A light-rail train pulls up to an empty platform in Denver in February. Public transit ridership has fallen during the COVID-19 pandemic. David Zalubowski/The Associated Press
If President Joe Biden gets his way, the federal government will double public transit funding in the coming years. He sees it as an essential part of his proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package: a way to reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality and meet rider demand.
Public transit supporters say it’s a bold move—and one that’s sorely needed.
“It’s an ambitious goal and potentially transformational,” said Alex Engel, a spokesperson for the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “It’s something we haven’t seen in decades.”
But critics point out that transit ridership has plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic. They say no one knows when—or whether—it will return to normal levels, and pumping tens of billions more dollars into public transit is unwise.
“It’s a very bad idea,” said David Ditch, a transportation policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “It doesn’t make sense to increase funding now. A few years from now, once we know what the post-pandemic world looks like, we can always come back later and see what the trends are.”
Both sides agree that it’s been a rough year for public transit agencies. Millions of Americans transitioned to telework. Sporting and cultural events were canceled. Restaurants shut down.
In the early months of the pandemic, transit ridership dropped 76% nationally as commuters worked remotely, transit agencies enforced social distancing and riders stayed away to protect their health. In some cities, such as Chicago and New York City, rail line ridership was down 87% in the second quarter of 2020.
While transit ridership has crept upward since that steep drop, it still was 62% lower nationally in the fourth quarter of 2020 compared with the same period the previous year, according to the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group. It was still down an estimated 57% the week of April 11.
The federal government provides more than $12 billion a year to public transit systems, but many rely on farebox revenues to stay afloat, which means they desperately need riders.
Chad Chitwood, an American Public Transportation Association spokesperson, said he’s optimistic that ridership ultimately will return to normal.
The industry had been seeing an uptick in ridership just before the pandemic, he said. In January 2020, it had risen 6% over the same month the previous year, and in February 2020 it was up about 8%.
“As people feel comfortable with the vaccine and get back to their routines, going to work, going out to dinner, seeing baseball games and concerts, they’ll take public transit as they used to,” he said. “As cities recover, transit will recover.”
In the meantime, Congress stepped in to help, with its three COVID-19 relief acts together allotting nearly $70 billion to transit agencies to stay afloat.
While that money was important, Chitwood said, it was just a stopgap.
“The appropriations have been a bridge to keep transit systems going when we had very low ridership the past year. They were keeping people employed,” Chitwood said. “Now we’re looking at a plan [from Biden] that will move us into the future and make our cities more accessible to all people.”
But no one can predict whether ridership will return to pre-pandemic levels. Some people may continue to telework full-time or a few days a week. Others may drive instead or turn more to ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft.
A March survey by the Chicago area’s Regional Transportation Authority found that while many “lapsed” riders expect to return to transit after the pandemic abates, the impact of telecommuting may continue. Only about 80% of those riders said they expect to return fully to transit.
The survey also found that a disproportionate number of those who have been using transit are essential workers, Black and Latino residents and people with low incomes.
That’s a trend transit officials have seen nationally throughout the pandemic.
“Over the last year, essential workers have been overwhelmingly the users of transit,” said Engel of the city transportation officials’ group. “They have been going to grocery stores, hospitals, warehouses. In some cities, they’ve been really well served. In others, they’ve been not as prioritized as they could have been.”
As part of Biden’s massive infrastructure proposal, called the American Jobs Plan, he wants Congress to spend $85 billion more over eight years to modernize public transit and help bring bus and rail service to communities across the country. He also wants to put additional money into replacing 50,000 diesel transit vehicles with electric ones.
While the announcement didn’t include any details about how and where the money would be distributed, it did emphasize that much needs fixing. He called current transit infrastructure “inadequate.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates a repair backlog of over $105 billion, including more than 24,000 buses, 5,000 transit rail cars and 200 stations. There also are thousands of miles of track, signals and power systems in need of repair or replacement, according to the president’s announcement. These aged fleets and networks cause service delays and disruptions that leave riders stranded and discourage transit use.
After the pandemic, transit systems will be looking for ways to provide better, quicker service, and dependability is key, Engel said.
“If transit is reliable and takes you where you need to go, you’ll take it. If it’s not reliable you may not take it,” Engel said. “In a lot of cities there has been decreased reliability and a lack of enough investment.”
Public transit officials say they also want to ensure that more people have access. Social equity will be a major focus.
Sixty-five percent of bus riders and 54% of rail riders are people of color, according to the national public transportation association.
In many areas, bus systems can get short shrift over rail when it comes to investment.
Bus riders are generally lower-income and take shorter trips, whereas rail riders have higher incomes and use it for longer trips, according to a February study in the Journal of the Transportation Research Board.
Those substantial economic differences mean “that a focus on rail development can alter the distribution of public resources, potentially diverting funds away from lower-income urban residents and subsidizing suburbanites,” the study found.
Engel said that investments in rail are necessary in the long term, but that in the short term, there need to be more buses, bus lanes and transit signal priority, which uses technology to keep buses on time by extending a green light or shortening the length of a red light.
“You don’t want to focus too much on rail at the detriment of providing bus service now,” he said.
The pandemic also has made transit agencies aware that they can’t just concentrate on 9-to-5 white-collar commuters, most of whom haven’t been riding to the office for a year. Many essential workers taking public transit may have different shifts throughout the day and night.
Public transit typically serves two different markets, said Brian Taylor, an urban planning professor and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA.
One includes more affluent, educated people who have cars but use transit to commute to downtowns and other major job centers because parking is hard to find and expensive, he said. The other is those who because of age, income or disability don’t have a car or access to one. They more often have low incomes and are people of color.
“When the pandemic hit, that first market virtually vanished and the other one did not,” Taylor said. “That social service role for transit has become front and center.”
Even before the pandemic, ridership had been in decline since 2014 in most cities, he said. Part of the reason was the growth of ride hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft. Some people stopped riding because of transit maintenance repairs and construction disruptions. At the same time, auto ownership in many lower income households was rising as well.
“Then March 2020 hit,” Taylor said. “What had been edging down fell off a cliff.”
Post-pandemic recovery is likely to be protracted, and if transit-friendly parking and land use policies aren’t enacted in central cities, pumping extra money into public transit may not pay off, Taylor said. More people will work from home and drive for most trips, including to downtowns, clogging roads and harming the environment, he said.
Cities will need to allow more high-density growth in their urban core and reduce or eliminate requirements for office and residential buildings to provide parking, according to Taylor. That would cut the number of drivers heading into downtowns and encourage more transit use.
“Just spending more money and not doing those other things is not going to be a good investment if we continue to make it as easy as possible to drive,” he said.
Critics of Biden’s infrastructure plan say the federal government shouldn’t be spending more on public transit systems, which serve just a small percentage of the country. Nearly half of Americans don’t have access to public transportation.
“Transit systems benefit local areas and at most, regional areas,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Ditch. “You’re heavily subsidizing the handful of places that have dense transit networks and pushing transit activity on medium- to small-size cities where it’s wildly impractical.”
Maintenance and operations shouldn’t be foisted on federal taxpayers; it should be the responsibility of local transit agencies and communities, he said.
With the nearly $70 billion Congress already has given transit agencies for COVID-19 relief, most should have enough to make up for three years of customer revenue, so their current finances are in good shape, he said. Some agencies remain concerned about shortfalls, however.
Post-pandemic, Ditch envisions there will be less commuting because of telework and flexible work, resulting in fewer people using transit.
“At the very least we don’t need to worry about adding capacity until we know what’s going to happen over the long term,” he said. “Transit agencies shouldn’t be rattling the metaphoric tin cup any time soon. But once we’re two or three years down the line and COVID is essentially a nonfactor, then we can judge whether ridership is down permanently.”
If it is, Ditch said, the sensible thing would be for transit agencies to “right size” their transit operations, scale down some of the costs and adjust hours and frequency of operation.
Rather than worrying about train stations and new rail lines, agencies should be spending a larger portion of their money on bus networks, Ditch said.
“You can expand and contract much more easily, compared to building a big commuter rail project. If the ridership numbers don’t pan out, you’re stuck with it.”
Officials should make bus service more frequent and reliable, but those riders are more blue-collar, so they tend to be less of a political priority, he added.
“Bus service is unsexy. But in terms of what people use, buses are way more practical for every city in the country except New York City,” Ditch said. “That’s where it makes sense to have a super built-out rail system.”
Baruch Feigenbaum, managing director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank based in Los Angeles, agrees that post-pandemic, transit officials need to focus less on rail and more on bus service.
“It really is a turning point for transit,” he said. “If it wants to succeed and offer a product that people are going to want, many of these systems are going to have to rethink the way they’re doing things.”
Feigenbaum not only opposes spending extra federal money on public transit; he argues that it’s already getting too much, considering that only 5% of workers aged 16 and over commute on trains and buses, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Everybody in the country has roads. You can make a national case for that. Most have some sort of aviation system. Even Amtrak goes to most parts of the country,” he said. “Public transit is a local thing. Should federal government be funding it at all? It is very important for New York City but not that important for upstate New York.”
But advocates argue that public transit needs the money it gets—and the extra funds Biden wants to spend. It’s a way to not only provide transportation to commuters and low-income people without vehicles but also to tackle climate change and shape the nation’s environmental footprint, they say.
“We can’t put more cars on the streets. We need to find a way to make our cities more accessible to all people,” Chitwood said. “This investment is not a waste of money. It is a way of building for the future.”
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