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Public Transit Faces COVID Challenges but Can Boost Community Resilience - MobilityLab

COVID-19 has brought swift, unrelenting harm. As applied to transportation, the pandemic’s pressure has forced us to rethink how we talk about and allocate space for moving people.

This pressure has forced long-needed actions, including:

  • Congress appropriated $25 billion to keep transit systems operating, understanding that people need sustained service to access the essential jobs and life needs that keep society functioning.

  • Municipalities have reconsidered how much public space they give to automobiles and experienced the benefits street space can provide the public when it’s not filled with cars.

  • Employers have realized that telework programs can boost their organizations’ performance while their employees have reclaimed time and flexibility in their workdays.

  • Transit connectivity is vital to these goals of essential access, efficient use of space, and workplace flexibility. Yet COVID-19 has made challenges that have long hindered transit – like constrained budgets and negative stereotypes – even more imposing than before.

Thus, in this final article of our series on the role of transportation demand management (TDM) during and after the pandemic, we break down how transit agencies can overcome these challenges and bolster society’s resiliency in these three areas, shaping a future of more effective and equitable mobility.

Transit and essential access: the importance of service

Public transit’s biggest role during COVID-19 has been its basic mission: getting people where they need to go. While the pandemic’s impacts have significantly reduced total ridership, data shows how sustained transit service continues to connect people to essential jobs and services, keeping society functioning:

  • 2.8 million people who commute on transit are employed in essential U.S. industries like health care, groceries, postal services, and public safety, according to an analysis of American Community Survey census data by TransitCenter.

  • A Circulate San Diego report comparing this census data to ongoing ridership trends found that the proportion of that region’s pre-COVID transit riders still on board closely matched the 35 percent of area transit commuters who work in essential jobs.

  • A national Transit app survey similarly found that 92 percent of people continuing to ride buses and trains during COVID are using them to commute to essential jobs. The survey also found that the majority of these riders are Black or Latino, indicating how important transit is to racial equity.

The U.S.’s national transportation program has historically restricted transit agencies from using much of the federal funding they receive to cover operating costs, like labor and fuel, that support this essential access. These federal restrictions led to challenges during the late-2000s recession, which gutted local tax revenue and forced the majority of U.S. transit providers to raise fares or cut service.

During COVID-19, however, Congress has taken more substantial action. In response to the data-driven findings described above, legislators appropriated $25 billion for transit operation as part of the CARES Act stimulus package, helping keep service running.

The CARES Act’s enactment into law shows that federal funding for operation of transit service is an achievable goal. However, the stimulus was only a temporary supplement to the regular national transit program. Transit agency officials have stated that, without longer-term federal operating funds, they will be forced to cut service substantially in coming months.

While national transit policy is key to shaping long-term access and mobility, agencies and their local partners can also take other, TDM-based steps to bolster their operational resiliency, such as:

  • Road management: Demand-based pricing of road use can turn external costs of congestion currently borne by society into a revenue source for transit. Also, prioritizing transit vehicles on roadways allows them to traverse their lines more quickly, not only making transit a more attractive option for riders but also reducing the costs of operating service.

  • Land use reform: Possible changes to land use and urban design catalyzed by workplace flexibility, described in more detail below, could give transit agencies a chance to capture the economic value of their systems and re-invest it into bolstered service. Furthermore, these changes could allow agencies to redesign their networks and more efficiently meet public demand.

Transit and space: getting more out of our streets

Because COVID-19 is relatively unlikely to spread in open-air, physically-distanced environments, communities have taken steps to maximize the utility of their outdoor public space during the pandemic. As we described previously, streets have been re-purposed to accommodate high demand for biking and walking. Also, businesses have expanded into streets and parking lots, giving themselves a chance to survive the crisis and their customers safe, social places to spend time.

The research-backed benefits of active transportation and people-oriented spaces were clear before the pandemic, justifying sustained efforts to bolster these options. These benefits include:

  • High user satisfaction: In the Washington, DC area, people who commute by bike or foot consistently report greater satisfaction with their mobility than users of any other mode, according to triennial State of the Commute surveys conducted over the past decade.

  • A stronger economy: Businesses in Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and New York, among others, have seen increased sales revenue following improvements to bike infrastructure.

  • A healthy lifestyle: Biking and walking reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and behavioral health disorders, according to an American Public Health Association fact sheet. One study cited in the fact sheet found that people can enjoy health benefits comparable to those of a structured exercise regimen by simply using active mobility to fulfill everyday access needs.


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