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The Need to Reboot and Rebuild Public Transit

Even before the pandemic wiped out ridership, the systems were struggling to attract riders. Cities should be open to questioning the fundamentals of how they operate and fund their systems.

A single commuter walks the platform of the Barrington Metra station in March when ridership declined 97 percent. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
It's no secret that the coronavirus pandemic has walloped public transit. Transit networks and ridership are heavily oriented around central business districts, which are presently ghost towns in most cities. White-collar office workers are overwhelmingly working from home. And with business travel, conventions and other events mostly cancelled, entertainment venues shuttered and restaurants closed or barely scraping by, the hospitality sector that employs so many service workers is moribund. Add to that public concern that transit itself may be a vector for spreading the virus, and ridership has been even further depressed.

The net result has been to cut the legs out from under transit demand in many places. Commuter-rail systems have been particularly hard-hit: Chicago's Metra carried just 7,000 passengers on March 31, a 97.6 percent decrease from the same day in 2019. But even at better-performing bus systems in smaller cities that predominantly serve riders who don't own cars and are disproportionately among the essential workers who must show up at job sites, ridership has declined significantly. In Indianapolis in August, for example, it was down 43 percent year over year.

This loss of riders is producing a financial crisis for many systems, one that calls for long-term rethinking of how transit is paid for and operated. Funding from the CARES Act, the federal coronavirus relief legislation passed in March, has helped cover budget gaps to date. But this is proving insufficient for larger transit systems like New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Most of the largest systems earn at least 30 percent of their revenue from fares, a figure that rises to nearly half for some systems. This is not the case for most smaller systems, where the farebox share of revenue can be less than 25 percent; those systems are simply not as exposed to loss of fare revenue. But as the government tax dollars that make up the bulk of their funding take a hit, financial challenges will come for them as well.

While additional bridge funding to transit is warranted and should be rapidly approved by Congress, realistically transit ridership may take a long time to recover. Many companies are looking at permanently increasing the share of their employees working remotely. Although the jury is still out on how much of a permanent upshift in work-from-home there will be, it seems likely there will be some. After all, remote work had been trending up even prior to the pandemic; the share of people working at home had already grown to exceed the share commuting by public transit. And previous transit disruptions, such as those from lengthy strikes, have affected ridership for years. It took over a decade to recover ridership losses from the 1983 Philadelphia commuter-rail strike, for example.

Given the financial hits to transit agencies and the national scope of the problem, it's not surprising that many are looking to Washington for help. If the Democrats sweep in November, winning the presidency and control of both houses of Congress, there's a good possibility they will establish a new ongoing regime of increased federal operating subsidies for transit. Even with some sort of party split in Washington, there will be pressure to continue giving money to these agencies. But this is unlikely to provide them full relief.

The risk to cities is that they will be forced into service cuts that will be difficult to restore. New York City has already ended overnight service on its subways, and it's unclear whether that will ever be resumed. Declines in service make transit a less attractive choice, which drives more ridership away.

Cities are going to have to find a way to reboot and rebuild their transit systems post-coronavirus. This was needed anyway as ridership, especially on bus systems, had already started declining pre-coronavirus, something The New York Times dubbed "the mystery of the missing bus riders."

One thing transit systems should do is start learning from and implementing global best practices. As transit analyst Alon Levy has repeatedly noted, U.S. transit agencies are largely unaware of how other countries plan, build and operate their transit systems. Many of those countries are far ahead of the U.S. in ridership, quality of service and cost control. It's time to leave the idea of American exceptionalism behind and start learning from what works not just here, but around the world. This is not a short-term answer but rather a longer-term plan to work toward.

Cities should also be open to questioning fundamental aspects of how they operate and fund their transit systems. One proposal that should be considered is eliminating fares completely in most cities. Fares are a legacy of the era when transit was run by private, for-profit operators. Few other public services are funded this way. Most transit systems just don't earn that much from fares to begin with, and collecting fares itself imposes financial and operational costs — slowing down buses as people put change in the slot, for example.

The answers aren't all obvious, but transit's future in America will depend on how well agencies are able to navigate through financial tough times, find better ways to finance their services long-term, and lure riders back onto their buses and trains. Public transit is just too important to city and regional economies to allow it to go into a death spiral.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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