Public transport: how to get people back on board

Two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control issued a recommendation that commuters avoid public transportation altogether. Instead, people could drive to work and employers could reward them with parking benefits.

It was a “let them eat cake” faux pas. Not everyone can afford a car, taxi or carpool. And cluttering the streets of our cities with cars causes pollution and increases the likelihood of traffic accidents. And, as with many early advice formed without a full understanding of the virus, the recommendation may have been wrong. Study after study has since found that there is very little risk in using public transport – where, at least in major cities, masks are largely mandatory – and that there have been no significant widespread infections from of a metro, bus or train.

Nonetheless, the initial message – that public transit poses a health risk – wound its tendrils around the public mindset and has done damage ever since. In early March 2020, buses, trains and subways in the United States were 98% full. But demand dipped below 20% that month and hovered around a third of capacity for the following year; since then it has slowly increased to about 60% capacityaccording to the American Public Transportation Association.

As a result, transit agencies, which depend on fare revenue to cover the bulk of operating costs, have suffered financial disaster. Many have yet to recover, preventing them from paying for basic functions, such as maintaining or expanding service levels and repairing infrastructure. Despite their best efforts, many agencies were at times unable to provide adequate coverage during the darkest days of the pandemic.

As part of the broader effort to bring people back to city centers still struggling to recover from the pandemic, it has become increasingly important to support mayors and local leaders in the face of the various obstacles the revitalization of public transport ridership, including public safety issues.

There are some glimmers of hope. Federal aid has eased the urgency of the financial crisis for many transit systems. Additionally, APTA data shows that weekend ridership is approaching pre-pandemic patterns, perhaps providing evidence that “recreational” cyclists are coming back. And the continued strength of traffic in low-income neighborhoods helped stabilize the bottom line.

Melvin Z. Madore