Why — and how — to improve local and regional transportation.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. needed a variety of sustainable, safe options for everyday transportation — and the country desperately needed to make improvements to infrastructure. Now, when Americans consider how they commute to work or run essential errands, avoiding exposure to the virus is a concern; reduced use of transit and broader economic woes have made infrastructure funding even more uncertain. 

In cities, public transit is central to daily life. To be sure, many Americans live in car-centric communities where public transit isn’t top of mind — but even in suburban or rural areas, children ride buses to school and seniors who don’t drive use shared transportation when traveling to appointments. Finding safe, efficient ways to get from place to place is essential to creating a “new normal” that’s both equitable and sustainable.

How do we reduce the risk of everyday transportation and build trust in public transit systems? And how can we use this time as a catalyst for making long-term improvements to daily transit?

This week, we explore the need to reimagine transit, the known factors, and the possibilities for both short-term and long-term improvements. 

Why does transit matter? 

Equity, environment, and quality of life.

  • Safe and reliable public transit is crucial, particularly for low-income communities and essential workers — the same people who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Black Americans, Indigenous people, and people of color are less likely to have access to a car than white Americans. Immigrant households are also less likely to have access to a car than their U.S.-born neighbors. 
  • More cars aren’t the answer, especially in densely populated areas. Increased reliance on personal vehicles would only exacerbate the congestion, pollution, inequality, and lack of access that existed before the crisis. 
  • During this spring’s coronavirus lockdowns, streets in many cities became car-free and “full of possibility.” Now that some cities are slowly reopening, advocates are championing a new vision for the future of urban life — one with many safe options for traveling within and between neighborhoods. Reliable public transit is key to making street space available for pedestrians, cyclists, and scooters — as well as outdoor shops and restaurants. 

What do we know? 

Safety — and perception — of COVID-era transit. 

Infrastructure funding and sustainability.

  • Around the world, transit systems have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Public transportation ridership fell by 60% to 95% as infections peaked in various regions, and forecasts by the World Economic Forum don’t expect a full return to pre-pandemic ridership levels until mid-2022. 
  • Reduced ridership has impacted fare collections; meanwhile, tax revenues that help fund transit systems are endangered by broader economic losses. Systems across the U.S. are facing huge shortfalls: Philadelphia’s SEPTA is forecasting $300 million in lost revenue through mid-2021 and the Los Angeles Metro is preparing for $1.8 billion in pandemic-related revenue losses. Losses in New York — the country’s largest transit system — are predicted to total $8.5 billion in 2020. 
  • Ongoing reductions in ridership would have long-term impacts on public transit budgets and fares — and that likely means a halt to necessary upgrades. For example, the capital programs intended to upgrade both the MTA and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are now in jeopardy.

What don’t we know? 

Unanswered questions. 

What are the opportunities?  

Short-term considerations.

  • New Jersey Transit’s Stewart Mader has identified three priorities for pandemic-era transit: protect, reassure, and adapt. Protect transit workers and the public, reassure riders with transparency and clear messaging, and adapt to new best practices instead of trying to return to a pre-pandemic way of life. 
  • Reduce risk: While the risk of contracting the virus in public settings is never zero, it is possible to significantly mitigate risk by reducing crowding, increasing ventilation, expanding cleaning protocols, and mandating mask wearing among passengers. This will require collaboration between public officials, transit workers, riders, and businesses. 
  • Restore public confidence: The World Economic Forum suggests transit systems embrace visible hygiene measures, mask wearing, and social distancing to reassure passengers.
  • Reduce congestion: Staggered start times could reduce crowding. In New York, the MTA asked major employers to consider offering flexible start times to employees, and in Paris, access to public transit has been restricted during peak hours. Reservation systems could be implemented to commit passengers to certain travel times, trajectories, or itineraries. 
  • Help riders keep their distance: A new MTA app feature shows how many people are on buses, so riders can evaluate crowding before they board. Similar tools have been developed overseas — by Dutch railways, Tokyo railways, and Singapore buses. 

Long-term improvements.

Further reading