Public transportation can save the world — if we let it

It’s not whether public transportation can survive COVID; it’s whether we can survive without public transportation

By Andrew J. Hawkins | Nov 1, 2021, 8:52am EDT

9:13 AM on October 8, 2021 at Castro station, San Francisco, CA.
Video by Kelsey McClellan for The Verge

Caleb Spronk, 35, has a lot of great memories — and some not-so-great ones, too — of riding public transportation in Minneapolis. There were the random conversations with strangers, late-night rides after last call at the bar, and those raucous times packed onto a Metro Transit train with dozens of other Twins fans after a big win at Target Field. Even the time he was slapped in the face by a teenager who didn’t take kindly to Spronk’s request to stop holding the doors open wasn’t enough to taint the overall experience of riding transit in the Twin Cities. 

Then Covid hit, and Spronk, like many people, stopped using the train. As a software developer, he was privileged to be able to work from home. But when he eventually returns to the office — which he assumes he will at some point — Spronk said he may just end up walking rather than using public transportation. 

“​​I’m not afraid,” he said, “I regretfully just don’t need to use it anymore.”

Spronk isn’t alone. Nationally, transit ridership fell by 80 percent in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. Those numbers have improved but are still below pre-pandemic levels, despite the widespread availability of vaccines and the loosening of state restrictions. There is a growing fear in the transit community: what if riders don’t come back?

With government budgets strained as a result of the pandemic, experts worry that transit could be on the chopping block based on the historical reasoning that fewer riders means fewer dollars will be needed. That could create something called a “death spiral” — a cycle of terrible service leading to even fewer riders, leading to even more terrible service, and so on.

5:43 PM on Oct. 13, 2021 at The Wheeler light rail stop in Houston, TX,
Photo by Annie Mulligan for The Verge
5:20PM on October 13th, 2021 at the TMC/Dryden light rail stop on the Northline in Houston, TX.
Photo by Annie Mulligan for The Verge
11:45AM on October 8th, 2021 at the Glen Park Bart station in San Francisco.
Photo by Kelsey McClellan for The Verge
10:58AM on October 8th, 2021 at the Glen Park Bart station in San Francisco.
Photo by Kelsey McClellan for The Verge
7:13 PM on October 13, 2021 in Houston, TX. People settle into a stable position as they ride the Southline after getting on at the TMC/Dryden light rail stop in.
Photo by Annie Mulligan for The Verge

There’s more at stake than good buses and trains. The recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms that a hotter, wetter, more inhospitable future is all but certain. The transportation sector is responsible for nearly a third of greenhouse gases, most of which come from tailpipe emissions. High-quality mass transit can do a lot to fight climate change, but only if people are willing to use it. 

Cleaner air, a cooler Earth, more vibrant and diverse cities — these are the things that reliable public transportation can give us. The question is not whether public transportation can survive Covid; it’s whether we can survive without public transportation. 

The emergence of the Delta variant has cast a shadow over transit’s planned comeback. Bus ridership has recovered to 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels, while rail ridership has recovered to only 40 percent. As hospital beds filled up in some states over the summer, many employers delayed their office re-openings until 2022. Experts predict it may take many months, if not years, for ridership to return to normal. 

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. Congress approved $70 billion in funding for public transportation as part of the two emergency stimulus packages, more than 300 percent of transit’s average annual federal appropriations. Public transit agencies could get even more funding, depending on how the precarious negotiations over President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan shake out. That plan includes $39 billion for public transit systems through 2026, a historic infusion of cash will help many transit systems stay afloat, maybe even expand and improve, but it’s not a permanent solution. 

There will always be people who use transit because of its convenience, it’s affordability, and its reliability. But what happens when transit loses riders like Spronk, a rider by choice, who prior to the pandemic was a daily user? Now, Spronk says he’s left with his memories, some of which include using superior train systems in Europe and Asia while traveling abroad. 

“I just know we’re going to get further and further away from that type of system,” Spronk said, “if we don’t start prioritizing mass transit systems more than we currently do.” 

9:09 AM on October 8th, 2021 at Castro station, San Francisco, CA.
Video by Kelsey McClellan for The Verge

As Andy Byford, former president of the New York City Transit Authority, current president of Transport for London, and the man affectionately called “Train Daddy” by his fans (yes, a transit administrator has honest-to-god fans), likes to say, “running a transit system is like Groundhog Day; each day is the same, but it should be better.”

The pandemic has upended that ethos. Each day, transit leaders are waking up to new headaches. Right now, they are facing the impossible task of keeping revenues afloat in the face of historic rider shortages while also maintaining service for the riders who never left and trying to convince those who did that it’s safe to come back. Tomorrow, the challenge will be how to protect against rising sea levels, deadly heat waves, and other climate change-related disasters. 

In interviews with The Verge, transit leaders tried to sound optimistic in the face of these compounding challenges. Delta already scrambled a lot of comeback plans, but a lot depends on where you live. Texas is being hit harder than California, for example, which is why Bob Powers, general manager of the Bay Area Rapid Transit, said the numbers he was seeing regarding ridership were “encouraging,” while Thomas Lambert, who runs Houston’s Metro system, was less cheerful. 

“I don’t know the answer, to be very candid with you,” Lambert said when asked how the pandemic will affect Houston’s ridership long-term. “We were on a different path, probably a couple of months ago, when we saw a decline in the number of positive [Covid] cases. In the last couple of months, we’ve seen those numbers go up a lot,” he said in August. 

“There was a plan, probably going back to May and June, that we were going to see more employers bringing employees back in September,” he continued. “Now we’re seeing them rethink that. So I’m not really sure.” 

Case numbers are decreasing across the country, and there is hope that we’re already through the worst of the pandemic, but the virus isn’t done with us yet. And there are questions of what will happen as the weather gets colder and people start to let their guard down again. 

4:15PM on October 14th, 2021. A man wearing a face mask looks out the windowed doors of a METRO Blue Line light rail train moving northbound toward downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Photo by Annabelle Marcovici for The Verge
7:45PM on October 13th, 2021. Two people and a pup ride the Northline light rail stop in Houston, TX.
Photo by Annie Mulligan for The Verge
6:43PM on October 13th, 2021. A woman heads toward the Southline at the TMC/Dryden light rail in Houston, TX.
Photo by Annie Mulligan for The Verge

Lambert and other agency leaders expressed bewilderment as to what will come next. They want to lay more track, improve bus routes, and introduce innovations, like tap-to-pay fare payments and other high-tech ideas. But they also need to cover their operating expenses and make up for the drop in revenue at the farebox. If there is indeed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to be seized, there is also confusion as to how to go about the actual seizing. 

Transit leaders will also need to resist the urge to outsource services to tech startups promising salvation, experts say. For the past decade, tech companies have been aggressively lobbying local governments looking for subsidies or relaxed rules for services that seek to compete with or undermine transit. Ride-hailing apps like Uber or Lyft, autonomous vehicle companies, and even air taxi startups will publicly say they want to compliment and improve transit, but what they really want is more people using single-occupancy vehicles.  

Buzzy projects like “mobility-as-a-service” (MaaS) are gaining traction in a few cities. Pittsburgh, which has long been a hub for autonomous vehicle testing thanks to Carnegie Mellon University, has recently embarked on an experiment to integrate multiple transportation services, like public transportation, car share, electric scooters, and ride-hailing, into a single smartphone app in the hopes of making it easier for users to get around without a car. 

“We’re making it super intuitive to open up a single app, with everything in one place,” Karina Ricks, director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, told CityLab in July

It’s still early days for MaaS. It won’t be clear whether it’s working in Pittsburgh for at least a decade, as city officials have said their goal is to halve tailpipe emissions and vehicle miles traveled by 2030. The key to their success? Frequent, reliable public transportation. 

11:57 AM on October 14, 2021 at the DRYDEN/TMC light rail stop in the medical center in Houston, TX.
Video by Annie Mulligan for The Verge

Bigger questions remain about how public transportation needs to work in order to meet current and future demands, with experts and academics arguing that the whole design is out-of-whack and needs to be rethought. Most public transportation is built around a hub-and-spoke model, bringing people who live in the suburbs into the city for work or shopping. That system has waned in relevance over several decades as suburban office parks cropped up, business districts decentralized, and sprawl pushed people further away where density and land use patterns didn’t support transit. The pandemic has only underscored the irrelevance of the hub-and-spoke model.

Bob Powers, who runs San Francisco’s BART system, said the morning and evening rush has declined since the pandemic. “The morning peak and the PM peak, you know, kind of come down a little bit, and they’re not so peaky,” he said. “I think it’s a little bit difficult to predict, but I certainly think there’s going to be a change in the rigor of commute hours.”

Powers said the emergency funding from Congress has helped provide breathing room so BART can think about how it needs to adapt to this new style of remote work while also providing service for women, youth, and low-income workers — “folks that are not 9-to-5 typical commuters” as Powers describes them. 

Rather than mourn the death of peak service, transit experts are dancing on its grave. “The decline of the peak is probably one of the most positive stories out of this,” said Jarrett Walker, a transit consultant from Portland, OR. 

Transportation systems are made for rush hour. Its why highways are so wide and mass transit systems run more frequently during the morning and evening hours. If transit agencies can pivot to a more reliable all-around service, Walker said there’s no end to the positive change that can occur. “Suddenly, there will no longer be any excuse to widen roads because of rush hour,” he said. “A whole bunch of arguments for things will go away.”

If, after the pandemic, white-collar workers continue to stay away from morning and evening rush hour and instead work from home while using transit as needed, such as to come into the office a couple times a week, then rush hour will continue to stay flat. 

Running better all-of-the-time service would also do a lot to help lure people out of their cars and reduce carbon emissions. Recent studies have revealed that a single person who switches from a 20-mile commute by car to a bus or train ride can reduce their annual CO2 emissions by 20 pounds per day, or more than 48,000 pounds in a year. That’s equal to a 10 percent reduction in all greenhouse gases produced by a typical two-adult, two-car household.

5:14PM on October 13th, 2021. Pedestrians cross to get on the Southline at the TMC/Dryden light rail stop in Houston, TX.
Photo by Annie Mulligan for The Verge
4:56PM on October 14th, 2021. A person waits on the southbound side of the Hennepin Ave light rail station in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Photo by Annabelle Marcovici for The Verge
5:43PM on October 14th, 2021. Passengers board the Penn Avenue C Line bus at the South 8th Street and Nicollet Mall bus stop in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Photo by Annabelle Marcovici for The Verge
6:58PM on October 13th, 2021. Stebo rides the Southline light from the Wheeler stop in Houston, TX. Stebo was headed to “check on his friends” who he said were among the unhoused population in Houston.
Photo by Annie Mulligan for The Verge

bIf people can use mass transit to pick their kids up from school or run errands, they are less likely to be dependent on their vehicles. This is also an issue of racial and economic equity. Lower-income people are less likely to be rush hour commuters and more likely to need transit all of the time. 

Transit leaders often point to their experiments with microtransit or outsourcing those services to tech companies like Uber, Lyft, and Via, as proof they are thinking creatively about the future of public transportation. But the humble bus, with its ability to change routes easily, is often neglected in the face of these shinier options. 

“A lot of times, we focus on the rail system,” said Zabe Bent, director of design at the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “But we also saw during the pandemic that the bus systems were both more flexible to the changes that needed to be made, as well as more comfortable for a lot of people.”

A bus with more frequent and reliable service is worth more than anything that has emerged from Silicon Valley, especially if so-called “essential workers” take the spotlight away from white-collar workers as the primary users of transit. 

Not only is installing a bus rapid transit system orders of magnitude cheaper than most rail projects, but buses are also scrappy fighters of inequality. Surveys show that the majority of people who use rail are white and well-off, while buses tend to support lower-income riders and people of color. 

“How do we redesign our networks in a way that is more considerate of the vast amount of needs of residents instead of just a select few,” said Charles Brown, founder and CEO of Equitable Cities, a transportation consultancy focused on inequality. “Rail is much more difficult because it’s on this fixed track from node to node. Whereas the bus, you have an opportunity to be more flexible and more creative in terms of getting people to places beyond their job.”

11:05 AM on October 8th, 2021 at Glen Park Bart Station, San Francisco
Video by Kelsey McClellan for The Verge

Before the pandemic, only 5 percent of Americans used transit to commute to work. Ridership was already dropping before Covid even appeared on these shores. The distinctly American habit of driving alone to work, rather than carpooling or using mass transit, has clogged our roads, dirtied our skies, and made traffic fatalities a leading cause of death for many age groups. 

Those fatality numbers worsened during the pandemic, despite fewer cars on the road overall. Road deaths jumped 7.2 percent in 2020 from the year before, hitting a 13-year high, even though lockdown orders forced many people off the roads. And as society reopened — and our streets were once again flooded with cars — US traffic fatalities jumped 10.5 percent in the first quarter of 2021

Elected officials always say that they believe transit is essential for our cities to thrive in a future that’s healthier, safer, and more equitable. But the way they spend taxpayer money indicates a clear bias towards car drivers, with four out of every five dollars spent on surface transportation going to highway programs. As long as public transportation is “under the boot” of these policymakers, as Transportation for America’s Beth Osborne says, there is little hope that mass transit systems can be redesigned to meet the needs of the future. 

“Across the board, we fall victim to the notion that transportation is the point,” she said. “Transportation is the point of nothing. It’s where you’re going that is the point.”

One problem is the restrictions that Congress places on the money. Agencies cannot use funding from the surface transportation reauthorization for day-to-day operating expenses, such as paying salaries and buying fuel. Instead, much of that money is dedicated to building new rail lines, even when agencies do not have the funds to operate existing lines. Federal transit policy is designed for politicians who love ribbon-cuttings as opposed to actual riders.

7:01PM on October 14th, 2021. The driver of a 2nd Street Northeast 11 Metro Transit bus opens the front doors for passengers at Nicollet Mall and East Grant Street in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Photo by Annabelle Marcovici for The Verge
6:02PM on October 13th, 2021. Donist Levels rides on the Southline light rail in Houston, TX.
Photo by Annie Mulligan for The Verge
7:17PM on October 13th, 2021. A woman dashes away at the Stadium Park/Astrodome light rail stop in Houston, TX.
Photo by Annie Mulligan for The Verge

As the infrastructure deal nears the finish line, transit advocates are scrambling to secure as much money for transit as possible. Biden’s push to electrify vehicles will help fight climate change, but a clean traffic jam is still just a traffic jam. High-quality transit is the only real solution to our vast, seemingly intractable problems with climate change, inequality, land use, and housing. 

It can seem daunting, Osborne said, with the virus still raging throughout the country and a sense that the political winds are shifting against those who believe that transit can save us. But huge challenges often beget huge opportunities. 

“On one hand, it’s like, ‘Oh no, we have to go through a whole other layer of reconsideration and change, and that’s scary,’” Osborne said. “But on the other hand, how exciting! We get to go out and experiment, try things in a totally different way, and service people in a different way that could save them money, save lives, and reduce emissions. That sounds really cool to me.”

Correction November 8th, 10:52AM ET: Zabe Bent is the director of design at the National Association of City Transportation Officials. A previous version of this story misspelled her name. We regret the error.