depressed. I feel sick. I feel anxious. Afterward, we continued our chat on some of the concerns she had with public transportation.

Based on all 13 interviews I was able to conduct with people facing forms of transportation insecurity, I found several initial insights about transportation insecurity and mobility. While transportation insecurity may be similar across multiple cases, the effects that people feel are different from each other, before and during COVID-19. Also, transportation insecurity might have stemmed from how the transportation infrastructure was implemented or built. Lastly, coping strategies toward transportation insecurity tended to be a one-time occasion if they were able to use one.

With the help of my professors, I was able to take that initial spark of curiosity and transform it into a research endeavor, tackling transportation insecurity issues. I learned how other people experience transportation and how they deal with it, fueling my drive to pay it forward to help contribute towards building a more inclusive transit system for people that need it. I am thankful to CommUniverCity San José and the Mineta Transportation Institute for the means to make this research possible during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to my master’s thesis committee: Drs. Melissa Beresford, A.J. Faas, and Dan Nathan-Roberts.

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