The blog of the Urban Institute
May 8, 2020

Four Ways to Equitably Manage Public Transit Options in a Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended every sector of public life and the economy, and public transportation is no exception. Since states began issuing stay-at-home orders, ridership levels have plummeted as much as 95 percent, resulting in billions of dollars lost. Reductions in economic activity have also led to reductions in state and local taxes, which are big funding sources for many public transit agencies.

In response, agencies have cut back bus routes and reduced train frequencies. In New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the Metropolitan Transit Authority to shut down the subway from 1:00 to 5:00 a.m. for required cleaning—the first time the subway hasn’t run 24 hours a day since its construction in 1904. In the DC metropolitan area, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority cut back rush hour trains and reduced bus routes, asking only essential workers to ride. Even in smaller jurisdictions like Akron and Youngstown, Ohio, ridership drops of 25 and 30 percent, respectively, have resulted in service cuts.

For essential workers, fewer routes mean longer commutes and more crowded trains and buses, making physical distancing all but impossible. Transit agencies have acknowledged the challenges they face, but they know with the collapse in fare revenue, cuts are necessary for continued operation. Although $25 billion of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act stimulus provided short-term relief for transit, it is not a long-term solution for agencies that could be looking at a months- or years-long recovery to gain back ridership.

Steps to cut back and reopen equitably

Transit agencies are going to have to decide which cuts have the least impact on riders and which lines to reopen as the economy reopens. Knowing these decisions can have uneven and potentially discriminatory effects, we’ve suggested four steps transit agencies can take to ensure an equitable response in both cutting and reopening transit lines.

  1. Keep and reopen bus routes and trains based on need, not ridership alone. Usually, when budgets are cut, agencies decide which lines to cut based on ridership, starting with lines with the fewest riders. Even though ridership is important for keeping agencies afloat (because a big chunk of transit funding comes from fares), it does not always align perfectly with need. Transit-dependent riders without other means of getting around may not live along the routes with the most ridership, particularly in cities where the densest areas are unaffordable to lower-income households. Agencies should determine which routes serve high-need groups, using methods such as spatial mismatch for low-wage workers, and base cuts and reopenings on this need.
  2. Engage low-income and transit-dependent riders. Agencies should engage with riders who have no other options to understand what services can be cut with the least disruption. For instance, an agency may have to decide between cutting a bus route’s frequency or combining it with another, and riders may have a strong preference for one option over the other. Agencies should invite feedback from transit-dependent riders on what services they want and should hold virtual meetings with translation and audio accommodations to let riders have a say in these decisions.​​
  3. Ensure paratransit service is not compromised. In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), transit agencies cannot halt paratransit services as long as fixed route service is operating. But they can reduce paratransit services relative to the comparable fixed route service being provided. Because many transit agencies contract out their paratransit services to private companies, agencies must insist the companies continue to operate on-demand service and provide ADA-approved vehicles so those with any type of disability can use them.
  4. Explore creative alternatives to buses and trains. Buses and trains appear to be a major disseminator of the coronavirus, so transit agencies should explore other options until the threat has subsided. Services such as subsidized ride sharing, bike sharing, and electric scooters may provide safer alternatives for riders, particularly in areas where buses are scarce and crowded. Partnerships with employers and other private companies may also help provide safer alternatives so riders don’t have to make the impossible decision between missing work and contracting the coronavirus.

Public transportation and transit-dependent riders face a challenging future because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, more than ever, transit decisions must be made with equity in mind to ensure our most vulnerable residents and workers are able to get where they need to go safely.

A New York City subway conductor wearing a mask looks out the window as the doors close amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 6, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

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