In a nutshell:
- Public transit is in a strange position during a pandemic – simultaneously vital and feared.
- Transit agencies are responding to the coronavirus pandemic with deep cleaning and policies to promote social distancing in an effort to protect passengers and drivers, but is it enough? No one knows.
- Ridership and revenues are down, but public transit cannot shut down as it provides a vital service to essential workers and must operate in this environment of reduced revenues.
Life has changed drastically in the past week due to the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying social distancing or shelter-in-place directives in Michigan and across the U.S. The disease keeps spreading and, so far, shows no signs of slowing.
While many of us are working and attempting to educate our kids from home, that is not an option for everyone, including health care workers and those without paid sick leave. Public transportation – with its grab bars, shared seats and other oft-touched surfaces – can be seen as a potential source of outbreak, but it is also a key mobility option for many essential workers in urban areas. Even during a shelter-in-place directive, government functions like transit can continue. According to some, shutting down a city’s public transit system could actually hurt its ability to combat an outbreak since many essential workers rely on it.
Messages from elected officials mixed
Elected officials have sent mixed messages on whether people should avoid using public transit during this time. Before this pandemic, the Citizens Research Council released research on the importance of regional transportation in Michigan’s urban areas. Now, public transit remains as critical as ever, but are the current preventive measures enough to make it as safe as possible?
Most public transportation agencies have a contagious virus or pandemic response plan that can include increasing cleanings and making regular announcements to staff and riders about best practices to protect themselves and others. These plans are generally lacking for rural and small urban systems, however, according to a 2013 report on pandemic planning by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP).
In San Francisco, BART officials are wiping down buses and subways with disinfectants and reducing service hours due to a shelter-in-place directive. LA Metro has formed a task force to coordinate with city health officials and the CDC, and is cleaning buses and trains daily. Houston Metro is putting more buses into service on its heavily traveled routes and designating half of the seats as “out of service” to promote social distancing. Many transit systems are suspending fare enforcement.
In Detroit, almost all bus service was cancelled on March 17 due to a driver shortage caused by health and safety concerns. In order to resume services, the city announced comprehensive new cleaning procedures, as well as new policies – waiving all fares during the outbreak and requiring riders to board and exit via the rear exit. Another issue for drivers was the fact that many businesses were closing down, thus limiting drivers’ ability to use public restrooms and wash their hands.
Transit agencies in other countries are taking measures even further. Taiwan’s metro agency installed an infrared tool to measure people’s body degree before allowing them to enter a train, barring people above a certain temperature. In Hong Kong, railway operators have used robots to disinfect trains. Unlike in some other countries, major decisions at transit agencies in the U.S. are made at the local level.
Impact on ridership
Ridership is down substantially across the U.S., mirroring what was experienced in China where transit use collapsed in the wake of government travel restrictions. According to the American Public Transportation Association, ridership declines related to the coronavirus over the next six months will relate to $6 billion in lost fares due to a projected 75 percent decline in ridership. BART, in the San Francisco Bay Area (now under a shelter-in-place order), has had ridership drop by 85 percent, leading to a $37 million per month revenue decline.
As more places and establishments close down, daily life and transit ridership in the U.S. will continue to slow. One transit expert, Yonah Freemark, has said “transit agencies should be planning for virtually no fare revenue over the coming months.”
The bottom line for transit
This is a strange time for the United States in general and transit agencies are no exception. Agencies across the country find themselves reducing travel options and actively discouraging non-essential trips. The New York City subway Twitter account observed a 3.7 million ridership decline from March 17, 2019, to March 17, 2020. These declines reflect a laudable effort to #flattenthecurve, but will also have long-term consequences for public transportation. And regrettably, none of the consequences are good.
It’s not just revenue loss. Costs are up due to enhanced cleaning and other safety measures. This may change as more transit agencies reduce service options, potentially leading to decreased employee and fuel costs moving forward. However, revenue challenges will likely continue, as many agencies rely on sales tax revenue to fund transit in addition to fares, and that is likely to decline as this pandemic continues. While this is not as big of an issue in Michigan, since sales tax revenues do not directly support transit, state revenues do support local governments through revenue sharing and can have an indirect effect on transit.
Michigan transit is operating in an unprecedented environment: many large transit operators, including SMART in Metro Detroit, The Rapid in Grand Rapids, and TheRide in Ann Arbor are operating at reduced service levels. Transit cannot shut down completely, as many rely on it for essential trips, so how can it survive in this climate of reduced service and revenues? Some argue that the federal government should step up to provide subsidies during this looming economic crisis. Whether that happens or not, we are likely looking at continued strain and reduced service levels moving forward and/or tax or fare increases at some point in the future.