The COVID-19 pandemic will reshape our world in many ways, including the future of public transportation. Buses, trains, and light rail are essential for transport in dense urban areas. However, the coronavirus-induced drop in commuters, impending state budget crises, and the erosion of the public’s trust of enclosed spaces have delivered a triple shock to the system. Survival of public transportation will require creative solutions, some of which are already beginning to surface across the country.
In the short term, public transportation will suffer simply from being an elevated health risk. Research suggests that public transportation spreads respiratory viruses such as influenza (even if specific evidence on COVID-19 is still lacking). Transportation workers are becoming sick at an alarming rate (with over 120 transit employee deaths in New York alone) and multiple unions and worker groups have called for strikes. Ridership is already falling precipitously due to decreased commuting volume and a generalized fear of viral exposure in enclosed spaces.
In the longer term, when will riders return if they do at all? Economic recessions usually lower ridership for a lengthy period, suggesting that even after stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, usage will not return to pre-COVID levels quickly. A recent survey suggests that young people who have never owned a car are now seriously considering buying one. Car owners are less likely to utilize public transportation than those who are simply wary, but vehicle-less. Even the weather could matter, as summer months are usually associated with lower ridership.
Many transportation agencies’ budgets are likely to be reduced due to the COVID-19 crisis. These budgets rely on tax revenue, which is decimated nationwide due to lower sales and lost jobs. Congress has already supplied some funds to help public transportation but this likely will not be enough. Bus lines will be gutted, train service will slow, and transportation for essential workers will become less convenient. I expect that this will be a difficult time for the transportation agencies.
A city with unsustainable transit risks incapacitating its own essential services workforce.
Despite these obstacles, public transportation must not be allowed to flounder because it remains essential to minority and low-income communities. A city with unsustainable transit risks incapacitating its own essential services workforce. According to a study of users of the public transportation app Transit, those currently left riding are more likely to be female, black or Latinx, earning less than $50,000 annually, and/or traveling to either a food service job or healthcare services. Even during this pandemic, public transportation serves an essential public need.
In order to stop the bleeding, short term fixes may help agencies weather this crisis and retain ridership. Transportation agencies must begin addressing how to gain back the public’s trust. My suggestions are to keep buses and trains clean and sparsely filled. All vehicles should be cleaned thoroughly and regularly. The NYC subway has been shutting down its usual 24-hour service every night for cleaning since the start of this crisis and piloting UV light as a faster, cheaper cleaning method.
To prevent overcrowding, buses and trains should run more often to ensure that they do not become too full. Agencies should develop maximum occupancy guidelines for their vehicles and trains, much like Seattle has done. Instituting mandatory masks will help ensure that if someone is sick, they release fewer infectious particles into the air. This has already been implemented in Toledo and New Jersey. Bus drivers can carry masks that can be inexpensively purchased or given out. Operators and drivers should be provided with barriers to further limit their contact with riders. In NYC, buses are being outfitted with vinyl sheeting between the first row and the driver and passengers board in the back. Additionally, plastic protectors can be placed on the right-hand side of the driver to allow for more space. Lastly, if space allows, train cars and sections of buses can be designated for the elderly and immunocompromised.
With falling ridership, bus and train routes are being slashed nationwide. This likely will lead to operator layoffs. In order to avoid this situation, I think that buses can serve useful services in the community. Operating buses to deliver groceries and meals to assisted living homes would be a great use of their space. Unique partnerships can be developed with food banks and transportation agencies to assist in distributing food to those affected by the economic crisis. In addition, buses are being converted into mobile COVID-19 testing centers. These are short-term solutions, but would provide usefulness and avoid furloughs where ridership has fallen.
Finally, transportation agencies should focus on the long-term. “Public transportation must grasp the opportunity to emerge from this crisis stronger, more resilient, and more creative,” said Therese W. McMillan, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments, in a recent interview. This crisis provides cover for large-scale reorganizations and directional switches. Improvements can be adopted without the disruption they would normally cause.
While many large-scale changes are fiscally and politically difficult, stakeholders may be more accepting of creative solutions during these uncertain times. What bus routes need new stops or route changes and what new routes should be created? What schedule changes should be made? Where is there unnecessary overhead? These changes should be considered with the new social distancing guidelines in mind. Innovation could also include new technologies; trains and buses could implement contactless fare collection systems like automatic cash collectors or mobile phone barcode readers.
In such dire straits, agencies might never have as much leeway to adopt out-of-the-box strategies as they do now.
Another change cities could consider is electric buses, which can run exclusively on built-in batteries or overhead trolley wires. Electric buses hypothetically possess numerous benefits compared to standard diesel buses; they reduce carbon output (depending on the source of the electricity), produce less noise, and may be cheaper to run compared to diesel buses.
To be sure, battery-powered electric buses have an inconsistent track record. Multiple battery-powered electric bus trials at various transit agencies have produced mixed results. Bus range was lower than expected and multiple cities found that buses need to be recharged during the day, thus taking a bus out of operation for hours. Albuquerque famously tested electric buses and declared them unfit for use. In addition, the start-up costs of battery powered electric buses is high, with the buses themselves costing $1.2 million each and electric charging stations reaching $50,000 apiece.
Newer models, however, have shown more promise and might be worth trying. Next-gen trolley buses include small batteries to allow for limited off-route driving and charge while the bus is on-route. A 2019 report from the advocacy organization U.S. Public Interest Research Group chronicled six success stories ranging across several diverse metro areas, including Seneca, South Carolina; King County, Washington; and Concord, Massachusetts. In such dire straits, agencies might never have as much leeway to adopt out-of-the-box strategies as they do now.
Public transportation agencies must prepare for dark times ahead. However, with proper planning, innovative solutions, and a resilient and trusting ridership, public transportation may emerge stronger than ever. I suggest that public transportation agencies focus on safety measures to rebuild rider trust, public-private partnerships and creative work share arrangements for operators to accompany long-term infrastructure investment.
The Institute for Science & Policy is committed to publishing diverse perspectives in order to advance civil discourse and productive dialogue. Views expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, or its affiliates.