Public transit ridership and revenues have dropped like a rock during the COVID-19 public health crisis: how can we avoid a transit death spiral?

Written by Howard Learner, May 29, 2020 Found in Crains Chicago Business

Public transit ridership and revenues have dropped like a rock during the COVID-19 public health crisis. In Chicago, CTA bus and train ridership is down by 80%, and Metra commuter rail ridership is down by a staggering 97%. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Metro Transit has 75% less riders. The same is true in many cities across the nation.

Public transit relies heavily on fare box revenues to support operations. The federal government long ago withdrew operating support until the recent CARES Act infused $25 billion to temporarily keep public transit agencies from collapsing. Essential workers need local transit to get to hospitals, water works and other workplaces.

But, looking ahead, absent funding and policy changes, the picture is distressingly clear. As the COVID-19 pandemic causes more people to work from home, and rising unemployment means fewer workers overall, that means less public transit ridership. Many people are understandably reluctant to be on crowded trains and buses, and social distancing precautions mean that less passengers should be permitted for now on each train car and bus.

Less ridership means less public transit revenues, which leads to service cuts. Fewer trains and buses, in turn, attract less riders and thereby further deplete revenues. The threat of a public transit death spiral is clear and its impacts on our lives, our climate and urban communities are truly awful.

  • People need mobility to get to jobs, see friends and family members, care for loved ones, and enjoy life. Not everyone can afford to live near downtown office jobs or hospitals or public facilities. Sidewalks are busy and bike sales are booming, and more biking and walking are good. But not everyone is physically able to do so, and not all jobs or family members and loved ones are in biking and walking range. And here in the Midwest, few people want to bike or walk across town on a cold, snowy winter day. We rely upon and need good public transit to get around town.
  • Public transit is affordable for most people. Car ownership is sometimes not. Buying a car, paying for insurance, paying for gas, paying for parking (if available at all), and paying increasing, regressive license plate, city sticker and other fees is expensive.
  • More cars on the road mean more pollution, more congestion and less progress in addressing climate change. The transportation sector is now the largest source of carbon pollution. Public transit “heavy rail” – subways and metro trains – produce about 76% less greenhouse gas emissions per mile than the average vehicle carrying a single person. Better public transit serving more riders is a necessary carbon solution and equity solution.

The situation is grim. What can and should be done to keep public transit systems from melting down?

  • Federal funding is essential. The CARES emergency infusion of funds to public transit agencies should be the “first shot,” not a “one shot.” This transportation operations and infrastructure support is essential, and our political leaders must step up big and soon.
  • State funding shifts are necessary. Let’s face it – with record unemployment and many states facing huge budget gaps with income tax and gas tax revenues way down, federal funding for trains and buses is essential. States like Illinois, which are moving forward with transportation infrastructure programs, should prioritize “fixing it first” to keep suburban commuter rail and urban transit running, while repairing aging bridges and distressed roads. The shiny new highways and ribbon cuttings will need to wait for better times.
  • Policies matter. Yes, to personal and public safety during the COVID-19 public health crisis. But it’s shortsighted when, on Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control threw into reverse years of policies and encouragement to use public transit by now instead urging employers to “offer employees incentives to use forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others, such as offering reimbursement for parking for commuting to work alone or single-occupancy rides.”  More single-occupancy cars mean more pollution that health studies have shown to increase COVID-19 risks. It’s a very tough balance, but it’s not wise to put policies into place that will be hard to remove when the COVID-19 threats hopefully recede. Let’s not trade one crisis for another.

Avoiding the meltdown of our public transit systems is an essential service to people, public health and our communities. Stopping the public transit death spiral is vital for mobility, transportation affordability, and climate change mitigation. Let’s get going on this.

Some other ELPC news this week:

  • Will Lake Erie catch a break this summer? NOAA now projects that toxic algae blooms will be less severe this coming summer than last year. Let’s hope for the best, and plan for the worst.
  • The Energy Information Administration reported on Thursday that the U.S. used more energy from renewables in 2019 than it did from coal: the total consumption of renewable energy was a record-high 11.5 quadrillion BTUs compared to coal’s 11.3 million quads. Progress in moving to clean up the energy sector as solar energy and wind generation expand. Check out this graph:
Graph showing recent decline in coal consumption as renewables rise

Thank you for your engagement and support for ELPC’s effective advocacy in these challenging times. We really are all in this together when it comes to safe clean drinking water and healthier clean air and communities.


E&E News

‘Death spiral.’ Pandemic threatens future of mass transit

Maxine Joselow, E&E News, May 6, 2020

ALT TAG: A public transit worker sanitizes a New York City subway car in early March. Photo credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority/flickr

A public transit worker sanitizes a New York City subway car in early March. Public transit agencies are expected to face a host of challenges even after the coronavirus pandemic has ebbed, experts said. Metropolitan Transportation Authority/Flickr

When the coronavirus pandemic finally ebbs, John Wetmore plans to commute by bus and train.

The 63-year-old says mass transit won’t be any more hazardous than delving into large crowds at restaurants or movie theaters once the virus is under control in the Washington, D.C., area, where he lives.

But Wetmore, who hosts a public television show called “Perils for Pedestrians,” recognizes that not everyone feels the same way.

“I think there are gonna be some people who will be reluctant to take transit for quite some time,” he said in an interview, noting that others may have lingering concerns about being exposed to the contagion in tight spaces.

For now, the swing of a subway gate and the sigh of bus brakes are memories for many Americans.

Public transit ridership has plummeted in cities across the country as the pandemic forces people to stay at home. Boston’s commuter rail system reported a 90% decline in passengers since the virus began, while New York City’s subway system has seen a 92% drop.

The trend has spurred tough questions: Will ridership ever return to normal levels? Will cash-strapped transit agencies stay afloat? And what will buses or trains look like in a post-pandemic society?

There are no easy answers. But Paul Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, acknowledged that hordes of riders won’t return right away.

“It will take some time to draw riders back,” he said. “One of the big concerns is that people are fearful. They’re fearful of getting on an airplane, riding public transit and going to a restaurant.”

Still, Skoutelas expressed cautious optimism about the fate of transit in cities where the trauma of contagion is bound to linger. He predicted that passengers would eventually return to buses and trains, which he said would play a “critical” role in the economic recovery by connecting people with jobs.

Then there’s the role of transit in a crisis that predates the coronavirus pandemic: climate change.

Public transportation produces less greenhouse gas emissions per mile than private vehicles, according to findings released by the Department of Transportation under President Obama. Leading the pack is heavy rail, such as subways and metros, which produces 76% less emissions per mile than the average vehicle carrying a single person.

“We have another crisis that’s already here: the climate crisis. And public transportation helps us preserve a planet worth living on,” said Alex Hudson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, an advocacy group based in Washington state.

Taking precautions

Not everyone has been able to avoid public transit during the pandemic. Many essential employees, including health care workers and grocery store clerks, cannot afford a car. They have continued to ride buses and trains.

They are some of the most vulnerable members of society when it comes to contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“The very people who remain on the buses are also the people who are most likely to get infected with the disease because they are low-income folks, they are people of color and they are women,” Hudson said. “Those are some of the indicators that we’re seeing around higher rates of infection due to a whole host of things, but primarily race-based health disparities in America.”

To protect both riders and transit employees, agencies around the country have adopted a host of strategies, sometimes in unprecedented ways.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced last week that the New York City subway system will no longer run 24 hours, seven days a week for the first time in its history. Instead, the system will close from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. each day for deep cleaning and disinfecting.

Many bus operators have taken additional steps, such as requiring rear-door boarding, which protects drivers from infected passengers, and cashless fares, which prevent the hand-to-hand exchange of money.

“These steps are critical,” said Brianne Eby, senior policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based think tank. “Because if we see this sort of death spiral where riders don’t trust public transit, then they won’t bring the fare revenue, and agencies will have to find new sources of funding.”

It remains unclear whether these changes will stick in a post-pandemic world.

Yonah Freemark, a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of the blog “The Transport Politic,” said he thinks transit agencies might require people to wear face coverings for some time.

“There should be a requirement that people wear masks. But it should not be punitive,” he said. “There should be freely available masks for people upon entering the systems, in order for people to feel like they can go in and not breathe in the disease.”

Hudson, of the Transportation Choices Coalition, said she thinks transit agencies may relax social distancing guidelines in tandem with local municipalities, even as other efforts to safeguard the public continue.

“I imagine that increased cleaning is gonna become permanent,” she said. “That may even be a new standard or expectation.”

Cash crunch

Then there’s the thorny question of funding.

Many transit agencies faced budget shortfalls before the pandemic. Once the virus began to spread, they lost fare revenue and incurred new costs by having to sanitize their systems.

Congress has helped. Lawmakers earmarked $25 billion for public transit in the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act enacted in March.

But there are signs the sector may need additional relief from federal lawmakers. A recent analysis by TransitCenter, a New York-based foundation, found that CARES Act funding would only cover transit agency shortfalls for an average of 5.4 to 8.3 months in the 10 U.S. regions with the highest transit ridership. They include Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

“Certainly, the CARES Act provides sorely needed financial breathing room for transit agencies across the country. But transit is not out of the woods by any means,” said Steven Higashide, the director of research at TransitCenter and an author of the analysis.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs New York City’s subway and received $3.8 billion from the CARES Act, said the agency is seeking an additional $3.9 billion in the next coronavirus aid package.

Skoutelas said the American Public Transportation Association plans to submit a request to Congress for additional funding later this week. He declined to specify the dollar amount.

Still, history provides some encouraging examples that transit ridership — and revenue — can stage a comeback after a major disaster.

After the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Taiwan, researchers found that transit ridership in Taipei returned to normal levels within four months. And after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, New York’s subway and buses didn’t stay empty for long.

“I think there’s a huge recognition that transportation is going to change after this,” said Eby, the analyst. “But one of the things that gives me hope is that looking at previous events, whether it’s Sept. 11 or SARS, ridership does rebound after some time.”Twitter: @maxinejoselowEmail: