In the wake of COVID-19, transit advocates must go on offense

We’re still in the early stages of the US coronavirus pandemic, but rapid changes in daily life have prompted many of us to contemplate the societal changes we’ve witnessed, and to consider whether these are ephemeral or permanent shifts. Major online retailers are enjoying a bonanza of exploding delivery demand, while local businesses are getting absolutely crushed. Similarly, waitstaff at restaurants have been among the first laid off, while food delivery services experience a rush of new customers and restaurant “partners” desperate to keep their kitchens busy enough to pay rent.

With offices on lockdown and most white collar employees required to work from home, telecommuting has soared. Long considered a promising alternative to commuting by car, and a key strategy for regional transportation demand planning, telecommuting will be tested at a scale once inconceivable in a society that values in-person meetings and workplace collaboration. I do suspect productivity will decrease noticeably, even for those who can technically complete the entirely of their work outside the office — my own experience with telework has been mixed. While many employers may decide to maintain some degree of flexibility and expand telework optionality, and some smaller firms may ditch offices altogether, most will revert to “the old normal” when safe to do so.

The impact thus far on the passenger transportation sector has been significant. Images of empty highways have blanketed social media for much of the past two weeks, with commuter traffic reduced to “essential” workplace personnel. Uber and Lyft have shown steep losses in passenger trips, and many other mobility technology firms, involving everything from carshare to dockless scooters, have found themselves facing possible extinction from overnight revenue collapses (most were already struggling). Local delivery and some long-haul freight appear to be the lone beneficiaries.

Moovit’s dashboard illustrates percentage decrease in public transit usage relative to “typical usage” prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Credit: Moovit)

Urban transit has suffered deep ridership declines on par with airlines, with most agencies losing somewhere between 50% and 80%(!) of their daily riders. Dozens of agencies have temporarily done away with fare payments altogether on part (i.e. just buses) or all of their systems. Some have even insisted that people shouldn’t ride unless for essential trips to help cities prevent the virus’ transmission.

The coronavirus threat to transit

Transit advocates have an uphill battle ahead. Two battles actually.

The first is existential. Collapsing ridership due to virus transmission concerns and from subsequent citywide activity shutdowns has severely hit larger transit agencies’ farebox revenues. To worsen matters, those shutdowns in economic activity have devastated sales tax collections. Transit financing varies from state to state, and even by local jurisdiction, but most rely heavily on local sales taxes and fares to cover both operating and capital expenses. Federal and, in some cases, state funding accounts for the remainder, but industry pros recognized as early as several weeks ago the virus would leave transit agencies in dire need of help.

Congress just passed a comprehensive fiscal stimulus package that, among many other industry rescue measures, includes $25 billion in formula funds for transit agencies to cover expected revenue shortfalls for operations. Transit agencies in urbanized areas with more than 200,000 residents typically aren’t allowed to use federal funding for operating expenses, though there are some exceptions, so the Congressional rescue was remarkable in that respect. Depending on the severity and duration of the nationwide lockdown, the ensuing recovery, and corresponding ridership impacts, agencies may require another federal bailout to avoid significant service cuts.

The second, longer-term issue facing the transit industry following COVID-19 is reputational. The extent of societal change we see from the pandemic will depend heavily on the extent of our current crisis, and potential subsequent outbreaks. The longer it lasts, the more durable behavioral shifts. And unfortunately, transit ridership will almost certainly suffer lasting damage over unfounded fears that crowded buses and railcars are high-probability virus transmission vectors. American anti-density bias may hurt cities in multiple ways, but safety from disease will become a factor pushing transit riders away from transit and towards single occupancy vehicles or possibly ridehailing. (Ridehailing is likely actually a near-equal threat for transmission because drivers come into contact with dozens of riders daily, and their income insecurity has kept them driving even at the onset of symptoms.)

New York MTA workers sanitize a subway car to reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission
(Credit: NY Daily News)

Moreover, transit skeptics will seize on ridership data to argue that declines negate justifications for expansion or even maintaining existing levels of service. If transit is unsafe in a world where deadly pandemic concerns are endemic, should we not prioritize transportation alternatives that involve less social contact? Those arguing against ballot measures for transit expansion will argue telework offers a better alternative for congestion mitigation, at no cost to taxpayers. This argument will be unserious, given telework is a luxury of white collar professionals we already know are least likely to use transit on a regular basis, and therefore will not apply to the majority of Americans.

Finally, both transit skeptics and some advocates will argue that, with agencies still reeling from revenue declines, they should focus limited resources on maintaining essential service, and not investing in expansion and adoption of next-generation technologies. At a time when the national policy conversation is swinging in favor of massive infrastructure investments, shifts toward cleaner transportation, and transit over roadway expansion, to retrench around essential service for only those who cannot afford alternatives would be disastrous. Given the extent to which electric and automated vehicles, and the gamut of vaporware technologies (VTOL, Hyperloop, etc.) are used to justify opposition to transit expansion, the transit industry must close its innovation gap, not widen it.

Don’t be meek. Go bold.

Rather than allow critics to use this situation to put transit on the defensive, advocates must fight to both maintain existing service and also expand it. Today’s congestion-free roads are a pleasant change from the car-and-truck-choked nightmares we’ve grown all too accustomed to; allowing critics to lazily assert mass transit is unsafe or promote telework as a viable alternative to expansion will doom us to the status quo ante.

Near-empty roads have already inspired active transportation advocates to push for reclaiming rights-of-way for those uses. Transit advocates should join the chorus. Promote shifts, and possibly even permanent reallocations while least disruptive. Don’t allow state departments of transportation (DOTs) to define the conversation through false or misleading assumptions. Even if commuter vehicle traffic takes years to return to last year’s levels, state DOTs will find some way to justify more asphalt. They always do. At minimum, they’ll seize on increased freight demand to argue highways require more investment to accommodate it. Transit advocates shouldn’t let them. Measures that shift more trips to buses and trains remain the best means of congestion reduction, and therefore the best means supporting increased freight throughput.

Decline in NO2 levels over China, detected by the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument on the European Space Agency’s SENTINEL-5 satellite. (Credit: ESA/NASA)

Air quality statistics across the world have shown marked year-over-year improvements following shutdowns, highlighting the extent our cities normally suffer from harmful emissions. Even those skeptical of climate impacts from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions typically recognize the severe public health consequences of vehicle tailpipe emissions, particularly nitrogen oxides (NOx). We already know that emissions increase the prevalence of chronic respiratory issues like asthma, and that these conditions are risk factors for severe respiratory infections. Even when the immediate threat of COVID-19 has passed, other coronaviruses will follow, and an individual’s (i.e. not epidemic response) best defense is an uncompromised pair of lungs. The same is already true for other common respiratory diseases, including seasonal influenza and pneumonia. Telework can certainly remove some vehicles from the road, but growing our arsenal of transit alternatives has the potential to serve a much wider audience with a far greater impact.

We’re likely to see at least one more fiscal stimulus package emerge from Congress over the coming months, and Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives has indicated infrastructure might be part of it. Air quality considerations needs to influence that discussion, and additional transit (particularly zero-emission) funding needs to be on the table. As the auto industry reels from the crisis, major manufacturers are already indicating they will double down on crossovers and SUVs to return to profitability. New federal subsidies for electric vehicles may move the needle slightly, but transit funding remains the most direct means available for moving the needle on necessary improvements. Adding to the paltry $28 million apportioned to the Federal Transit Administration for research and innovation funding would also help buses and rail to close the gap with private transportation modes that enjoy billions in annual R&D funding.

I don’t profess to have all the answers here, but I do know transit advocates begin this fight from a position of weakness. Advocacy groups need to step up and consider what messaging will resonate outside already-sympathetic audiences. And more than anything, they need to be aggressive. Retrenchment is a surefire way to sacrifice so much progress made over the past decade. We can’t let that happen. Step up; go on the offensive.

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