How will the Pandemic Affect Mass Transit?


How will the Pandemic Affect Mass Transit?

The American Public Transportation Association reported that in 2018, Americans took 9.9 billion trips on public transportation. It’s a colossal number, and for many years, it’s been an ever-increasing one. Per the APTA, public transportation use has increased nationally by 21 percent since 1997, outpacing the 19 percent increase in population by a considerable margin. 

It’s heartening to note that times of hardship have long served as flashpoints for innovation.

It’s apparent that the new normal is anything but, and COVID-19 changes everything. According to a recent article in the New York Times, NYC’s system, the largest in North America, is seeking a $4 billion federal bailout as the Coronavirus pandemic has triggered a precipitous decline in ridership. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority—which runs the subway, buses, and two commuter rails—said ridership had declined 60 percent on the subway and 49 percent on buses as compared to this same time last year. 

Across the country in San Francisco, local authorities report a similar downturn, as the total number of Bay Area fares is down over 70 percent. Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, and more: It’s happening in communities across the country, and the concern is one shared nationwide.

Look no further than the aforementioned APTA, which this week has asked the federal government to provide $16 billion in emergency funds to transit agencies across the country that are similarly struggling because of the pandemic, calling public transportation “a lifeline for essential services.”

There is little question that what our nation currently faces is unprecedented. Yet, we can look to history for some indications as to what the future may hold. “Sneezers and coughers beware” read a newspaper headline in the evening edition of the Oregon Journal on October 5th. The ensuing article encouraged the washing of hands and the safeguarding of personal space. Those using public transportation were encouraged to sneeze and cough into their elbows and shirt sleeves, and to avoid those who appear to be experiencing respiratory duress. That article dates back to 1918, over 102 years ago. 

At that time, our nation was in the midst of fighting the first World War, and the outbreak in question was Spanish Influenza. The recommended “four feet of distance” was an early prototype for social distancing. Eventually, we triumphed on all fronts, from the battlefield to the crowded streetcars of Portland. Yet the re-adoption of public transportation was a slow one, and in the years following the outbreak, the use of personal vehicles skyrocketed in Portland and across the country.

More recently, in the wake of 2003’s SARS epidemic, numerous studies were conducted in an effort to learn from the outbreak. While in the throes of the disease’s spread, six locations—Hong Kong, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Great Britain, and the Netherlands—indicated that public transportation (which includes buses, trains, and airplanes) was the riskiest place for citizens to spend time during a pandemic, in comparison to entertainment destinations, shops, hospitals, workplaces, and schools. Public officials and health organizations recommended then that citizens who utilized public transportation wash their hands, maintain distance, and think carefully about commuting patterns. Sound familiar?

Past is often prologue, and despite the discouraging numbers and trends of today, the certainty remains that things will get better, much as they did in the months and years following the Spanish Flu and SARS outbreaks. It’s not a stretch to see an improvement in infection rate on the horizon, and eventually, it’s all but inevitable that we will eradicate Coronavirus altogether. 

Additionally, it’s heartening to note that times of hardship have long served as flashpoints for innovation, and new solutions often arise amidst turmoil. The future of transportation in our communities may be an uncertain one, but regardless of the challenges posed, fresh new thinking will doubtlessly play a part in the solution.

If the financial hardship faced by public transportation providers results in scaled-back operations, it’s imperative that commuters still be able to get to work and back simply and safely. Many prognosticators are predicting that in the wake of the pandemic, more people will take to personal vehicle use and commute in their own vehicles.

Predictions are informed guesses at this point, and there are no guarantees. Yet the statistical trends are hard to ignore, and there is little doubt that communities nationwide would be well served to brace themselves for a new commuter reality. Simply put: It’s time to prepare. If these predictions come to light, the implications upon parking, congestion and pollution could be pronounced, presenting a host of new issues for communities. Finding ways to adequately manage vehicles, monitor parking, and more effectively manage curbside assets are all strategies that will play a critical role in keeping things moving efficiently—both for drivers and cities.

With more vehicles on the road, regardless of whether they are from residual social distancing or inevitable population growth, reducing circling and double parking, keeping roads clearer, mitigating traffic congestion, reducing emissions, and making the lives of parking-seekers easier will all be desired—and even essential—outcomes. 

To stop Coronavirus we will need to radically change almost everything we do: how we work, exercise, socialize, shop, educate our kids, take care of family members and yes, commute. What will the new commuter landscape look like? Nobody can know for certain. What we do know is that regardless, efficiency will play an essential role in our success.

Matt Willenbrink – Executive Vice President at Fybr. He can be reached at 

Article contributed by:
Matt Willenbrink
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