In a Pandemic, We’re All ‘Transit Dependent’

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As health authorities tell us to stay at home and to maintain a six-foot distance from one another, public transit ridership has understandably collapsed. A TransitApp analysis suggests that this collapse has now stabilized around 70% below pre-crisis levels, but many major agencies report bigger declines, especially on longer-distance and commute-oriented services. San Francisco’s BART system, for example, has lost 93% of its riders.

The financial disaster transit agencies face is hard to overstate. Most U.S. transit agency revenue comes from fares and payroll and sales taxes, all of which will have collapsed or can be expected to as the effects of the pandemic ripple down through the economy.

There is no silver lining here. The recent federal CARES Act includes $25 billion in emergency funds for transit agencies. This will keep the lights on for a while, but not if the crisis drags on.

In response to this emergency, major agencies are doing their best not to cut service much. Typically, agencies have deleted rush-hour express service (whose wealthier riders are almost all working from home) and have shut down tourism and recreation services. After that, their next step has usually been running Saturday or Sunday schedules every day, which implies reduced frequencies, although San Francisco is turning off some routes to protect frequency and prevent crowding on most-used routes nearby. Based on my informal discussions with many agencies, the service cuts seem to be in the range of 10% to 40% at this point, far less than the roughly 70% drop in ridership.

Even these service cuts aren’t all motivated by the need to save money. The first impetus has been a staff shortage. Bus and train drivers are ill, or afraid of becoming ill, or are stuck at home caring for children who would usually be in school. Even where budget is a consideration, agencies are desperate to avoid major layoffs and furloughs, both because they care about their employees and because they need a highly trained workforce to still be there when demand comes back.

At least agencies can save money by running smaller vehicles, right? Labor is most of bus operating cost, but agencies could save power, fuel, and wear-and-tear. But no: Agencies are trying to run big buses and long trains, so that their few passengers can stay six feet apart, and they’re being criticized when loads are too high. In short, they are intentionally creating the “empty buses” look that so many people misread as evidence of transit’s failure or irrelevance. (Good luck getting that much distance when using Uber.)

Why are agencies behaving this way? Because they are not businesses. And if there’s one thing we must learn from this moment, it’s that we have to stop talking about transit as though ridership is its only purpose, and its primary measure of success.

Right now, essential services have to keep going. It’s not just the hospital, the grocery store, and basic utilities.  It’s the entire supply chain that keeps those places stocked, running, and secure. Almost all of these jobs are low-wage. The people using transit now are working in hospitals that are saving lives. They are creating, shipping and selling urgently needed supplies. They are keeping grocery stores functioning, so we can eat.

In transit conversations we often talk about meeting the needs of people who depend on transit. This makes transit sound like something we’re doing for them. But in fact, those people are providing services that we all depend on, so by serving those lower income riders, we’re all serving ourselves.

The goal of transit, right now, is neither competing for riders nor providing a social service for those in need. It is helping prevent the collapse of civilization.

What’s more, transit has always been doing that. Those “essential service” workers, who are overwhelmingly low-income, have always been there, moving around quietly in our transit systems, keeping our cities functioning. Too often, we have patronized them by calling them needy or dependent when in fact everything would collapse if they couldn’t get to work.

Transit agencies rarely get credit for this work, and journalists rarely stop to consider it. For the last decade or more, the default news story about transit has been about ridership. When it’s down, we get alarmist stories. What are transit agencies doing wrong? How are they going to fix it? The near-universal assumption is that transit should be judged as though it were a business, and that transit ridership is the primary measure of transit’s usefulness or relevance. This assumption has always been wrong, but now it’s obviously wrong. If it were true, agencies wouldn’t still be running so much service right now.

Right now, in interviews, I’m being asked what transit agencies must do after the crisis to get ridership back. The false implication is not just that the return of ridership should be their only goal, but also that there’s something that they could do to bring ridership back to what it was. In normal times, transit agencies can improve ridership by making service more useful — that’s what I do as a consultant — but ridership has always gone up or down for reasons outside their control. That’s never been more obvious than right now.

In fact, there’s good reason to suspect that the return of previous riders could take a year or more. This crisis won’t end overnight. At some point we’ll emerge from our holes and start moving around again, but the virus will still be there and we’ll all be cautious about it. If you had an easy option to drive your own car — a car that you cleaned yourself and whose inner surfaces nobody outside your family has touched — would you choose instead to get into a transit vehicle, full of strangers and the surfaces they’ve been touching?

It’s quite possible, then, that ridership will rise only gradually, and that for some time, most of the people riding will be those who we too-often call the “transit dependent.” This term, like its opposite “choice rider,” has always been misleading, because most urban people are not totally dependent or totally “choice.” Instead, we each have a range of travel options with their own incentives and disincentives, and may make different choices for different trips. Some people also “choose transit dependence” by not owning cars even though they could afford one, thus revealing the absurdity of describing all riders as either “dependent” or “choice.”

But even for those with the fewest options, the term dependent has allowed us to imagine helpless people in need of our rescue, rather than people that we depend on to keep things running. Everyone who lives in a city, or invests in one, or lives by selling to urban populations is transit dependent in this sense.

Meanwhile, if we all drive cars out of a feeling of personal safety, we’ll quickly restore the congestion that strangles our cities, the emissions that poison us and our planet, and the appalling rates of traffic carnage that we are expected to tolerate. Once again, we’ll need incentives, such as market-based road pricing, to make transit attractive enough so that there’s room for everyone to move around the city. That will mean more ridership, but again, ridership isn’t exactly the point. The point is the functioning of the city, which again, all of us depend on.

So let’s take this moment to reframe our journalism and commentary around transit issues. Let’s learn from the remarkable work that transit agencies are doing now, and recognize that this is something they’ve always done and that we’ll always need them to do. Let’s look beyond ridership or “transit dependence” and instead measure all the ways that transit makes urban civilization possible. In big cities, transit is an essential service, like police and water, without which nothing else is possible. Maybe that’s how we should measure its results.