Nationally transit agencies faced a lot of challenges in 2021 as agencies began to define a new normal. In attempts to recover from the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic transit agencies began to think differently about how to provide quality transit services to essential workers and customers while dealing with operator shortages and streamlining costs. Five transit agency trends we identified in 2021 that we think will remain in 2022 are Federal and state support in transit service, transit, and public health, creating more equitable fares, improved technology, and strengthening the frontline workforce.
In early 2021 the federal government recognized the importance of transit to essential workers and communities all over the country. Several bills were passed to keep service running ensuring that people could continue to get to where they had to be. Federal funding was provided in the CARES act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021, and the American Rescue Plan. Federal and state governments demonstrated they were invested in transit by providing significant operational funding and not requiring a local match for COVID-19 related expenses.
Additionally, in November 2021 the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law was passed that provided historic funding amounts of $108 billion dollars for transit. This law is expected to boost transit funding for communities all over the country by an average of 30% and will assist in addressing maintenance backlogs, modernization, and expansion. These actions have identified transit as a vital and critical component of healthy American communities.
Transit has become connected to public health through the pandemic and for much of 2021 transit agencies worked together with public health programs to provide services beyond traditional transportation services. Providing access to public health services by providing rides to allow vaccine and booster public health programs have allowed transit agencies to develop new partnerships. These partnerships promote transit access to much-needed services such as medical, mental health, food and recreation and serve to improve health outcomes. For instance, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) partnered with Agape Family Health to launch “Wheels to Wellness,” a mobile vaccination clinic using transit buses in areas with gaps in health equity. Additionally in Augusta, Georgia, Augusta Transit partnered with the Richmond County’s Department of Public Health to provide vaccinations at the agency’s Broad Street Transfer Center near downtown Augusta.
In 2022 we can expect to see the relationships between transit agencies and public health programs strengthen as they close the equity gaps and provide greater access to much-needed services.
Creating equity in fare payments became increasingly important to transit agencies in 2021. Free transit is an idea that began to be introduced prior to the pandemic in places like Kansas City, Missouri; Olympia, Washington; and Missoula, Montana. However, as COVID-19 began to impact transit agencies we began to see more actions around eliminating fares and service equity. In 2020 Kansas City was the first transit agency to change its vision and thinking about how transit services are provided and eliminated bus fares for all KCATA riders providing the providing financial help to transit-dependent workers while helping businesses attract adequate numbers of employees.
With COVID-19 emergency relief legislation providing federal funding that could cover 100% of operating costs we saw many agencies adopt far free service to customers who were vaccinated or to those getting vaccinated. For instance, VIA Transit in San Antonio, Texas, offered free transit trips to anyone traveling to an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccination. Many agencies are seeing the benefits that free fares bring to the economy and the opportunity it brings to address racial inequalities built into the nation’s transportation system. Some agencies are concerned about the financial impacts to the agency with the loss of fare revenue and some systems are providing free and reduced fares for low-income riders. As we continue to support access free fares and equity will continue to be at the forefront of transit agencies.
In 2021 safety and health concerns increased the challenge of attracting and retaining skilled employees. While the awareness of the value of transit to communities has also increased driver shortages were intensified by the pandemic. Strengthening the workforce will continue to be a focus of transit agencies in 2022 as we continue to develop strategies to attract and retain frontline workers in today’s workforce.
The performance of electric fuel cell and all-battery electric buses has seen reliability and performance improvements. Increasingly transit agencies are moving to Zero Emission Buses that provide benefits to the environment, community, and customers. The reduction of exhaust emissions ultimately improves air quality, benefitting residents’ health and quality of life.
Both the government and many transit agencies have made a commitment to reduce environmental impacts of transit by transitioning to lower or no emission buses and we will continue to see more transit fleets transitioning to electric vehicles as these vehicles provide the financial benefit of lower operating costs of vehicles throughout their lifecycle and increased efficiency on the road.
Another technology-based improvement that we will continue to see in 2022 is the use of microtransit to support main routes and provide niche, and more individualized service. Microtransit providers may be used as a way of supplementing service in areas where main fixed routes are no longer feasible.
Transit is changing and improving, in 2021 transit was recognized by the federal government as an integral part of the economy and moving into 2022 transit agencies will need to continue to think differently about how to bring value to the customers and communities they serve.