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.
- A May 2020 survey of people across nine countries found more than half are uncomfortable using subways and buses — about the same as attending large gatherings such as concerts, sports events, or conferences. Of those who use mass transit regularly, 41% said they would use it less.
- During the height of the pandemic in New York, more than 90% of the subway’s daily riders stopped using the system. Riders who remained were mostly commuting to essential roles in healthcare and the food supply chain.
- However, research has not linked public transit to outbreaks; places with crowded public transit networks like Hong Kong have not seen a significant rise in infections, and many of the biggest outbreaks in the U.S. trace back to other gatherings, such as funerals and rehearsals.
- Hard-hit cities such as Milan have reopened their transit systems and have not seen subsequent infection spikes. Analysis of COVID-19 cases in France and Japan suggests there have been no clusters related to public transit since restrictions have eased.
- Even as ridership starts to increase, occupancy limits and social distancing requirements are restricting capacity. For example, the London Underground will only be able to carry about 15% of its normal number of passengers.
- The CDC has issued guidance for using transportation, including public transit and rideshares. The guidelines include wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and hand hygiene, and avoiding contact with shared surfaces.
- Many systems are taking measures to enable social distancing, such as adding floor decals that tell people where to stand. But social distancing on public transportation is still very difficult.
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?
- Public officials, transit workers, and riders have all expressed concerns about public transport’s role in spreading the virus. In New York, more than 4,000 MTA employees have gotten sick so far, and 131 have died. But an antibody testing survey found lower-than-average infection rates among NYC transit workers.
- Despite emerging data, the risk of contracting COVID-19 on public transit is still not entirely clear. Some experts wonder whether a lack of cases related to public transit may simply be because those cases are harder to trace than those originating in places already subject to some form of epidemiological monitoring, such as healthcare facilities or workplaces.
- What role do ventilation and air circulation play in transmission? Ventilation systems in mass transit vehicles, such as buses and trains, often recycle air and spread it throughout the vehicle. The impact of air conditioning and heating (both inside vehicles and inside stations) on transmission is still not known.
- What role do individual behaviors play in reducing risk? In places that have reopened, such as Paris and Tokyo, passengers have been wearing masks and have been maintaining as much distance as possible.
- What is the risk of shared surfaces? The CDC found that the virus is not typically spread on surfaces such as subway poles and seats, but its current safety guidance recommends people avoid touching surfaces.
- As workplaces and schools reopen, how will riders feel about returning to public transportation? What will restore confidence in public transit systems?
- An NYU researcher is currently conducting a survey to assess the pandemic’s impact on transportation, including concerns and perceptions of commuters. And the University of South Florida’s Journal of Public Transportation has issued an open call for research papers on COVID-19’s transportation impact.
What are the opportunities?
- 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.
- The pandemic may create opportunities to make transit more equitable and sustainable; transit is a critical part of any regional recovery plan. And plans for improving transit should take the broader region and multiple modes of transportation into account.
- Equity and accessibility should be priority considerations for both street design and public transit planning. Not everyone is able to walk or bike, and many people who live in cities don’t (and probably shouldn’t) have their own cars.
- Make neighborhoods walkable: Pedestrian-friendly streets offer many benefits, and the pandemic has prompted cities to experiment with open streets. From Athens and London to New York and San Francisco, restricting vehicle traffic on certain streets has freed up space for residents to run essential errands and exercise outdoors while still maintaining a safe distance from their neighbors.
- Promote cycling: Street designs that accommodate biking make all forms of transportation safer and pay economic dividends. In Paris, the city’s ambitious plans to create a “15-minute city” — including rapid expansion of bike lanes — has helped Parisians adapt to the pandemic. In New York, the Regional Plan Association has released a regional plan for a five-borough bikeway to similarly expand cycling infrastructure. Bicycles are sold out everywhere, but many major cities have bike-sharing schemes — and Google Maps can now show directions that help users plan trips with rental bikes from programs like Citibike in New York City or Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C.
- Rethink revenue models: Public transit benefits everyone — including drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians — by reducing congestion and pollution, as well as enhancing neighborhood vibrancy. As fare-based revenue models become increasingly untenable, we will need to explore more innovative funding models — such as congestion pricing and parking fees — that make transit systems safer and more sustainable.
- Stewart Mader: Pandemic best practices for changing transit’s future.
- World Economic Forum: Here’s how to make public transport safer during COVID-19.
- TIME: COVID-19 has been ‘apocalyptic’ for public transit. Will Congress offer more help?
- Tri-state Transportation Campaign: Guide to Safe(r) Transit in the Era of COVID-19.
- New York TImes: I’ve seen a future without cars, and it’s amazing.
- Quartz: The commuting revolution.