Focusing mass transit on those who need it or commuters

Looking at those who continued to use mass transit during COVID-19 helps raise the question of who public transit should serve:

Photo by Samson Katt on Pexels.com

Yes, public transit ridership dropped like a stone after many places instituted stay-at-home orders. Americans took 186 million transit rides in the last week of February 2020, according to data compiled by the American Public Transit Association; a month later, that number had fallen by 72 percent, to 52.4 million. At the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which operates in the Pittsburgh area, ridership fell 68 percent.

Who kept riding? In a country where race is tied to economic opportunity and geography, transit riders have long been disproportionately low-income and people of color. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but they were the riders who stuck around. An analysis from the APTA found that white men were more likely to have given up transit during the pandemic; people of color, people who spoke Spanish, and women did not…

But US public transit has generally focused on commuters, especially those with traditional 9-to-5 schedules, who travel between city fringes and downtown business districts—riders who are less likely to be low-income and more likely to be white. That’s despite the fact that, even in the biggest cities, where transit use is more common, just half of pre-pandemic trips were to and from work. In smaller systems, the share is even less. The Port Authority of Allegheny County isn’t an exception. “Our system is very downtown centric, and it has historically relied very much on the commuter,” says Brandolph, the spokesperson. As a result, service within cities, serving people with less-regular work schedules or who took transit for other purposes, got short shrift.

That age may be over, says Alex Karner, who studies transportation equity as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. “The pandemic really exposed the truth that there are people for whom public transit is a vitally important public service,” he says. He says agencies now realize they will no longer be able to rely on peak-period commuters. When Urban Institute researchers surveyed 73 US and Canadian agencies on what service might look like in a “post-pandemic” era, more than half said they thought “peak period” travel would decrease. Nearly 70 percent said white-collar workers would take fewer rides. So transit agencies must decide what the new normal will be—and who it will serve.

In a country devoted to driving, those who have alternatives to mass transit to get to work will use those. Additionally, there is a class element to how mass transit is used and regarded and COVID-19 made work from home possible for some and not others.

The underlying assumption here appears to be that public transit cannot or cannot easily serve both groups of users. One aspect of this is that underlying patterns of residential segregation in cities and urban areas mean potential riders live in different locations. Additionally, later parts of the story cited above highlight the money mass transit systems have at the moment due to federal funds.

In the long run, when wealthier residents are asked to devote more funds to mass transit for equity and those who need it, will they agree? In Chicago, this has manifest in limited mass transit service in some areas compared to others. The new federal money means the Red Line can be extended on the South side. How far can efforts go? In other metro areas in recent years, wealthier suburbanites (see Nashville) have rejected efforts to expand mass transit. When suburbs are increasingly diverse and home to poorer residents, is there will to have consistent mass transit service?

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