In spring 2020, offices shut down and schools went virtual as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt. Nationwide, transit agencies saw their ridership numbers plummet, and many wondered how to provide services safely for their customers and workers.
This year, transit travel has slowly begun returning to prepandemic levels. The New York City Subway system, for example, averaged more than 3 million weekday riders in recent weeks—roughly 50 to 60 percent of its prepandemic average weekday ridership.
To understand how transit agencies across North America are planning a return to regular activity, we fielded a web survey to all agency members of the American Public Transportation Association and collected responses from 74 transit agencies in 29 US states and one Canadian province (Alberta). Though this sample was not designed to be statistically representative of agencies nationwide, it gave us insights from large and small jurisdictions and all modes of public transportation.
The survey showed that we can expect operations to return to prepandemic levels. But attracting and retaining those ridership levels—and ensuring access to those who need it most—will require effective planning.
Most agencies have returned or plan to return to normal service levels
Our survey revealed that about 90 percent of agencies reduced their transit service levels during the pandemic, beginning March 2020. And by August 2021, 35 percent had already returned to their prepandemic service levels, and half are planning to return to full service. Of this latter group, 24 percent expect to return to full service in 2021 and 57 percent expect to do so in 2022. The rest plan to do so in 2023 or beyond. Just 23 percent of all agencies reported not having plans to return to prepandemic service levels soon or were unsure.
Though the recently passed US infrastructure bill will provide new funds to agencies, most transit funds from the federal government are allocated to capital funds, meaning they are not to be used for operational needs like paying bus operators or for fuel. As such, future service improvements will likely need local and state funding support. Agencies will also have to contend with the employee shortages because of low unemployment levels and heightened competition from other employers offering higher wages.
Despite the positive outlook on service levels, more agencies expect overall long-term ridership to decrease (44 percent) than to increase (28 percent) or remain the same (17 percent). But they don’t share these expectations across the board. Agencies expect demand for neighborhood-to-neighborhood trips will increase while those to and from downtown will decrease.
Many agencies also expect demand for peak-period trips to decrease and off-peak trips to increase. Though transit ridership spread out over the day during the pandemic, in recent months, rush hour has returned, so the strategy of deemphasizing peak periods may not play out in the long term.
When it comes to the demographics of transit riders, survey respondents generally agreed the demand for transit from white-collar workers will decrease; 65 percent said it will drop, and only 5 percent expect it to increase. Transit agencies expect many white-collar workers will continue to have the option of working remotely.
Conversely, most agencies expect transit demand from people with low incomes, who are more likely to be required to work in person and to lack access to an automobile, will remain the same or increase (88 percent). More agencies also expect the demand for transit from young people to increase, but opinions on the future demand for transit from older adults were roughly split.
Transit agencies are already preparing for this new normal in travel patterns. Almost half of surveyed agencies reported planning to increase neighborhood-to-neighborhood service. More agencies plan to increase service during off-peak periods (34 percent) than to decrease it (11 percent). Even if they expect demand to fall overall, more agencies also reported planning to increase service to and from downtown (20 percent) than to decrease it (14 percent).
Attracting people back onto the bus and train, and serving them well, will require effective, equity-focused planning
Based on interviews we conducted for our larger study on how to plan for postpandemic travel and a scan of scholarship on future changes in demographics, employment, and travel, we identified several key approaches transit agencies can take to ensure they adapt their services effectively and equitably in the coming years:
- Leverage opportunities to expand ridership. After more than a year of reduced ridership, agencies should look for new opportunities to expand their travel market share. Interviewees from transit agencies pointed to some exciting ideas, like including transit passes with monthly utility bills to ensure everyone knows how easy it is to get on board, partnering with apartment landlords to combine leases with transit passes, and working with job providers to link up bus routes with new employment zones.
- Institutionalize best practices from the pandemic by improving employer-labor relations. Survey results revealed that flexibility will be key for the success of transit service provision in a postpandemic world. This will require improving communication and relations between agencies and their employees. Many officials from the transit agencies we interviewed noted they increased communication with bus and rail operators and mechanics during the pandemic. This increased communication included using platforms such as Facebook Messenger and better connections with staff unions. In a period of labor supply constraints, ensuring transit staff are treated well must be a priority for agencies that need staff to keep services running and meet travelers’ shifting needs.
- Keep abreast of changing trends. Transit agencies should carefully monitor trends in remote work, automobile traffic, and the real-estate market to ensure the services they provide best meet residents’ needs throughout their metropolitan areas. For example, transit agencies can advertise the benefits their services provide over car commuting—like the ability to sit and read while going to work on heavily congested routes.
- Plan and operate more effectively by prioritizing social equity. To ensure core riders have access to needed services, agencies can center equity in their operations. This includes realigning services to prioritize underserved people and neighborhoods, among other steps.