COVID-19 has brought swift, unrelenting harm. As applied to transportation, the pandemic’s pressure has forced us to rethink how we talk about and allocate space for moving people.
This pressure has forced long-needed actions, including:
- Congress appropriated $25 billion to keep transit systems operating, understanding that people need sustained service to access the essential jobs and life needs that keep society functioning.
- Municipalities have reconsidered how much public space they give to automobiles and experienced the benefits street space can provide the public when it’s not filled with cars.
- Employers have realized that telework programs can boost their organizations’ performance while their employees have reclaimed time and flexibility in their workdays.
Transit connectivity is vital to these goals of essential access, efficient use of space, and workplace flexibility. Yet COVID-19 has made challenges that have long hindered transit – like constrained budgets and negative stereotypes – even more imposing than before.
Thus, in this final article of our series on the role of transportation demand management (TDM) during and after the pandemic, we break down how transit agencies can overcome these challenges and bolster society’s resiliency in these three areas, shaping a future of more effective and equitable mobility.
Transit and essential access: the importance of service
Public transit’s biggest role during COVID-19 has been its basic mission: getting people where they need to go. While the pandemic’s impacts have significantly reduced total ridership, data shows how sustained transit service continues to connect people to essential jobs and services, keeping society functioning:
- 2.8 million people who commute on transit are employed in essential U.S. industries like health care, groceries, postal services, and public safety, according to an analysis of American Community Survey census data by TransitCenter.
- A Circulate San Diego report comparing this census data to ongoing ridership trends found that the proportion of that region’s pre-COVID transit riders still on board closely matched the 35 percent of area transit commuters who work in essential jobs.
- A national Transit app survey similarly found that 92 percent of people continuing to ride buses and trains during COVID are using them to commute to essential jobs. The survey also found that the majority of these riders are Black or Latino, indicating how important transit is to racial equity.
The U.S.’s national transportation program has historically restricted transit agencies from using much of the federal funding they receive to cover operating costs, like labor and fuel, that support this essential access. These federal restrictions led to challenges during the late-2000s recession, which gutted local tax revenue and forced the majority of U.S. transit providers to raise fares or cut service.
During COVID-19, however, Congress has taken more substantial action. In response to the data-driven findings described above, legislators appropriated $25 billion for transit operation as part of the CARES Act stimulus package, helping keep service running.
The CARES Act’s enactment into law shows that federal funding for operation of transit service is an achievable goal. However, the stimulus was only a temporary supplement to the regular national transit program. Transit agency officials have stated that, without longer-term federal operating funds, they will be forced to cut service substantially in coming months.
While national transit policy is key to shaping long-term access and mobility, agencies and their local partners can also take other, TDM-based steps to bolster their operational resiliency, such as:
- Road management: Demand-based pricing of road use can turn external costs of congestion currently borne by society into a revenue source for transit. Also, prioritizing transit vehicles on roadways allows them to traverse their lines more quickly, not only making transit a more attractive option for riders but also reducing the costs of operating service.
- Land use reform: Possible changes to land use and urban design catalyzed by workplace flexibility, described in more detail below, could give transit agencies a chance to capture the economic value of their systems and re-invest it into bolstered service. Furthermore, these changes could allow agencies to redesign their networks and more efficiently meet public demand.
Transit and space: getting more out of our streets
Because COVID-19 is relatively unlikely to spread in open-air, physically-distanced environments, communities have taken steps to maximize the utility of their outdoor public space during the pandemic. As we described previously, streets have been re-purposed to accommodate high demand for biking and walking. Also, businesses have expanded into streets and parking lots, giving themselves a chance to survive the crisis and their customers safe, social places to spend time.
The research-backed benefits of active transportation and people-oriented spaces were clear before the pandemic, justifying sustained efforts to bolster these options. These benefits include:
- High user satisfaction: In the Washington, DC area, people who commute by bike or foot consistently report greater satisfaction with their mobility than users of any other mode, according to triennial State of the Commute surveys conducted over the past decade.
- A stronger economy: Businesses in Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and New York, among others, have seen increased sales revenue following improvements to bike infrastructure.
- A healthy lifestyle: Biking and walking reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and behavioral health disorders, according to an American Public Health Association fact sheet. One study cited in the fact sheet found that people can enjoy health benefits comparable to those of a structured exercise regimen by simply using active mobility to fulfill everyday access needs.
Transit boosts active transportation’s viability. For example, a 2015 study found that transit riders used active options to commute more than twice as frequently as non-riders; the study’s authors concluded that increasing transit ridership through service improvements or fare reductions can generate more biking and walking trips. Such a development would – according to a body of research – provide safety in numbers protecting people who bike and walk from road dangers such as lethal vehicle strikes.
Policy and business results illustrate how deeply transit is intertwined with active mobility and pedestrianization. For example, municipalities including San Diego, Ca. and Arlington, Va. have eased parking minimums for new development projects near transit lines in recent years, opening up space for purposes other than car storage. Also, a report by the Downtown Fresno Partnership found that car-free spaces in city centers have a better chance of succeeding economically if integrated with transit.
Pandemic-era road space conversions have further integrated active mobility and public transit:
- Adding redundancy: Cities including Paris and Bogota have installed protected cycling infrastructure along major transit lines, while portions of Beach Drive paralleling WMATA’s Red Line in DC and Maryland have been re-purposed exclusively for people not in motor vehicles.
- Extending systems’ reach: San Francisco, though it had to suspend service on some bus lines due to COVID-caused funding challenges, calmed traffic on certain streets to facilitate safer biking and walking access to bus lines still operating. Also, DC converted a service lane lining a business strip in Metro-accessible Cleveland Park into space for walking and restaurant seating.
Transit and the workplace: equitably bolstering job flexibility
Remote work capabilities have enabled countless companies, organizations, and government agencies to continue operating during COVID-19. Before the pandemic, these telework capabilities were not fully realized – for example, nearly 30 percent of Arlington residents interviewed reported not working remotely in 2019 despite telework-compatible job responsibilities. However, experiences of COVID-necessitated telework are likely to change this:
- Morning Consult found that more than three-quarters of Americans able to work remotely would like to continue doing so regularly even after the pandemic is brought under control.
- Companies including Facebook and Nationwide Insurance have made their telework programs permanent, citing benefits such as consolidated office space and improved employee retention.
However, the transition to telework has not been without challenges. For example, the Morning Consult survey found that nearly half of COVID-era teleworkers, lacking in-person workplace interaction, are battling social isolation and loneliness. Also, rising demand for housing in outlying suburbs and exurbs – attributable in part to reduced concern about living within reasonable commuting distance of the office – could exacerbate sprawl, resulting in lost farmland and natural habitat.
Furthermore, people employed in the 63 percent of jobs that require in-person work earn lower wages on average and are more likely to be of color, according to a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Such jobs are already difficult to access due to their relatively wide distribution; nearly three-quarters of public transit providers interviewed for a 2017 GAO report on transit service for low-income users discussed challenges connecting people to these workplaces. Any post-COVID sprawl catalyzed by increased telework would risk deepening this systemic inequity.
Prioritizing transit connectivity can help address these issues, giving people a chance to enjoy the benefits of remote work while mitigating potential downsides:
- Data indicates that people who telework regularly are relatively likely to ride transit when they do commute. For example, England’s National Travel Survey found that the proportion of teleworkers commuting by rail is double non-teleworkers’ share. Also, Arlington residents – who are almost twice as likely to commute by transit than residents of the DC region as a whole – also work remotely at a rate substantially higher than that of the region’s overall population.
- The England survey also found that teleworkers take approximately as many transportation trips as non-teleworkers, swapping commutes for day-to-day needs closer to home. Transit agencies can provide these all-day, multi-directional trips more efficiently than peak-hour, commute-driven surges in demand, as transit expert Jarrett Walker describes.
- Such around-the-clock service can also make it easier for in-person workers to access their places of employment, according to Walker, boosting social and economic equitability.
Bolstered transit can also catalyze changes to land use that make telework more livable:
- Transit’s spatial efficiency supports mixed-use development, allowing people to live in closer proximity to places such as co-working facilities that boost productivity and collaboration while still preserving the flexibility of remote work. Further, transit connectivity is essential to the viability of 15-minute cities where life activities are within easy walking or biking distance of homes, according to World Resource Institute researcher Dario Hidalgo.
- Transit-oriented communities are ideal for affordable housing-friendly zoning, as outlined in American Planning Association guidance. Transit agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego, for example, have policies specifically geared toward affordable housing near their hubs, allowing more people to live in neighborhoods well-connected to in-person jobs and other needs.
Despite transit’s importance, it faces significant challenges. How can we overcome them?
Even though transit has been vital to society’s resiliency during COVID-19 and can help build a better post-pandemic world, challenges and uncertainty continue to threaten service. Not only are transit agencies contending with severe funding challenges, but fears surrounding possible COVID exposure aboard transit are influencing transportation behavior even though results of contact tracing and surface sample testing indicate that buses and trains are low-risk venues for contracting or spreading the disease.
Transit agencies can respond to transit-spreads-COVID assumptions with strategies that, as described in our prior article, can send a powerful message to the public. These strategies include:
- Safety measures, such as requiring and providing masks, upgrading ventilation systems on buses and trains, and adjusting boarding methods to separate employees from passengers.
- Informational transparency, including real-time service and crowding information.
- Collaboration with other transportation providers, helping integrate multiple options and establishing transit as a central part of potential future Mobility-as-a-Service programs.
Data suggests, however, that getting the pandemic under control – in addition to saving lives and restoring our livelihood – is the best way to get people back on transit. Systems in New Zealand and New York, for example, saw riders return as spread in those places slowed.
Public transit’s role in fighting the virus might be more significant, however. Experts have highlighted how important community cooperation is to combating COVID-19 and, sure enough, Federal Transit Administration and Transportation Research Board reports describe how transit-oriented places have a particularly strong such sense of community.
Transit is only a single component of the broader cooperation society needs. But these results are one more way our bus and rail systems are helping people survive and overcome the crisis.