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:

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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?

Seeing 1930s Los Angeles streetcars in color

The fabled Los Angeles streetcar system is visible in a colorized video with added sound of the city in the 1930s:

The streetcar system is no more with numerous works discussing how it was dismantled amid a push for cars and highways. But, the video is a reminder that cars and streetcars operated together for at least a while as the city and region grew quickly. Both provided opportunities to travel throughout the area and utilized the same roadways.

It is also interesting how such altered videos – here with color and sound added – have the opportunity to change perceptions of the past. When even relatively recent history is displayed in black and white, it seems less vibrant and real. Throw in approximate sound and such video could help viewers feel as if they are back in Los Angeles nearly a century ago.

In a society devoted to driving and business, what alternatives are there to rental cars?

The rental car industry has had a difficult year, customers are unhappy, and some companies are still making money. In a country that likes driving, has planned around driving, and has oodles of cars plus encourages business activity, what could be done to not depend on rental cars? A few options:

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  1. Car sharing services. There are more of these around today. Cut out the middle-man business and just deal with a private car owner for your transportation.
  2. Taxis and/or ride share companies. These are more available in some places than others and do not allow the same freedom as being able to drive a rental car wherever and whenever you would like.
  3. Public transportation. Even less available outside of denser urban areas. And even in places where mass transit is plentiful, many people still opt for private vehicles.
  4. Walking or bicycling. Very difficult and possibly dangerous in many locations.
  5. Borrowing a car from family or friends or doing without it for a time. It could be done but the location and time frame is very important.

Thinking back, I can recall multiple trips where a rental car was a necessity in order to get where we wanted to go. At the same time, some work trips did not require a vehicle because the location of the meeting was in a large city with public transit options. And if you are in a suburban or more rural setting and your car is in the shop for more than a day, a car rental may be very necessary.

Does this mean Americans must put up with rental cars forever? Perhaps someday there will be fleets of electric vehicles for all to access. Until then, renting a car may be a necessary evil.

Who has returned to the Chicago highways after COVID-19 is a little different

As traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels across the United States, data from Chicago suggests the composition of vehicles has changed a bit:

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Travel times have already returned mostly to normal on Chicago’s expressways, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. On the Eisenhower, it’s taking drivers an average of 40 minutes to get from Wolf Road to the Jane Byrne Interchange during morning rush hour, compared with 32 minutes in June 2019. Drivers taking the Kennedy from downtown to O’Hare International Airport in the afternoon spent about an hour on the road in both June 2019 and 2021.

Who’s on the road might be changing, though. Truck traffic is up, and more people are working remotely. Among those heading out, more people who were taking public transit before the pandemic seem to be driving, IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said.

On one hand, more people are working from home. On the other hand, another long-term change might be that those who used to take mass transit regularly will not go back to that for a long time or ever. What will it take for mass transit ridership to come back to pre-COVID-19 levels? When will people feel comfortable again on trains, buses, and subways? Multiple cities are trying to address this but, as I argued last week, mass transit is already is less preferable for many commuters even before COVID.

Imagine a post-COVID-19 traffic nightmare: trucks all over the place delivering goods as the economy continues to rebound. More cars on the roads because of fears about mass transit. People who were home for months and/or were used to less congestion on the road now stuck in worse traffic. Are there any good short and long-term solutions to addressing this while the mass transit efforts also continue?

Getting people back to mass transit after COVID-19 – and a deck stacked against mass transit

Mass transit agencies across the United States are trying different strategies to try to get people back after COVID-19:

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Agencies in Boston, Cleveland, Las Vegas, the San Francisco Bay Area, and New Orleans are offering reduced fares or free rides, temporarily, to lure people back onto transit. Others are considering abolishing fares altogether. Los Angeles is exploring a 23-month pilot that would give students and low-income residents free rides. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority scrapped fares in March 2020 and doesn’t plan to bring them back. “The return on investment for empathy, compassion, for social equity, far outweighs the return on investment for concrete and asphalt,” Robbie Makinen, the agency’s CEO, told Stateline last week.

Others are taking aim at an even more sacred cow: rush hour service…

Agencies are using the murky period of pandemic recovery to usher in schedule changes. In Los Angeles, officials for Metra, the local commuter rail, said this month they would test new schedules that “step away” from the pre-pandemic, rush hour norm, “in favor of a more balanced approach” that spaces trains more evenly throughout the day. In Boston, officials in April went ahead with pre-pandemic plans and began running more frequent commuter trains outside the schedules of the 9-to-5ers. It’s part of a bigger vision to transform the system into a more equitable regional rail network that serves more than the traditional office worker. Off-peak riders are more likely to be immigrants, women, people of color, and lower income. The pandemic, as the local advocacy group TransitMatters has observed, may have given the local agency the “political space” to make long-planned changes. There are fewer people now to complain that operators took away their specific train.

Just as the aftermath of COVID-19 offers an opportunity to think about housing, here is an opportunity to reconsider mass transit strategies. Why keep doing things the same old ways when the world has changed? If different cities and regions experiment with different tractics, they might find a few that work and that can be widely adopted.

At the same time, mass transit does not just face COVID-19 fallout. If given the choice, many Americans would prefer not to use mass transit. If needing to travel, they would prefer to drive unless this is really inconvenient. Driving offers more individual freedom to come and go and offers completely personal space (outside of seeing other drivers and passengers in nearby vehicles). American governments have spent a lot of money in the last century paying for roads and driving infrastructure while investments in mass transit have lagged or mass transit is often tied to driving (an emphasis on buses).

Additionally, if a post-COVID-19 world means that working from home is more of an option, more people simply will not need mass transit and/or will enjoy not having to use it. Mass transit could still be useful for going out but if it is not needed for work for as many people, this will mean losing a lot of regular riders.

More broadly, this gets at bigger questions in the United States about development, density, transportation, and thriving communities. An ongoing commitment to cars has consequences as would a shift toward a different kind of mass transit or constructing more dense places where mass transit makes more sense. If the best that can be done now is to prioritize transit-oriented development in denser pockets in urban areas, it will take a long time to swing trips toward mass transit compared to driving.

Love and mass transit in 2021

Combine online dating and a love for mass transit and what do you get?

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As a single person wandering through the world, it can be difficult to find someone who loves all the right things: parks, subways, bike lanes, human-scale buildings, high-density housing, debates over the ideal length of a city block. Even on a dating app, you can’t always tell from a profile who might be thinking, behind their smile, I hate cars.

But if this is exactly the sort of partner—or friend or fling—you’re looking for, there is a solution: Join the wildly popular Facebook meme group and leftist community NUMTOTs (“New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens,” which isn’t really just for teens) and request access to its private spin-off group, NUMTinder. With about 8,000 members living mostly in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, NUMTinder is a makeshift dating environment for those who consider liking public transportation to be a core part of their personality, or those for whom a lack of interest in urban planning is a deal breaker. Almost everyone in the group posts at least one selfie with a bike or a subway entrance, to demonstrate their commitment to the lifestyle, and when a new member introduces herself, it’s not uncommon for her to brag about the fact that she doesn’t have a driver’s license. (A second spin-off group, called NUMThots, is for sharing the spiciest seminudes that Facebook’s content moderation will allow. But transit-themed!)

The primary advantage to online dating is that it expands a person’s options beyond geography and their immediate social network to a much broader pool of people who can be filtered by particular traits. In this case, limit the pool to people who care about mass transit and those with that interest can search for partners.

While this may seem strange to the general public, is it really any different than numerous other likes people care about? Just as a comparison, plenty of people like cars or specific cars. At races, car events, clubs, and more, people with these interests could come together. Or, take people who regularly watch trains. Through different communities, these people could meet up and interact. The primary difference is that more Americans might like cars than mass transit.

A final thought: I imagine this group might be more useful in and around cities with a lot of mass transit. Of course, it could also be helpful in other places where few people even think about mass transit because it is not as present.

Limited solutions to ensuring more long green light stretches of suburban driving

After occasionally finding stretches of hitting all green lights on major suburban roadways, I wanted to consider how these experiences might become more common. Is it possible? Here are some strategies alongside my sense of whether these would help.

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  1. Synchronizing traffic lights. Los Angeles did this a few years ago to help traffic flow. As a kid, I recall sitting in the car in Chicago and hearing tell of how Clark Street on Chicago’s North Side was set up this way: follow the speed limit and a driver should hit multiple greens in a row. This could be harder to accomplish across a range of municipalities and the various traffic volumes intersecting with the main road. Additionally, this might not help much if there is just too much traffic on the road.
  2. Providing more lanes, more driving options. Americans tend to like this strategy: more lanes, more roads equals more space for vehicles, right? Research suggests otherwise: if you add road capacity, drivers will tend to fill that up. Americans like driving in the suburbs and this is not a long-term solution. In fact, road diets may be more helpful: reduce capacity and it pushes drivers toward other options. Furthermore, expanding roads in an already developed suburban area can get quite expensive and may be controversial.
  3. Encouraging more mass transit use, more walking and bicycling, and less driving. If there are simply too many cars, limiting trips would help ensure smoother driving experiences. All of these options are tough sells in the suburbs. It is hard to provide mass transit in a decentralized landscape and wealthier residents are unlikely to use it. Residential neighborhoods might be set up for biking and walking but connecting to other uses – grocery stores, schools, businesses – is often not possible or is dangerous.
  4. Having more employees work from home. This may be temporary due to COVID-19 but could be a long-term solution for traffic and congestion issues. Of course, there may be more people living in the suburbs due to COVID-19.

This suggests that there may be some short-term solutions but the bigger issue would take more time and effort: American suburbs are built around driving.

Trying to forecast future suburban commuting patterns, Naperville edition

The Naperville train stations are busy – until COVID-19. So how full will the parking lots be in the future?

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The city conducted a survey in the fall to gather data on commuting habits and gauge when people expect to return to work. The information will be used as the city reevaluates the Commuter Parking and Access Work Plan instituted in 2019…

A survey shows 81% of respondents are not commuting, but 75% indicated they expect to return to their “pre-pandemic schedule for commuting by Metra” by the end of 2021…

The survey shows 1,642 respondents, or 76%, said they commuted on Metra four or more days per week before the pandemic. But 37%, or 797, said they expect to continue commuting four or more days when life gets back to normal…

When people do return to a regular commute, Naperville’s parking survey showed 69% of responders would like the city to consider other payment options beyond quarterly and daily fees.

Trying to forecast commuting via multiple means – train, car, bus, subway, etc. – is going to be difficult for a while. As the article notes, a work from home option from many employers could continue. The willingness of commuters to return to mass transit and regularly proximity to others also might matter (and more of those who return to the office might choose driving which leads to other problems).

Yet, even if ridership or commuting stays low, systems still need to run and be maintained. With less revenue, how do transportation systems and municipalities keep up with costs?

This can contribute to an ongoing chicken-and-egg problem often posed in the United States. If there was better mass transit, would this lead to increased use? Or, do you have to have increased ridership or interest before building out transit systems?

The effects could be broader than just infrastructure and local budgets. Populations might shift if people change their commuting patterns for the long-term. Workplaces and offices could be very different. Suburbs, already built around private homes and lots of driving, could change in character and land use.

Carmageddon in Los Angeles vs. Carmageddon in New York City

Remember Carmageddon and Carmageddon II in Los Angeles? Now, Carmageddon has come to New York City:

In Chicago and in other cities with robust transit systems, people who have never owned cars before are suddenly buying them. In New York City, some are calling it “carmaggedon,” as residents there registered 40,000 new cars in July, the highest monthly total in years. Meanwhile, NYC subway ridership is still down more than 75% from last year.

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The difference in what leads to carmageddon in each city is striking. In Los Angeles, closing a section of a major highway is a problem for the entire system. Because of the emphasis on driving and the various chokepoints in the road system, a single closure has ripple effects. In New York City, the opposite is the case: high mass transit use, particularly in Manhattan and denser parts of the city, is necessary. If something threatens the mass transit lines – here, it is an unwillingness to use mass transit when there is a pandemic – then too many cars may be on roads that cannot handle the increased volume.

Fortunately for Los Angeles and unfortunately for New York, the length of Carmageddon matters. Closing a major highway for just a few days is survivable. Indeed, Los Angeles got out ahead of the problem and enough drivers were able to make alternate plans. Decreased mass transit use due to COVID-19 is another story. How long will the virus be around? Will there be a point where residents return to mass transit even with the threat of the virus present? Carmageddon in New York might prove more lengthy and much more difficult to remedy.

Addressing more Chicago traffic when fewer people take mass transit

With COVID-19, few may be willing to ride mass transit even as everyday life slowly returns to some normalcy. This has consequences for traffic:

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World Business Chicago, a public-private nonprofit agency that promotes the city, estimates that on a given workday there about 406,000 office workers in downtown Chicago, making it the country’s second-biggest central business district after Manhattan.

Many of those people arrive by trains and buses, with the CTA and Metra providing almost 1.9 million rides combined on an average, pre-coronavirus weekday. That includes 1.6 million total one-way CTA rides and 263,000 Metra trips…

Riders’ hesitation may come in part from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation in May that people drive to work alone. That guidance rankled public transportation advocates and created concerns of major traffic and environmental impacts in densely populated cities…

“We’re hearing stories from New York and (Washington) D.C. about employers saying if you’ve taken public transportation you can’t come in the building,” Lavin said. “We want to be sure there’s nothing against public transportation here. In order to do that, we need to have a dialogue.”

Chicago has heavy traffic even with mass transit use because it is a transportation center with plenty of highways and intermodal facilities.

As noted in an earlier blog post, this does present an opportunity to reduce traffic long-term or make a choice to continue to rely on a sprawling landscape full of drivers in their own private vehicles. There are multiple options to pursue:

1. More people working from home. This would reduce traffic on major roads.

2. Stagger work times more so that “rush hour” is more spread out.

3. Find ways to make sure mass transit is safe and/or people feel confident riding it. This might require more resources or better PR or new ideas.

4. Pushing for more people to be able to work closer to their workplaces (meaning more housing options throughout a metropolitan region).

5. Pushing for denser areas in the city or suburbs. (This might be a hard sell right at the moment due to concerns about COVID-19.)

6. Providing more incentives for fleets of vehicles (electric or otherwise) so that not every household has so many cars.

Any one of these or several of them could be pursued at multiple levels with actions from individuals, local groups and municipalities, states, regions, and the federal government.