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After a Devastating Year, Transit Is Adapting to the Future

Public transit ridership in the United States fell 53.3 percent in 2020, as cities responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis has left an industry far from deflated, but geared for a revival.

mass transit_shutterstock_1117181639
Shutterstock/Kate Scott
As public transit adjusts to a post-COVID world, watch for it to be more flexible, less focused on rush-hour peaks and more focused on the kinds of partnerships that build equity. 

“I’m of the mind that cities will recover. It’s a question of when,” remarked Chris Snyder, Europe CEO and senior vice president of expansion at Via, an on-demand private mobility provider partnering with public transit systems across the United States and Europe.  
“That means that transit demand will as well,” Snyder added, in a recent webinar with CoMotion LIVE to discuss the future of public transit. “But it’s going to take time, maybe years, which means we have an opportunity now to shape how we recover.”
It was roughly a year ago that transit ridership fell off the proverbial cliff as the nation all but halted in its tracks in an unprecedented move to slow the transmission of COVID-19. These efforts emptied buses, trains and freeways for not only weeks, but months, and the fallout for public systems like transit has been nothing less than monumental.
Ridership on the nation’s transit systems fell 53.3 percent in 2020, according to the latest statistics released by the American Public Transportation Association. Major systems like those serving the New York City metro region – which make up a third of all transit trips in the country -- were down 55.6 percent in 2020.
Commuter rail systems — those which tend to serve white-collar suburbanites traveling into downtown workplaces — seemed to crater the deepest, with ridership declining 65.6 percent, as workers decamped to home offices. Subway ridership declined 60.9 percent, bus ridership fell 45.5 percent and light-rail ridership declined 54.4 percent, according to the APTA report.
The ridership declines in 2020 followed a year when the public’s use of transit seemed to be turning a corner. Ridership in 2019 was up 0.30 percent following several years of declines. 
To save transit, Congress sent $30.5 billion in aid in its latest round of stimulus funding to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. This follows two other stimulus packages last year sending $39 billion to transit.  
As transit recovers from the pandemic, watch for it to respond quicker to disruptions, and expect to see more partnerships with other mobility providers — like Via — say transit watchers. 
“What we’re seeing is the need to pivot your needs to more flexible modes of transportation,” said L’erin Jensen, a communications spokeswoman for TransLoc, a transit tech company and subsidiary of Ford Mobility, and host of The Movement Podcast
“I think if we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s no longer time to ask riders to adjust their lives to transit, but instead, it’s time to adjust transit to the lives of riders,” said Jensen, in her comments during the webinar.   
The pandemic proved that cities and transit can respond quickly when they need to, said Karen Vancluysen, secretary general of POLIS Network, made up of cities and regions in Europe dedicated to growing transportation innovation. 
“They [cities] really stepped into the front lines, and they showed that they can also be agile and quick. And it’s not just the private sector who can move fast. So that, I think, is a very encouraging sign,” said Vancluysen in some of her comments with CoMotion. 
In numerous U.S. cities, transit responded to the pandemic by altering service — cutting it back in some locations, while expanding in others, such as transporting hospital workers. In a number of cities, buses were deployed to neighborhoods to serve as mobile Wi-Fi hot spots.  
In the past, transit was generally planned around the need for increased service during rush hour peaks. With rush hour peaks leveling off because of less commuter traffic, transit in the future could be easier to plan and manage, said Snyder. 
“It is fundamentally easier to serve flat demand rather than peak demand,” he added.  
The recovery of public transit will depend on a transportation system that's interactive, equitable, convenient and affordable — made up of public and private sources — to compete with the personal car, said Vancluysen.
“And that means that we really need all sustainable modes to join forces and come together,” said Vancluysen, as she advocated for new business models and newly structured public-private partnerships, “especially when it comes to those new mobility services.”  
The future for transit — and cities — is still largely to be determined. Will cities enact tolling and congestion pricing programs to cut down on personal car use and generate new funding for transit? Will more than just today’s small fraction of urban dwellers use transit and shared mobility on a regular basis?
Trends like mobility as a service (MaaS), a shorthand for the use of technology to achieve fully integrated transportation systems, have been slow to take off. David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Taubman Center for State and Local Government, speaking at the Urbanism Next conference last week, said transit and transportation in the U.S. still has much room for evolving. 
“As interesting as I think MaaS is … none of them that I can see have really driven mode-shift,” said Zipper. “So, until that happens, I’m going to be a sort of like supportive skeptic of MaaS, because I want to see it work. Because I support the goals of reducing the role of automobiles in cities, but let’s not kid ourselves, we don’t have evidence that that’s happened yet, anywhere.” 
Still, cities have proved to be dynamic in the past, and they will be in the future, said Snyder. 
“I think across the board, I’ve been, frankly, shocked, if not very surprised by how quickly things have moved, which is just a very good sign,” he added.  

2020 Public Transit Change in Ridership from 2019

  • San Francisco: -67.0%
  • Washington, D.C.: -65.4%
  • Boston: -57.4%
  • Chicago: -56.7% 
  • New York City: -55.6%
  • Seattle: -53.1%
  • Atlanta: -51.1%
  • Los Angeles: -42.5%
  • Dallas: -41.6%
  • Houston: -40.4%
  • Miami: -39.8%
Source: American Public Transit Association

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.