A shaky future for U.S. transit systems, and why we need to save them

COVID-19 and the lockdown of cities have severely impacted transit systems around the world. With people working and studying from home, demand for transit has plunged to unprecedented levels. In pandemic times, transit systems have become hazardous places where the virus can easily spread. So far more than 100 transit workers in U.S. cities have succumbed to coronavirus. 

Sign on the wall inside an empty public transit trolley that reads Please practice social distancing.

To contain the virus, protect riders and workers, and adjust to lower demand, transit agencies have shut down systems partially and intensified cleaning and disinfecting operations of trains and buses. Despite deep cleaning efforts, transit is not a desirable option. In major cities, many companies have stepped up to provide free or highly discounted transportation alternatives to essential workers—the only commuters left these days.

Before COVID-19, transit agencies across the U.S. had experienced the fierce competition of ride-hailing. Ridership was already in a downward trend since 2014, especially for transit buses in the largest cities.

From a financial perspective, the situation is also grim. Not only have fare revenues plummeted, but state and municipal budgets—the primary funding sources for public transportation in the U.S.—are severely strained by lower tax revenues and increased demands (e.g. unemployment insurance and Medicaid coverage) for limited funding. While most of the agencies have curtailed services resulting in some operational savings, the cleaning and disinfection of trains and stations are now priorities that could substantially impact transit agencies’ budgets.

To avoid the complete shutdown of transit in many cities, the stimulus package (CARES Act) included $25 billion to transit agencies. The package and some additional funds coming from the Public Transportation Emergency Relief Program represent more than 30% of the total revenues of transit agencies in 2018. Although these resources will allow agencies to offset the lost revenues from fares, the decrease from local and state sources could be substantial.

Read more at Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.