May 8, 2020

Public Transportation is On Life Support: How We Must Revive It

Post by: Noam Maital: Waycare CEO

In the US, Spain, China, and even Italy, public health officials and political leaders are beginning to relax stay-at-home orders. Gradually, people are beginning to emerge from their homes and some are even returning to work. Largely ignored in all this has been the role of public transportation. With ridership down to nearly zero, and with it revenues, public transportation is now on life support.

Transportation Reporter Andrew Hawkins comments on the changing public transportation landscape as a result of the coronavirus, 

“Public transportation ridership is down sharply in some major cities, with many residents opting to work from home or avoid taking transit to minimize their exposure to COVID-19… Meanwhile, the public agencies that run subways and buses are mulling service cuts and fare increases to keep finances afloat, which could dampen ridership even more and threaten their financial stability. It’s a worst-case scenario with no obvious solution in sight.” 

Transit Consultant, Jarrett Walker, adds that while ridership has always been volatile, the outbreak and its shutdowns will surely cause steep drops in ridership that will affect transit systems’ financial stability. He cites China as an example, “It happened in China where the coronavirus outbreak originated. Transit use collapsed in the wake of the government’s restrictions on travel.”

“Transit agencies should be planning for virtually no fare revenue over the coming months,” says Yonah Freemark, transit expert with The Transport Politic. He goes on to say that some cities should even consider reducing the frequency of their service on their most busy routes, as long as the length of time between trains or buses (aka headwinds) doesn’t fall below ten minutes. 

Public transportation was already on the decline in many US cities, even prior to the pandemic. If plans to revive the economy are to work effectively, there must also be detailed plans for rescuing and supporting public transportation – it is as important as restarting the schools. 

Despite declining ridership, many still depend on public transit. The TransitCenter reports that essential workers during the COVID-19 outbreak account for 36% of transit commuters in the US. 

Given the current situation, there are two alternatives:

The first option would use federal funds to help public transportation systems that are struggling with funding in key US cities. The federal government has already extended $25B to support transit agencies across the country, but that is a drop in the bucket compared to the loss of operating income, thus further funds will be needed. 

The second option radically rethinks our fixed public transportation network and moves towards a more fluid solution. Integrating micro-transit solutions, which are flexible rather than fixed, would enable transit agencies to improve the customer experience and even partner with private sector mobility firms.

Either way, public transportation must be kept alive; it is the key for creating equitable communities (as lower-income demographics are often more reliant on public transportation solutions). It will take money, wise management, and creative thinking.  

While we are on the subject, we want to take a moment to recognize the sacrifice, bravery, and commitment that transit workers around the country are making. This job, that was not without certain risks at the best of times, has transformed. For all this, we would like to say thank you. 

The current pandemic has highlighted that some agencies have already started adjusting their transit approach:

For example, the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) has partnered with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District downtown property owners to provide C-Pass, a program providing eligible downtown workers unlimited access to the entire bus system. In addition to C-Pass, the region has implemented the Emergency Ride Home Program, a free service that gives riders (who opt-in to the program) a free ride home in the case of an emergency, illness, or unexpected overtime. Well done, COTA.


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