Urban Wire The Ways Transit Agencies Adapted during the Pandemic Can Inform an Equitable Recovery
Jorge Morales-Burnett, Yonah Freemark
Display Date

Media Name: gettyimages-672439142_crop.jpg

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic altered employment for many when they were asked to work from home or were laid off. At the same time, millions of essential workers still went to jobs at grocery stores, health clinics, and government offices.

Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement—perhaps the largest series of protests in US history—highlighted the injustices Black Americans face daily. It also emphasized stark racial disparities in health, economic, and other life outcomes that communities of color have always faced because of embedded structural racism—disparities that only widened during the pandemic.

Both events highlighted the importance of expanding social equity in American society. And because essential workers and workers with low incomes continued to rely on public transportation throughout the pandemic, transportation gained widespread attention as a way to advance equity.

In our new study with the Center for Neighborhood Technology for the American Public Transportation Association, we examine how transit agencies around the United States altered service over the past two years and how they’re planning for a postpandemic future. Equity had a major role in how some agencies responded, and they offer lessons for how others can prioritize equity as we recover from the pandemic.

Challenges transit agencies faced during the pandemic

Because of the increase of working from home and health concerns, transit ridership dropped precipitously. At its lowest point, ridership reached 20 percent of 2019 levels nationwide.

Since then, ridership has improved slightly, but not nearly as quickly as driving, which, as of summer 2021, was back to prepandemic norms.

Line chart showing travel via commuter rail, bus, light rail, heavy rail, and vehicle cratered in spring 2020 and only driving is back to normal

The pandemic led almost 90 percent of transit agencies we surveyed to reduce service levels, among other reasons, because of diminished demand for services, to avoid economic losses they expected from declining tax revenues and fare revenues, and staff sickness related to COVID-19.

But many people kept riding. Indeed, riders with lower incomes remained the core customers in several of the cities we profiled. In Denver, transit ridership actually increased over the pandemic in neighborhoods with relatively low incomes (median household incomes of $35,000 or less), while it declined in wealthier neighborhoods (median household incomes of $55,000 or more).

Bar chart showing that in Denver, neighborhoods where transit ridership increased during the pandemic had lower household incomes

How transit agencies adapted by adjusting service availability and experimenting with lower or free fares

Transit agencies were responsive to the continued needs of their core riders—largely people with low incomes, people of color, and essential workers—in part because of their higher continued ridership but also because of a desire to increase equity within their transit system.

In interviews, transit agency staff noted the pandemic altered their views and increased their concern for social equity. One agency CEO noted, “We recognized through COVID that transit is critical... [that it is] a lifeline service for people. We need to rethink the model.”

Transit agencies experimented with various solutions to better cater to the those who never stopped traveling for work. Some reduced express service—particularly from more suburban areas to downtown cores or suburban tech hubs—and increased local service. 

For example, we found that the Port Authority, which serves the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, increased bus and rail frequencies in 37 percent of the neighborhoods in its service area. These neighborhoods had larger shares of people of color, lower median household incomes, more residents with incomes below the federal poverty line, and a higher share of households with no vehicles than neighborhoods the agency targeted with reduced bus and rail frequencies.

Bar chart showing that the Pittsburgh Port Authority increased bus and rail services in lower-income neighborhoods during the COVID-19 pandemic

Agencies also changed their fare policies to make services more equitable.

At least for a time, 53 percent of the transit agencies we surveyed made rides free, usually to stop direct contact between passengers and transit operators. 

Some agency leaders, such as Richmond, Virginia’s Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) and Los Angeles Metro, told us they saw the switch to zero fares as an opportunity to promote the right to a basic level of mobility. GRTC staff members emphasized that fare-free transit specifically benefits riders with low incomes and allows them to reallocate money to needs such as food, health, and recreation. 

But fare-free transit concerned some transit agency leaders. Staff at Denver’s Regional Transportation District and Spokane Transit Authority told us that making fares free encouraged people experiencing homelessness to stay in transit vehicles throughout the day and increased a feeling of insecurity among other passengers. As a result, they worried that the policy was undermining their primary duty to provide safe and reliable mobility for passengers. 

Fare-free policies might be most effective if social support systems for people experiencing homelessness and people with mental illness are made more available. Los Angeles Metro, for example, is working with a local nonprofit to provide riders without a fixed place to sleep access to affordable housing and healthy food.

Lessons from agencies that centered equity in their pandemic response

Our analysis and conversations with transit agencies suggest the following lessons on how to center equity during times of crisis in local transportation decisions.

  • Recognize that successful transit is not only about building ridership. Port Authority officials learned to think of transit less as a business and more as an essential service. This means ensuring that even the most marginalized members of society have access to reliable, convenient, affordable, and efficient mobility options.
  • Identify people and communities that have faced inequitable access to opportunity. A baseline evaluation can help reorient services and investments. It should include detailed mapping of access to opportunities (such as jobs, recreation, schools, and health care), particularly for families with low incomes and people of color, and differences in access times by transit modes.
  • Realign services to prioritize underserved people and neighborhoods. Local bus services maintained much of their prepandemic ridership because they were available for essential workers’ varying schedules. Other transportation networks can follow this model by offering frequent, all-day services. The rise of teleworking also suggests commuter rails can deemphasize peak-hour, peak-direction commuter trips and instead offer frequent, affordable two-way service. And agencies can reorient paratransit services to areas that lack transit options and serve as first- or last-mile connectors. 

The pandemic forced society to understand how imperative public transportation is in a whole new way. Ensuring it is accessible and meets the needs of those who ride it most will be key to an equitable recovery.

The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success. 

Show your support for research and data that ignite change.   


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags Racial and ethnic disparities Transportation
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
Related content