Economy & Business

Will COVID-19 Derail Public Transit?

People wearing face masks in the Times Square subway station, April 17, 2020. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)
Across the nation, the coronavirus pandemic has hit transit systems hard — and called into question the future of their business model.

City transit systems have been battered by the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve lost millions of riders, and still they are being lambasted for carrying too many people. But the long-term effects of the pandemic on mass transit are still unclear: Who will ride once things return to some semblance of normality? How will transit agencies provide for current riders and win back those staying away?

Circles painted on a Paris train-station floor to define social-distancing requirements may provide a hint. Looking more like a Twister game than a transit plan, the circles assume each person rides alone; there are no provisions for couples or adults with children. If each person stands in a circle, how long will trains need to dwell in the station to give those in the farthest circles time to enter? How will social distancing be maintained once everyone is on the trains? Who will count the number of people in each car, subtracting those exiting and adding those entering? Undaunted by these questions, New York City recently announced it is considering similar diagramming.

On buses, some operators are allowing only ten or 15 riders. After that, the bus will stop to discharge passengers, picking up only enough riders to replace those who have exited. Most cities are using rear-door boarding to maintain contactless entry and protect drivers from scared, angry, and sometimes unmasked patrons.

Rear-door entry is free, raising the questions of when and how — or if — fares will be re-instituted. It also creates issues similar to those posed by Paris’s scheme: Who will be responsible for assuring that patrons are masked? Who will be responsible for passenger counts? Will those who begin their ride mid-route be assured of getting on a bus or will their trip depend on how many riders have entered or exited before their stop?

*    *    *

The bigger picture is no less cloudy.

In “normal” times, New York City’s subway system serves an average of more than 5 million people each day. According to New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), as of mid-April, subway ridership was down 90 percent from the same time last year, bus ridership was down 80 percent, and commuter-line ridership was down 95 percent. Although also heavily affected, the agency’s bridges and tunnels reported the smallest loss, with crossings down about 60 percent. The transit systems serving Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area have reported similarly sharp declines in use.

Patrick J. Foye, the MTA’s chairman and CEO, said that as of mid-March the system had lost $4 billion as a result of the pandemic. Despite the system’s receiving about $3.8 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, he indicated that without additional relief to cover operating losses estimated at more than $8 billion, the “present and future of the MTA are in serious jeopardy.”

But money may not be the only problem.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey received $450 million in CARES Act funds, much less than the requested $2 billion. It reported a 95 percent drop from the same time last year in ridership on trains travelling between New York and New Jersey, along with a 97 percent decline in patrons at its major airports (Newark, LaGuardia, and JFK), but only a 50 percent decline in bridge and tunnel traffic.

What do the MTA and Port Authority tell us about the future of mass transit? Do the lower losses on bridges and tunnels provide indications that as the New York metropolitan area wakes up from its pause, travelers will reject public transit in favor of their own cars, which make it easy to maintain social distance and don’t require the use of a mask?

In New York, the MTA recently floated the idea that in addition to all patrons wearing masks and being exposed to the previous night’s cleaning chemicals, they might be asked to reserve space on subways and buses similar to the way they do now for concerts and other ticketed events. Currently, only employees submit to having their temperatures taken, but if the technology improves, might this become required of patrons also? Transit systems rightly rejected the Transportation Security Administration’s airport-check-in procedures as inappropriate for mass transit, but they are now talking about far more invasive and time-consuming protocols.

After the fear is gone, will riders self-regulate by wearing face covers and avoiding crowding? Will employers stagger office hours to eliminate rush-hour crush-loads, or will they rather institute work-from-home schemes that eliminate the need for workers to undertake daily, weekly, or monthly commutes? Pointing to the success of staggered hours during the 1918 flu pandemic seems a nostalgic indulgence, a look back at how many people worked a century ago, the type of work they did, and the lack of other travel options they had; it’s not necessarily a recipe for a successful reopening of 21st-century urban America. But it may well be tried, and if it is, transit-use patterns could change dramatically: The less workers need to visit the office, the less they’ll buy the weekly, ten-day, and monthly tickets that, in return for a slight discount, provide transit systems with a regular income stream paid in advance of the actual ride.

A number of cities, notably Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis, are experimenting with closing streets to private cars. New York City is also doing this, but it is less likely the closings will remain permanent there. Not all the cities have the same regulations; some allow only walking, others walking and biking, others the full range of activities that do not include a motorized vehicle.

All claim the changes are primarily to facilitate residents’ ability to exercise while maintaining social distance. But bicycle sales are booming; cities throughout the United States report that bikes are becoming as difficult to purchase as toilet paper and cleaning products were early in the pandemic. As people walk, bike, or even skateboard more frequently, these may become viable options for short-distance commutes. Will they increase sufficiently to make a dent in transit revenue, particularly if fares rise and service remains limited?

In London, with similar concerns about crowded trains and buses, bikes are also in high demand. And although the transit system received a £1.6 billion bail-out after Mayor Sadiq Kahn threatened to cut service, towns are hinting at providing free parking to encourage people to use their cars. This is also an alternative in many U.S. cities where parking is plentiful even in downtown areas.

*    *    *

Few systems anywhere, with the exception of Metrolink, the commuter-rail line that serves Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura counties in Southern California, have surveyed riders to determine what the future may hold. In an email survey to which 11,000 Metrolink riders responded between April 23–28, about 40 percent described themselves as transit-dependent, either because they were disabled or because they had no car. A far larger number — 81 percent — said they would ride Metrolink after stay-at-home orders were lifted. But fewer than a third of the latter group said that they’d feel safe riding as early as this summer, and an almost equal percentage said that they’d feel safe only after a virus vaccine existed or that they could not put a time-frame on their reply.

Most transit agencies don’t depend primarily on fares to cover their expenses. But until now, the goal of every transit agency has always been to provide maximum service to the maximum number of people. The pandemic has changed that, forcing systems to limit their service to those who absolutely need it. If this new model endures after things return to normal, the expense of continuing to operate transit systems could cease to be worth it. So in the next round of decisions on transit, systems may have to choose between rebuilding ridership or accepting a far smaller role in moving the urban masses.

Dorothy Moses Schulz is an emerita professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, and a retired MTA-Metro North Railroad Police captain who has served as a safety and security consultant to transit agencies across the country.

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