With vaccines beginning to roll out nationwide, there’s hope on the horizon for life to begin returning to its pre-pandemic normal. However, COVID-19’s specter still hangs over the public transportation industry.
Even as some employers have begun bringing employees back on-site, many commuters are still avoiding crowds and working remotely — the effects of which are showing up in the ridership numbers of major transit hubs: Rail ridership in Washington, D.C. has plummeted 86% since 2019; daily ridership on New York’s MTA is down 67 to 72%; in Boston, subway ridership is only a quarter of what it was pre-pandemic; and in the San Francisco Bay Area, BART ridership is 88% below its baseline.
Many experts wonder about the ripple effect of transit decline — the potential for exacerbated inequality, slowed infrastructure maintenance, and impeding economic recovery.
Additionally, should transit agencies be forced to cut service to stay afloat, the resulting logistical challenges could be felt even by those who don’t use it at all. Roads and interstates would struggle to handle the influx of vehicles, should transit riders switch to driving. “To build a highway that moves as many people as a subway, you would need about a 20-lane highway,” says Marlon Boarnet, a transportation expert and public policy professor at University of Southern California. “The math is at some level just unforgiving. You literally run out of land.”
That’s why it’s encouraging that Congress’ latest COVID-19 relief bill includes $14 billion in emergency relief for transit, including:
As we continue to grapple with the pandemic, the coming year holds lots of uncertainties for transit — and even agencies that receive funds from the new relief bill may need to anticipate a slow return to ridership. While these federal dollars can provide a much-needed lifeline, now is the time for agencies to make contingency plans for both profitable and lean months ahead.