photo A San Francisco Muni rider considers the available transit options.
A San Francisco Muni rider considers the available transit options. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

After lockdowns ease, public transportation ridership in the U.S. is likely to remain low for years. But some see a way forward for a new understanding of transit’s role.

In 1918, streetcars were the top urban transportation mode in the United States. And they were packed: Americans made about 140 trips per capita, about 15 billion trips total, that year.

Then came the Spanish flu. As influenza ripped through cities, crowded systems were forced to make health-centric changes, including requiring masks on passengers, limiting streetcar capacity, and staggering commute hours to keep riders distanced. Some vehicles were briefly decommissioned due to a shortage of operators. Still, the popularity of mass transit did not suffer dramatically in the succeeding years — at least not until the Great Depression put a quarter of the country out of work and, later, when the private automobile began to displace it.

What about today? Coronavirus has walloped bus and rail networks. The top transit systems in the U.S. have seen 70% to 90% ridership losses as commuters have been laid off, worked from home, or opted for other means of travel since March. With few passengers, daunting finances, sick operators, and a heightened imperative to sanitize, agencies have dramatically scaled back service. San Francisco’s Municipal Transit Agency has ceased rail operations and eliminated nearly 70% of its bus network. In Washington, D.C., buses are serving just 26 “lifeline” routes and Metro trains are running on Saturday schedules. The New York subway has stopped running 24 hours a day for the first time in 115 years.

Transit’s current situation is partly a reflection of the overall travel freeze on driving, flying, and all other modes during stay-at-home orders in major cities. But when lockdowns ease, there are reasons that transit commuters in particular may not return in force.

First, bus and rail ridership tends to be more sensitive to economic changes than other modes, and the financial effects of coronavirus are poised to stretch long into the future, said Brian Taylor, an urban planning professor and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Second, some proportion of would-be passengers are likely to continue to work remotely, while others may change their commute patterns to driving or biking. “We know that people will be scared to use public transportation from a health perspective,” said Ahmed El-Geneidy, a professor of urban planning at McGill University who has studied transit ridership. Based on what’s happening in China, a post-pandemic car sales boom may be in the offing.  

Third, assuming rider demand and revenue remain low, transit agencies may have to keep service cuts even after lockdowns lift, despite the fact that more vehicles, not fewer, are needed to allow for social distancing. Academic literature shows that such cuts themselves can be rider-deterrents. “There’s an elasticity that shows if you cut service by 10%, you can generally expect ridership goes down 3-6%,” said Greg Erhardt, a civil engineering professor at the University of Kentucky who specializes in travel behavior and transportation planning.

A final and pernicious factor is that 2020 was primed to be the sixth consecutive year of what Taylor calls a “disturbing trend”: U.S. transit ridership has been in decline since 2014, even as transit agencies have added service on the whole. Much of that new service has come in light-rail extensions and some bus-rapid transit lines usually designed to attract “discretionary riders,” or people who can afford to choose between driving and transit, and often financed through sales tax measures.

Explanations for ridership’s downward slide during these years abound. Cheap gas and easy credit for auto loans increased the appeal of car use, while service quality deteriorated on the older parts of transit systems. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft emerged, and a housing affordability crisis pushed many people outside the range of reliable transit.  

In Southern California, Taylor and his colleagues have found that the largest drops in ridership have come from groups that were traditionally the heaviest, most economically dependent users of transit. Lower-income immigrants in particular have abandoned buses as car ownership among those communities has increased. While the share of discretionary riders has increased slightly, thanks to increased investment into rail and rapid bus service geared toward more affluent commuters, “their added trips are still overwhelmed by lost trips from others,” Taylor said.

Who will ride in the wake of coronavirus? Passengers will inevitably return in dense cities with extensive systems, such as New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, where transit is critical for thriving urban economies to function, Taylor said. But the best indication of the future face of transit may be the people on board right now. And there are still a lot of them: By the end of March, New York City subway ridership cratered to 10% of its usual five million weekday trips, but that still meant it was providing more than 500,000 trips. The 65% ridership drop on L.A.’s Metro buses, reported in mid-April, still equates to 500,000 daily boardings.

It isn’t clear how many of these trips were made by essential workers, but analyses based on census data show that more than 30% of normal transit riders have jobs that have been deemed pandemic-critical. Individuals riding to work right now are also less likely to have the option to drive, and they are more likely to be people of color, as evidenced in photos of crowded subways and buses that have sparked online outrage in recent weeks. Transit, an urban mobility navigation app, has found that 68% of the people using it to plan bus and metro trips right now are women, most of them black and Latinx.

There is one grim new potential reservoir of future transit riders, Taylor said: lower-income households that have bought vehicles in the last few years. Their car-owning status could be vulnerable to an economic downturn.

These circumstances point to a potential shift in the way transit is used, viewed, and potentially funded, experts said. Traditionally, a successful transit system is one with a lot of riders, with packed buses and cars and a large share of revenue derived from passenger fares. But in a world where social distancing means life or death, and a 40-foot bus has an eight-passenger capacity limit, emphasizing ridership and fare recovery as the metrics of success may no longer make sense. Yet the nurses, orderlies, grocery store workers and pharmacists boarding today are proof that transit itself is a critical social institution. “Transit agencies should be switching their brains to serving those riders,” said El-Geneidy. “We have to accept that public transport is an essential service. We can’t think about it as a for-profit organization that can make money from ridership.”

That could create a stronger demand for federal funding for transit, instead of local agencies continuing rely on fares and tax measures tied to projects like light-rail expansions sold to affluent voters with the promise of congestion relief. For Taylor, that may mean something like a reality check for transit-boosters.

“For many years we have a lot of aspirations for transit: We want it to beat traffic, fight climate change, and revitalize communities,” he said. “But the two things it has demonstrably done in last half century is provide mobility for those without — whether that’s due to age, income, or disability — and allow highly agglomerated places function. My educated guess is that we will see the rise of transit as a social service.”

If that sounds like giving up on transit, look to the cities that are using the crisis as a moment to revamp their systems with social equity as a priority. El-Geneidy and Erhardt both pointed to San Francisco as a leader, where the SFMTA redesigned bus service virtually overnight in early April to focus on just a few dozen routes mostly serving commutes into the city’s downtown core and major hospitals. About 100,000 people are still riding every day.

Jeffrey Tumlin, the executive director of the SFMTA, acknowledged that not all of the 100-plus routes lost to coronavirus are necessarily going to return. But he strikes an optimistic tone: He believes that a transit network that focuses more narrowly on frequent, more reliable service along fewer routes may serve the city better in the end. While the streets are still empty, the SFMTA hopes to rethink its approach to transportation writ large. Facing a sharp rise in vehicle traffic and fatalities, and seeking to slash carbon emissions, the city had already moved to ban private vehicles on its central downtown corridor, and has spent the past year studying congestion pricing.

With little vehicle traffic, “we’re in an extraordinary period of time to rethink how we manage our streets,” Tumlin said in an interview in April. “We have to set the city up not only for a stronger recovery, but also for a more urban, humane economy.”

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