The Future of Transit Post-Pandemic

Mass transit, like many other industries, has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. There have been multiple articles on the impact to agencies’ income, expansion, operations, services, and fares. Most articles include data that illustrate the challenges, but that also suggest transit will turn the corner and “return to normal” once restrictions are no longer needed. A more accurate prediction may be that a “return to normal” is unrealistic as the pandemic has permanently shifted what “normal” will look like for the transit industry.

The losses

At their worst, the statistics indicating the health of the industry are sobering. A study conducted on behalf of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) indicated the pandemic will result in a projected shortfall of $39.3 Billion for public transportation agencies over the next three years.

In response, many transit agencies have reduced fares, closed stations, furloughed employees, and put expansion projects on the back burner. The state and local tax base that generally supports transit agencies has plummeted, as has revenue from fares.

That’s left transit systems contemplating significant cuts; for example, Washington, D.C. was planning to eliminate nighttime and weekend rail service before federal aid finally came through at the end of the 2020.To address the ongoing shortfall, APTA asked President Biden and Congressional leaders for an additional $39.3 billion in COVID-19 emergency funding to avoid further employee layoffs, furloughs, and service cuts.

The upside

In the short term, transit is counting on government funding to both support agencies and kickstart local economies so use of transit services will increase. As populations are vaccinated, agencies expect demand for services – and the resulting income – will return. A recent article in C40 Knowledge suggests transit agencies should prepare to accommodate increased demand as lockdown restrictions ease.

The reality

But not everyone expects demand for mass transit services to increase substantially. What demand does return may look very different from pre-pandemic demand. Yes, easing lockdown restrictions and improving funding and local economies will likely result in an increase in revenues; but a bigger issue is that the pandemic has permanently altered the way we live and work. Here are some of the changes analysts say the transit industry should expect, post-pandemic.

     1. Migration away from larger cities

Transit ridership has been decreasing for years. Now, in response to the pandemic, people and jobs have migrated away from larger cities toward smaller cities and towns. As a result, office vacancy rates have risen during the pandemic, and commercial real estate prices have dropped 7 to 10 percent.

“Many of these big urban areas have seen a complete shift of where people are living right now,” said Jim Derwinski, CEO of Chicago’s Metra system and chair of the Commuter Rail Coalition. By far, the largest use of public transportation has been within cities, or by those living outside cities but relying on mass transportation to come into urban areas. With companies as well as workers moving further away, mass transit to urban centers will be a less primary mode of transportation.

     2. Work from home is here to stay

Those companies that are still operating out of urban areas have also seen a decrease in their office footprints as more people work from home full- or part-time in response to the pandemic.  And more people are expected to work from home for at least part of the week for the foreseeable future. A recent Gallup poll showed that a third of those currently working from home want to continue working remotely. As people have been working more and more from home, home sales in suburbs and small towns have come to represent a greater percentage of the total home sales, indicating the move away from cities is, to some extent, permanent.

This move is particularly concerning to transit agencies because it doesn’t take a huge change in ridership to greatly impact transit revenues. “Even a 5 percent decrease in commuters in a major metropolitan area is going to have massive impact,” said Scott Bogren, executive director of the Community Transportation Association of America. “That tends to be, from what I’m reading from economists, on the low side of what they expect to be ‘permanent.'”

     3. More fluid approach to workdays and work hours

Analysts say the pandemic has also brought a permanent change to the fluidity of the from-home/in-office work balance. Global Workplace Analytics (GWA) predicts that the longer people are required to work from home, the greater the permanent shift toward working from home will be. Their report suggests “we will see 25 percent to 30 percent of the workforce working from home on a multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021.” Several factors are expected to influence the growth of a more fluid approach to workdays and work hours – not the least is GWA’s estimate that “a typical employer can save about $11,000 per year for every employee who works remotely half the time.”

So workers are expected to come into the urban workplace much less, and be using mass transit more evenly throughout the day. “I see the rush hours opening up wider,” Chicago’s Derwinski predicted. “I see the ridership patterns becoming more fluid — where it used to be your traditional 7:30-9:00, I see it now going maybe 6:30-10:00.”

The value of transit in transition

Ultimately, these changes are likely to shift how we value transit agencies. Previously, mass transit played a critical role in ensuring essential workers could get to work, both in terms of accessibility and affordability. But there are other advantages to mass transit, even when ridership is down. Mass transit makes possible access to urban health centers, and creates economic gains when riders use transit for leisure, such as trips to parks and events. As GWA notes, the easiest and cheapest way to reduce the carbon footprint is by decreasing commuter travel; available mass transit significantly decreases use of individual vehicles for transportation. Whether the post-pandemic economy will be able and willing to support those values will determine whether mass transit receives the funding to continue to operate as it was pre-pandemic, and possibly grow.