Public transportation is a staple of American life and offers an irreplaceable solution for many who rely on it to get to work every day, go shopping, and travel to doctor’s appointments. What happens, however, when people stop commuting to work, cease shopping as often, and cancel their non-essential doctor’s appointments? These are just a few of the life disruptions that have occurred as a result of the coronavirus crisis. As public transit ridership collapses, the funding that public transit systems rely on is cut off, and public transit is made all but obsolete. As a result, public transportation across the country and, indeed, around the world, has been greatly affected. “There’s never been a time in which transit in one fell swoop has taken such a hit,” Sam Schwartz, CEO of Sam Schwartz Engineering and former New York City traffic commissioner, said to sum it up. Here, we will examine how COVID-19 has affected public transportation.
Loss of Revenue
Public transportation in the United States is still being used, of course. Essential health care workers utilize public transit to get to their shifts and try to save lives. Many essential food workers, warehouse staff, utility workers, and cleaners all use public transit as well in their daily commute. Americans who are going to pharmacies and grocery stores, especially within cities, have no other choice but to use public transit to pick up essential goods for themselves and their families.
But ridership is way down, as more people are not working and not taking “non-essential” trips out of their homes. Sheltering in place is one of the worst things that could have happened to the public transit system, as it has created a sharp decline in revenue.
The Transit app notes that from March 9 to March 23, public transit systems’ activity in the U.S. fell to 31 percent of its usual level of activity, and it has held at about 30 percent since then. The app’s data indicates that ridership in all major metropolitan areas has decreased, including San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Boston, New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Miami. TransitCenter.org notes that public transit agencies in the United States could see a loss as high as $40 billion in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus.
Additionally, reduced economic activity in the U.S. has led to reductions in government taxes that help to fund public transportation. Some public transit systems even rely on taxes that are up for vote for renewal during this election year. If the elections are postponed, these systems will have to find funding elsewhere.
There are more costs that public transit systems face associated with the coronavirus that you might not have considered. Trains, buses and other public transit methods must be cleaned more quickly and more thoroughly than ever before. Public transit systems in the U.S. are operating at 10 percent capacity, with fewer workers and scaled-back schedules. Many fear, too, that using public transit systems could lead to the spread of coronavirus, and therefore avoid them altogether.
Employees must be given protective gear which can be expensive and hard to come by for public transit agencies. Some public transit agencies have even made the tough decision to no longer collect fares from its riders to protect the public health. Finally, public transit agencies have had to hire emergency staff to cover staff who are not working due to coronavirus.
Cutting rides is not the answer for these embattled public transit agencies, either. Many of them have had to add more rides and service in order to provide enough vehicles so that riders can maintain six feet of social distance among them. The elderly and disabled passengers still rely on public transit to get to health care professionals they must continue to see for urgent health care needs.
Big Cities Hit Hardest
Public transit agencies in the U.S.’s largest cities are being hit the hardest by COVID-19’s effects. For example:
- New York City’ssubway ridership is down 87 percent from its numbers of a year ago, as of March 2020. Additionally, 1100 employees of New York’s MTA tested positive for COVID-19, with 33 succumbing to the illness.
- New JerseyTransit’sridership has decreased by 90 percent from year-ago figures
- Bay Area Rapid Transit ridership is down by 92 percent. It is projected that the agency will lose18 to 39 percent of its sales tax revenue in fiscal year 2020. The city’s Main Metro was shut down completely, and only the 17 busiest bus lines are running.
- Dallas Area Rapid Transitestimates that it will lose $60 million in sales tax from March 2020 to September 2020. This represents a 19 percent decline from original projections for the time period.
- Ridership on Seattle’s King County Metrobuses has decreased by 60 percent. The agency estimates that it loses $1.3 million each week in in fare revenue and $5 million in sales tax revenue. This is a 39 percent decline from 2019’s figures. Additionally, King County Metro and Sound Transit stopped collecting fares from riders and moved to rear-door boarding only.
- Houston METROis increasing service on its main routes to reduce crowding on vehicles. They have also installed netting on buses to separate drivers and passengers. They have suspended fares and are taking drivers’ temperatures at the beginning of shifts.
- Boston’s MBTAadded five commuter rail trains to accommodate health care workers and emergency responders. Thirty of their employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and one has died.
- Pittsburgh’s Port Authoritystaggered its workers’ shifts to reduce the number in the depot at one time.
Actual Costs of COVID-19 to the Public Transit System
The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has projected that public transit agencies in the U.S. will face $1.75 billion in direct costs from COVID-19 just for the six-month period from March 2020 to September 2020. Double that figure to estimate annual costs, and it comes to $3.5 billion. Additionally, the APTA estimates it will cost $350 million to restart normal operations when the crisis is over.
Will the Government Stimulus Package Be Enough?
Within the federal government’s recent $2 trillion stimulus package, $25 billion has been earmarked for public transit agencies. Most agency directors say that this money should help them “just” stay afloat, offering minimal levels of service for essential workers. They may need more relief money down the road, they note.
After 9/11, the subway system in New York City took six years to fully recover its ridership, according to Schwartz. This time around, many riders not just in New York City but all across America will be afraid to resume public transit even after the crisis is over, fearing close contact with others and infection in ways they never did before. As stay-at-home orders are slowly lifted around the country, public activity should increase, and ridership should follow. Whether it will ever return to its pre-coronavirus numbers is anyone’s guess at this point.