on Mar 26, 2020
Will American transit recover? Our economy depends on it.
Written by Jee Mee Kim and Meg Merritt
Transit agencies are working overtime to solve the near-term operational challenges caused by COVID-19, including shifting priorities to new service patterns and sanitizing protocols. But when the quarantine storm passes, what will our transit future look like in the aftermath of physical distancing? And how can we ensure that transit agencies continue to provide high quality mobility options, particularly for our nation’s most vulnerable populations who are disproportionately impacted by the health and economic crisis resulting from COVID-19?
It is likely that in the near term, American transit will experience lagging ridership recovery due to social distancing norms and a loss of tax revenue streams that fund operations and maintenance. The $25 billion of federal transit support included in the COVID-19 relief package (CARES Act)—the highest of any transit appropriations to date—can buttress operational costs just enough to give affordable transportation options to Americans going back to their jobs and for those looking for work.
This package is a welcome relief in a scary time for transit and a stamp of approval that transit is indeed an essential business. In any economic scenario, functional transit operations are critical to American businesses and upward mobility for the poorest and most vulnerable who rely on affordable and reliable ways to get to work, school, childcare, and basic errands. In a post-COVID-19 world, transit will be a prerequisite to restoring economic health back to our cities and urban communities.
Cities and transit agencies should first focus on targeting their most impacted residents. Despite the infusion of cash provided in the relief package, the funding will not be adequate to restore transit to pre-COVID-19 operations, especially as ridership struggles to ramp up. However, this is the time that transit will be essential to the millions of residents who have lost their jobs. For those whose shuttered jobs reopen, low-wage workers will need transit to get back to their routines. Transit agencies will need to make sure that service is restored across the most impacted communities and explore fare reductions. Cities should ramp up their efforts to improve first/last-mile connections through partnerships and renew their focus on bike, scooter, and pedestrian access to transit.
Transit systems will need to bring confidence back to their riders. Many riders may remain skittish about using transit and standing less than six feet between other passengers. Cities and transit agencies may draw riders back by launching marketing campaigns that provide fact-based, real-time information while highlighting the continued benefits of using transit.
The COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity to course-correct historical underinvestment in transit infrastructure. After immediate operational gaps are covered by the CARES Act, subsequent federal aid should support major capital infrastructure investments. An infusion of capital investment will address the decades of lagging transit infrastructure investment while also providing jobs. According to a 2014 study by the American Public Transportation Association, every one billion dollars invested in transit can yield nearly 51,000 jobs—offering a four to one economic return. This jump-start would allow cities and regions who are already planning projects—and those that would like to—to receive expedited federal assistance and begin environmental clearance and construction.
We may not be able to visualize a post-COVID-19 future while quarantined in our homes now, but eventually we will get back to a semblance of our prior lives. The decisions we make in the coming days will shape a future in which a healthy economy co-exists with clean air and reduced emissions and congestion. Reinvesting in transit can restore our cities and communities, help Americans in most need get back to their jobs, schools, and childcare centers in an affordable and reliable way, and create new jobs to jumpstart the economy.
Jee Mee Kim is a Principal with the economic development and real estate consulting firm HR&A Advisors.
Meg Merritt is a Principal with the transportation planning firm Nelson\Nygaard.
Over the coming weeks, we will share our thoughts with you about the implications of this crisis and welcome any thoughts you may have. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.