Is Public Transit Going to Be Able To Recover From COVID?

Photo: Sam Costanza for NY Daily News

Public transportation nationwide is taking a huge hit from coronavirus — in California, ridership is down by 90% or more, and each week public transportation systems are losing millions due to social distancing and shelter in place orders.  Similarly, according to E&E News, “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” and at the same time, the subways and buses in NYC now will be closed overnight every night for sterilization — which is expensive and challenging.  At the same time, local tax revenues are also falling, further risking public transport’s financial stability.

Why This Matters:  Public transportation is vital and it is also key for the automobile emissions reductions that we need to combat climate change and air pollution generally.  Many are wondering whether even after people return to work, ridership will return to normal, or will people fear the health risks due to the tight spaces and crowds on subways and buses. We will likely have to change the way public transportation works for the foreseeable future — such as requiring face masks and cashless fares to protect riders and transport workers.  But Congress also needs to increase bailouts for these systems.

What Else Is Needed?

Industry analysts worry about a “death spiral” for public transportation — “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.”  Many cities and transportation departments were already financially strapped before the virus, and now they have lost revenue due to the lack of any ridership as well as cleaning tens of thousands of subway cars and buses and other costs of prevention.  Some argue that these systems should be distributing masks to anyone getting on without one.  Congress has only spent $25 billion on public transit out of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act enacted in March.  And thousands of jobs are tied to public transportation so there will be an economic cost if these systems shrink or go away, not just a problem for riders to find other means of transportation.  New York is seeking an additional $3.9 billion in the next coronavirus aid package which would more than double the amount of funding they have already received, according to E&E News.

We Can’t Afford NOT to Have Public Transport

E&E News explains that “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.”  It is also hard to imagine that we can return to normal economic and social activities without public transit — it is crucial not only for commuting to work when people are allowed back to offices, but also to school, shopping, getting to doctors, and attending events.  Before the pandemic, in California alone, public transit agencies provided more than 1 billion trips per year. 

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