Saving public transport in the U.S.

by Alexandra Pacurar

We’ve all been wondering about the fate of public transit in the U.S. and asking what it will take to bring back riders and increase revenues for local transport systems? The answer is far from the miraculous miracle we would actually need in our lives back to 'normal'. 

The only certainty about the COVID-19 outbreak is that there is nothing certain about what’s ahead. It’s hard to make predictions and it’s even harder to plan a recovery in various fields, including that of public transit systems that have been severely affected by this crisis. Some fear that the crash of transit agencies will actually translate/lead to the downfall of cities. Avoiding this scenario is a lengthy process that depends on several factors. Below, we listed the pillars that we think need to be addressed in order for riders to restart using buses, the metro and trains. 

What will it take to save public transit in the U.S.?

1. Financial support

In spring, public transit received $25 billion in funding through the CARES Act, as a first step in responding to the outbreak. The amount was distributed by the Federal Transit Administration, which assists transit agencies across all states. Also, $1 billion went to Amtrak, the national passenger railroad service. With ridership drastically reduced—the media liked to keep mentioning the 90 percent decline compared to pre-pandemic levels that have been registered in major U.S. cities—more money is needed to keep up with increased costs—resulting from maintaining a regular transit schedule, and implementing new safety measures. Transport reps requested a further $32 billion from Congress with a resolution expected by the November elections.

2. A medical solution to the virus

Having an approved vaccine soon is what many people hope will trigger a stronger and faster recovery for the economy. Experts believe this will happen at some point next year. Currently, there are more than 140 vaccines in the pre-clinical stages and nine in the final testing phase but none approved yet. Implicitly, a vaccine will also lead to resuming certain professional and economic activities that were impacted by lockdowns and quarantines, which in turn will lead to resumed commutes. However, the most significant advantage of an immunization program will be people regaining the confidence needed to get back on buses, trains and crowded subway cars.  

3. Resuming office work

This will probably not happen without a large scale immunization program in place. Still, not many employees will want to let go of work-from-home (WFH). According to Gallup, who has been tracking the trend since March, three in five U.S. workers who have been working from home during the pandemic would like to continue doing so after restrictions are lifted. Employers, on the other hand, do want to have people back behind their desks, even though for many these WFH times meant fewer costs and operations. A Vyopta survey claims that almost half of the largest companies plan to reduce their office space in the next 12 months. However, when even  just a portion of professionals get back to working from their offices, it will be a boost for the transit systems.

4. Resuming travel/tourism

This will definitely be an easier task than getting people back in offices. Travel to and from the U.S. is not banned, but it is now heavily restricted and regulated for the safety of both tourists and locals. This is a good start for determining even more to resume their vacations in the future, as tourist attractions gradually reopen, especially with a vaccine in place. 

5. Continuing the intensive cleaning & hygiene programs

With public transit safety now incorporating hygiene, maintaining high standards in this department is a must for successful operations going forward. Currently, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is offering free masks, while riders in Portland’s buses can use a mask dispenser on board. Many more such measures are expected to be put in place in other cities as well.

6. Transparency

Maintaining constant and honest communication with the public should be a must for transit agencies in general and even more so now, mid-pandemic. This will increase riders’ confidence and the organization’s overall credibility and will weigh heavily when people decide how to move around the city. Social media and mobile apps can come in handy for this. New York and Boston have already launched apps that provide real-time information on how many passengers are in incoming buses and trains, helping those waiting to get on decide if they should wait for less crowded rides. Float can also help here by providing riders with the necessary information for choosing the fastest, cheapest and greenest way to get somewhere.

So, how long will it take for public transit to get back on track (pun intended)?

This is where it gets tricky. Since a functional local transport system depends on so many factors, most of which we listed above, trying to predict when things will go back to the levels we once knew is tricky—to say the least. Uncertainty is the main issue in planning our way out of the pandemic and right now the only viable and reasonable thing to do, for most of us, seems to be to take it one day at a time. But transport organizations need to think ahead and figure out how to increase revenues. For now, the only certainty is that things won’t be going back to normal. Instead, there will be a new normal that will probably mean an overall decreased activity/capacity for local transit systems that will be under the levels we once knew, but above are the ones we are now seeing. 

If at first it seemed that dealing with the new coronavirus was a matter of months, we are now looking at a couple of years minimum for everyday life to settle in a new routine for the medium to long term. This applies to transportation systems as well. We will most likely see layoffs, budget cuts, schedule adjustments, increased hygiene measures and a slightly higher number of passengers than what we are seeing today, in what will be a new era of bus, metro and train travel. So, if by saved you are actually expecting a comeback to what once was, forget about it. This is not going to happen. Saved, in this case, will mean getting transit operations to a level that is sustainable and not necessarily profitable. It is hard to come up with an exact time frame, but it’s clear we are looking at a few (good) years.