Public Transportation Faces Crisis Without Congressional Help

Image: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Before the coronavirus pandemic, most major cities were working diligently to improve public transportation and encourage residents to opt-out of relying on single-occupancy vehicles and rethink what space devoted to cars could otherwise be used for. But as the virus spread, ridership on mass transit around the world plummeted fueling fears that the resulting revenue losses could send transit into a “death spiral.” 

Though the CARES Act provided temporary relief for U.S. transit systems, it’s not enough for the long run. As the New York Times reported, coronavirus cases are rising in over three dozen states, and the first round of congressional aid is quickly drying up. Transit leaders in cities including Seattle, Los Angeles, and Miami warn they need billions of dollars more in aid, otherwise their systems could collapse.

Why This Matters: The Times further noted that as tax revenue plummets, transit agencies across the country are projected to rack up close to $40 billion in budget shortfalls, dwarfing the $2 billion loss inflicted by the 2008 financial crisis. This could mean a long-lasting impact on public transportation which would also have significant impacts on city, state, and national climate goals as transportation is the top source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Transit Post-Pandemic: Riding public transportation will likely look very different on the other side of the pandemic. We’ll have to rethink the way in which people previously packed into trains and buses for a lower-risk option. What this could look like:

As NatGeo wrote,

  • You pay your fare without touching anything.
  • Seats are spaced farther apart on divider-filled vehicles, while drivers sit in ventilated compartments, isolated from passengers.
  • Smartphone apps may help decongest trains and buses.
  • And with more people choosing to bike, walk, or work from home, packed train cars have become part of the pre-pandemic lore.

Importance of Public Transit: Many frontline workers still heavily rely on mass transit during this time. As Politico wrote, lawmakers say they worry that their most vulnerable constituents could face the harshest burden if transit systems are forced to reduce or eliminate service.

“Even with decreased ridership, transit agencies must remain in operation so people can access food, doctors, pharmacies, jobs and childcare,” more than 50 Democratic members of the House wrote back in March as part of their plea to leadership for transit funding in the coronavirus relief bill. “Those most reliant on public transportation include communities of color, low-income communities and people with significant cognitive and physical disabilities that use paratransit services.”

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