Public transit is on the brink of death. This is how we save it

future of public transportation
Genevieve Poblano/Digital Trends Graphic

The coronavirus pandemic has slaughtered vast swaths of the economy and brought entire industries to a halt — and one of the worst victims has been public transit.

The numbers are staggering. In the wake of the pandemic, transit ridership is down up to 90% in some cities. Buses and trains chug along less than half empty, as regular riders stay home, or else travel by car.

Public transportation is hurtling toward a cliff, with dire consequences for society. If it is to survive the pandemic, experts say it will need to make crucial changes and put specific safeguards in place, not just to reduce the odds of an outbreak, but to restore the confidence of riders and get them back to feeling comfortable.

Ridership is down, and it may not come back

“I am not aware of anything in our lifetime that’s been anywhere near this,” says Dr. Eric Gonzales, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts.

“I think that the closest parallel,” he continues, “would be in a place that experienced war, which, fortunately for the United States, has not been something we’ve had to deal with in most of our lifetimes. We could look at what happened in Europe during World War II, but when the war is over, people know the war’s over.”

A war can end with the signing of a document; the coronavirus pandemic has no clear end in sight. Even if infection numbers drop, until a functional vaccine is readily available there will always be the potential for another outbreak. For many businesses, that means working from home will continue to be the norm, while many individuals will continue to avoid any enclosed public spaces.

infographic on survey of public transit riders
Genevieve Poblano/Digital Trends Graphic

As restaurants and other public venues prepare for a cautious reopening, desperate to prove that people can visit safely, transit faces a crisis of confidence. Polling shared with Digital Trends by YouGov indicates that 30% of riders won’t be comfortable taking public transportation again until social distancing measures are lifted entirely, while 25% say they won’t be comfortable while COVID-19 exists.

That’s going to be a financial problem for transit agencies, Gonzales says, as a substantial chunk of transit funding comes from operations.

“It varies somewhat from system to system,” he explains, “but about a third of the operating funds for transit agencies are self-generated. That includes the fare revenues, that also includes advertising revenues. So you see advertisements at bus stops and things, that’s part of the transit agency revenue. Some agencies have real estate: If they have vendors in stations, then they’re making some revenue from that.”

infographic on survey of public transit riders
Genevieve Poblano/Digital Trends Graphic

Aside from the third or so of revenue that transit agencies generate themselves, the rest comes from state and local taxes.

“Unfortunately, both of those are taking a big hit now as well,” Gonzales says. “They’re gonna get pinched from all sides here.”

Transit ridership can be broken up into two groups: Captive riders and choice riders. Captive riders, according to Gonzales, are “people who can’t get around any other way. And there’s a real need in all communities for some types of transportation services that allow everyone in society to have access to employment, education, health care.”

Choice riders are those who use public transit, but could use other means if they feel like it.

“Those are also the people you can lose if things change,” Gonzales says. “As we come out of it, it’s those choice riders that are going to be less likely to come back to transit because they’re going to have other ways of getting around.”

What’s at stake

Woman wearing face mask while using public transit.
Getty Images

For many Americans, the idea of a public transit decline might not seem particularly worrying. It’s easy to mock transit agencies for frequent delays or dirty vehicles (for New Yorkers, it’s like chatting about the weather). Like any institution funded by tax dollars, public transit has its libertarian detractors as well.

“Often people are sort of shocked and appalled that the fare revenues are so little a part of the operating budget,” Gonzales says. “You can see op-eds where people say, ‘We should just buy all these people a car, it’d be cheaper.’ But the benefits of the transit system — in terms of congestion reduction, as a social equalizer, for the environmental impact, and for what it allows cities to be — far outweigh the costs of the subsidies.”

“You couldn’t imagine Boston or New York or Chicago without transit”

Public transit routes are the arteries of a region’s economy, connecting workers with employers, customers with businesses.

“It allows lots of people to get to a small area that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to get to otherwise,” Gonzales explains. “Economists call this benefit — having lots of workers in a closed area — an agglomeration effect. Workers in Manhattan are on average more productive than workers in Nebraska because they’re close to other people.”

Woman using transit
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For the densest cities, where every inch of space is occupied almost constantly, public transportation is the only feasible way for a lot of people to get around.

“You couldn’t imagine Boston or New York or Chicago without transit,” Gonzales says. “There’s just not a physical way for all these people to drive their own cars and park them to come together every day.”

Public transportation is crucial to thriving economies, but it’s also better for the environment than driving a car.

A 2010 study by the Federal Transit Administration found that subways and metros “produce 76% less in greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than an average single-occupancy vehicle (SOV). Light rail systems produce 62% less and bus transit produces 33% less.”

Reducing emissions is essential in slowing the effects of climate change, but it also has more direct public health benefits by reducing air pollution. According to the World Health Organization, “An estimated 4.2 million premature deaths globally are linked to ambient air pollution, mainly from heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections in children.”

Gonzales warns against treating transit agencies like businesses that should turn a profit.

“It’s a public good and has a lot of different benefits even for those people who don’t directly board the vehicles themselves,” he says. For those who hate getting stuck in traffic, “you can document that during the rush hours it’s worth every penny for people who are driving cars to pay gas taxes or pay tolls even that would pay for transit improvements because of the time savings that would result.”

Gonzales adds that the current crisis illustrates just how valuable public transit is, saying “The people who are riding the bus are a lot of those essential workers who are working in the food industry or the medical workers and nurses. And so having a transportation system that allows them to get around is critical for everybody else’s well-being.”

What should transit agencies do now?

Rider using mask on transit.
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YouGov’s poll found that although significant numbers of riders are uncomfortable taking public transit right now, agencies could assuage their concerns by taking precautions such as cleaning throughout the day, keeping riders six feet apart, and requiring riders wear masks.

The New York City subway made history in early May when it deliberately shut down service for the first time in over a century to do a deep cleaning of its system. How effective is cleaning in keeping riders safe?

“Fortunately, the virus has an envelope around it.” says Dr. John Swartzberg, Clinical Professor of Infectious Diseases at the University of California, Berkeley, “It’s primarily composed of fat and it’s easily damaged, that envelope, by most any disinfectant. It’s also damaged by soap, so it’s not hard to kill in the external environment on inanimate objects. So it would make sense to do as much cleaning as possible.”

Hand Sanitizer
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Swartzberg emphasizes that cleaning is not the be-all-end-all approach, likening it to the old joke about the streetlight effect: A policeman sees a man searching for his lost keys under a streetlight, asks if the man is sure he dropped them there, and the man replies that he dropped them back in the park, but is searching there because that’s where the light is.

When it comes to the coronavirus, we clean “because it’s something we can do,” Swartzberg says. “That’s what we wind up doing because the other things are harder to control, but the other things are more important.”

One thing riders can do to help is to wash their hands.

Even though washing surfaces is “Very important,” says Dr. Dean Winslow, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University Medical Center, “it’s still not a substitute for people washing their hands frequently. Particularly before and after touching a common-type surface.”

It’s something that transit agencies can help with. Oregon’s TriMet recently committed to installing hand sanitizer dispensers on its buses.

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— TriMet (@trimet) May 26, 2020

Although there are several guides for a maximally effective hand-washing technique, the mere act of providing riders with sanitizer could make an enormous difference.

“There is definitely a proper technique of doing it,” Winslow says, “but almost any application of appropriate hand gel or reasonably thorough hand-washing with plain soap and water is certainly more than adequate,” adding that people should be careful to “very thoroughly, spend at least usually 20 seconds, whether you’re washing your hands or using gel and very thoroughly cleaning the entire surface of your hands.”

One can consult YouTube tutorials for the finer details of hand-washing techniques, but “the most important thing is just doing it.”

Winslow also stresses the importance of wearing masks on transit, adding that people should remember “the purpose of wearing masks is not to protect themselves, but to actually keep from spreading the virus to other people if they’re one of these folks that we call an asymptomatic shedder. These are people that have minimal symptoms or no symptoms at all, but are shedding virus RNA in their respiratory secretions.”

Those respiratory secretions are a significant vector in spreading coronavirus.

“When we exhale, we produce particles that widely range in size from less than 5.5 microns to greater than 100 microns in size,” Swartzberg explains. “Most of the particles above 10 microns and all of the particles below 5 microns are so light that they can remain in air for a long period of time.”

Depending on conditions in a space (such as humidity) viruses and bacteria can remain in the air for hours even after the person who expelled them has left, infecting other people in the room.

“We know that’s the case with the virus that causes chickenpox and the virus that causes measles, Swartzberg says, “and the data that we have now suggests that the same thing holds for Sars-Cov-2, but there are exceptions to that.”

Given that buses and trains tend to be enclosed spaces, what are transit agencies to do?

“The most important thing is to not have people crowded together within six feet,” Swartzberg says. “The great irony of that is that because there are fewer riders on public transportation now, public transportation doesn’t have the funds that it needs to run. So what do they do to resolve that? They cut back on the number of trains. What that does, of course, is make them more crowded when people have to ride them. That’s the worst thing we can be doing in the face of a pandemic.”

It’s a worry Gonzales echoes. If low ridership and economic depression continue to choke transit budgets, the problem will worsen.

Waiting for train
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“How long can they go? There’s been some bailout,” Gonzales says, “and there will likely have to be some more. But ultimately, if there’s a prolonged period with low ridership, there is going to be a push to cut service to make the budgets meet.”

If that’s the case, the crisis will feed itself. Choice riders stay away from public transit, leading to budget cuts and reduced service, leading to buses and trains crowded by captive riders. With coronavirus still active, it’s a recipe for a calamity.

Ultraviolet light has been hyped as a tool for cleansing the coronavirus, and New York City has even explored using UVC light to purge its vehicles.

“RNA viruses in general are fairly fragile. So UV light can definitely inactivate them pretty quickly,” Winslow says, but he warns that “artificially using UV light indoors is somewhat expensive and technically difficult. So my intuition is that it’s probably not all that important to the big scheme of things” when it comes to reducing the risk of coronavirus infection.

An uncertain future

What else can public transit agencies do to survive?

Gonzales suggests that transit agencies could use technology to keep riders informed about how crowded their vehicles are.

“A lot of vehicles are equipped with automated passenger counters,” he says. “So they actually know in real time how many people are on board the vehicles. And that’s information that can be shared with the public. If you’re trying to make a decision on how to travel, you might care a lot more now whether the bus is crowded or not or that the next train is crowded or not.”

“We’re in uncharted territory,” Gonzales says. “Are people going to forget it quickly and sort of go back to the old ways? Or is there going to be a lasting hesitation to crowd into small spaces?”

For now, public transit, like so much of society, waits for answers.

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