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Transit After the Pandemic

How will the ways we move look different once the U.S. returns to some semblance of normalcy?

All the questions swirling around transit in this pandemic-induced world really point to a simple two-fold question. That is, will transit survive the pandemic, and if so in what form?

Speculation has run rampant. The pundits seem to have reached the conclusion that transit will emerge in a much-changed state and in a much-diminished form. The conventional wisdom now maintains that the post-pandemic world will look vastly different from the pre-pandemic one. Many trends recognized before the pandemic are perceived to be accelerating. For example, large segments of the working population are now performing their tasks at home, eschewing the traditional commute. In this view, a greater reliance on the automobile is expected as mass transit downsizes into a much smaller footprint. It will devolve into a permanently reduced service primarily geared for the captive rider. Well, the demise or near demise of transit could be greatly exaggerated.

First of all, and most important of all contributors to the role transit will play post-pandemic, the built environment will not miraculously transform itself overnight. The forces that have resulted in the spatial separation of home, work, entertainment, shopping, etc., in our metropolitan areas will not magically melt away. Fortunately, we can build on what we have learned from the pandemic to plan the way forward. A leader in the business community, Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, has emerged as a forceful proponent for workers returning to their offices. He has strongly opined that he can’t wait for his employees to return to their workstations. His view, which may have considerable validity (and force), is likely based on the premise that in many areas of the economy people need other people in close proximity to spawn, debate, and expand different ideas, to ponder over and dissect disparate thoughts, philosophies, and opinions and mold the most promising into coherent, workable solutions.  Zooming obviously fills a need, no doubt, but simply cannot replace or replicate the energies unleashed, synergies gained, and relationships enriched in the more traditional office setting—that is, face to face.

The results of a recent survey of 133 U.S. business executives reported in the Wall Street Journal found that 68 percent share the belief that employees should go to the office at least three days a week to maintain distinct company cultures. More recent reports from the banking industry (via Bloomberg News) indicate a deep dissatisfaction and disenchantment with work from home (WFH) performances. The new office may not closely resemble what existed before the pandemic, but it will certainly persevere in some workable form in our urban and suburban cores. Transit could likely regain much of its momentum and criticality in contributing to and maintaining viable mobility options. However, as many studies point out, WFH offers substantial benefits in worker satisfaction, worker productivity, reduced absenteeism, and cost savings in real estate. One study predicts that one-fifth of the U.S. workforce could be, post-pandemic, completely working from a remote location. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show 16 percent of the workforce, at least part of the time, worked away from the traditional office in 2019. The overall effect of this on transit usage could dampen any predictions about a possible patronage rebound post-pandemic. Also, consider that the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated that telework has increased 115 percent over the past 10 years. This is clearly a trend with tremendous implications, and not just for transit.

A second factor to consider, much also depends on the effectiveness of administering the different vaccines developed to defeat the virus, allowing us to resume a semblance of our former, pre-pandemic lives. I might add that attitudes toward inoculation will be critical. This is all critical to transit. Enticing former users to transit will involve reassuring or convincing them that they can use transit with confidence and safety. Those segments of the population that harbor suspicions regarding the efficacy of vaccines in general and now the COVID-19 vaccines in particular are exhibiting visceral resistance to climbing aboard this train. Effort will be required to convince them otherwise. Already, surveys are confirming that a significant segment of the population, including healthcare providers, remain ambivalent about taking the vaccine.

A snapshot of transit patronage levels across the globe is not encouraging. Three months into 2020, most large transit systems had lost about 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels. At the beginning of 2021, most large systems had recouped about half of their normal weekday ridership. One outlier was Shanghai, China, which has regained pre-pandemic levels and then some.

Fortunately, study after study has shown that transit was not and is not a hot spot in this country or overseas for spreading the virus, (good ventilation, shorter trips, and mask wearing all contribute to this conclusion) although intuitively this might not seem the case. At the present time, this is regrettably immaterial, given the absurdly low ridership numbers currently being registered.  However, it follows that it would be sensible to preserve transit infrastructure and operations and retain transit employees in order to be ready to resume its key position, however reduced, in the urban transport environment.

A third thing to think about, we must recognize that the transit industry is being handed an unparalleled opportunity to tackle structural inefficiencies and longstanding service shortcomings to enhance the attractiveness of the service, both bus and rail, for future operations. A number of transit agencies have already implemented redesigned bus networks (Houston, Baltimore, and Columbus for example). However, much work remains across the U.S. to deploy bus routes in cities large and small that blanket the service area in the most efficient and effective manner. Rest assured, this is no small task but could potentially result in much better coverage at the same or reduced cost, especially if revamped services retain a flexibility to react to the post-pandemic environment.

Finally, as that wise sage Yogi Berra once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” The murky future will certainly gain more clarity when we have inoculated a large segment of our population, and regain our normal confidence and resolve, and turn our energies to addressing the negative impacts of the pandemic. One such path will likely be the restoration of a reconfigured transit component in our cities, modulated to the new realities. For example, the traditional rush hour may be a thing of the past. How do we address that?  How do we avoid disinvestment, indeed how do we resolve to make new investments, as funds for transit have and could continue to shrink? The questions are seemingly infinite. But like many areas of our emerging post-pandemic society, success will be dependent on careful analysis and wise decision-making, fully focusing on restoring and rebuilding a functioning, equitable, and truly mobile society. I just hope another Yogi strand of wisdom will come true, that is, “nobody rides transit anymore, it’s too crowded.”

Glen Bottoms was executive director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.



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