What impact has the pandemic had on public transport?

Attendance figures are still lagging behind 2019

How has your commute changed since the start of the COVD-19 pandemic? Maybe your employer took health advice and encouraged you to work from home for a while; you could still do it now. Perhaps you are an essential worker and have continued to take the bus, subway or train? only now you do it with a mask and physical distance from others. Maybe you’ve given up on public transport altogether and are now commuting to work by private car. Or you’ve taken a more active approach and now get around by bike or on foot.

All of these factors have led to a sea change in mobility, with urban public transport bearing the biggest impact. During these first months of the pandemic, the use of public transport fell sharply. The numbers vary by city, but here are some headlines. In London, tube journeys have plummeted of 95% and bus utilization of 85% in April. In New York, subway ridership has plummeted over 80%. In Dublin, using buses reduced by 90% and the use of rail by 97%and in Bangalore, almost a third of city dwellers completely stopped commuting. Kampala Capital Authority close all public transport networks for almost three months.

Rather depressingly, in many regions the big winner in mobility during the pandemic has been the private car. In Germany there was a relative increase in car use during the period of confinement, and here in New Zealand, the car remains the only mode of transport have returned to “pre-pandemic” levels. It may be because the car can be perceived as a ‘protective cocoonbut it is far from ideal in this time of climate crisis.

Moreover, COVID-19 has exposed – and further amplified – existing inequalities in transport infrastructure. Low-income and historically marginalized groups tend to be particularly dependent on public transport; representing 63% of transit riders in the United States, according to an influential study. And many of them are essential workers – with more than a third of people in frontline industries on low incomes. Women, people of color and immigrants are also overrepresented in all of these groups. Putting it all together, it’s clear that public transit plays a vital role in connecting these communities to their places of work. As a spokesperson for Boston’s Transportation Authority said Grist at the end of last year, “COVID-19 has reduced our ridership to the kind of people who are totally dependent on public transit. They don’t have work-from-home options, and that’s really had a huge impact on our understanding of how people rely on the transit system.

On the other hand, those who live in more affluent neighborhoods are often the same populations who have the possibility of working from home and/or who have access to a private car. As a result, transit ridership in these areas has seen much larger declines than in neighborhoods where low-income and essential workers live. A New York Times article from March 2021 showed that turnstile entries at the Times Square 42nd Street station fell more than 80% from the previous year. By contrast, Bronx subway stations had retained 40% of their ridership throughout the pandemic, and that proportion continues to rise.

In many areas, there was also a marked difference between ridership for bus and subway/light rail services, with bus numbers rebounding the fastest. Jaqi Cohen, the campaign manager for the Straphangers campaign, which advocates for transit riders, told the NYT that this reflected the fact that, “The majority of bus riders during the pandemic were essential workers.” New search from Texas Southern University came to similar conclusions. He focused on the top twenty metropolitan areas of the United States and found that in “…areas with higher median household incomes,” public transit ridership has declined during the pandemic. In “areas with a higher percentage of the population living in poverty”, the drop in ridership figures was much smaller.

If you’re a transit provider, it’s easy to measure the impact of a drop in ridership – revenues drop, drastically in many cases. In April 2020, London Transport Commissioner Mike Brown said the organization’s revenue had dropped 90%, leading to them laying off 7,000 staff for a month. With less money coming in, suppliers had to make tough choices, cancellation of services and delay planned infrastructure upgrades. And as we now know, any cut in public transit disproportionately affect those living in already underserved communities.

So what could this mean for the long-term health of urban transit? In truth, it is impossible to generalize. As Janno Lieber, acting chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York, says Fortune Magazine in November, “Anyone who tells you they know exactly where this is heading is either a fool or they’re lying.” Some commentators suggest that in their region, ridership figures will not recover for another 5-8 years, while in Japan, reservations for bullet and express train services are almost back to pre-pandemic levels. Some fear that any long-term decline in public transit use could be used as an argument to reduce future funding to these services, but so far climate arguments seem to be winning. Low-carbon mass transit systems remain a stated priority for most urban regions.

One thing most reviewers seem to agree on is that the “return of the car” is a temporary event. Talk to euro news, Barcelona’s chief architect, Xavi Matilla, has suggested that the pandemic has instead accelerated the progress of “green” projects that reshape urban form. He said, “The pandemic worked like a magnifying glass that made us see that health should be one of the central aspects of city management and planning.” In the same article, Ross Douglas of Autonomy Paris predicts that more cities will start moving away from cars altogether, thanks to big investments in active public transport.

While investments in cycle paths and trails – and worldwide growth in bicycle sales – predating the pandemic, the empty streets made possible by lockdowns seem to have propelled their adoption into the limelight. Part of the reason is simple – they make financial sense, because Armin Wagnerof the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative, explained, “A pop-up cycle lane costs an unrivaled 9,500 euros/km, according to figures from Berlin.” In comparison, Canberra light rail system costs around AU$59 million per km. Paris installed hundreds of kilometers of temporary cycle paths in the first half of 2020, and made 50 km permanent. The city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, also definitively closed the emblematic rue de Rivoli to cars – it is now reserved for bicycles and pedestrians. Most U.S. cities also aim improve their active public transport offerswhile others focus on widening and lowering of existing sidewalks or build new ones, to improve access for pedestrians and people with reduced mobility.

The pandemic has given city planners an opportunity to try new things. To be brave and ambitious in their visions for the city, and to build something far more sustainable and equitable than previously seemed possible. I’m optimistic about what this reset could mean for the future of urban form. I just hope I’m not wrong.

Melvin Z. Madore