Public transport leaders are rethinking how to serve drivers who depend on them as they prepare for the possibility that many commuters who gave up local transport during the Covid-19 pandemic will never return.
According to a survey by May Gallup, half of the country's remote workers prefer to work from home permanently, even when the offices are reopened. Employers across the country are discussing perpetual remote work options led by the federal government and big tech companies like Twitter Inc. and Shopify Inc.
As commuters recede from the city center to the suburbs after maintaining the rail network for decades, those who cannot work from home and have few or no alternative transportation are more likely to be low-income or colored people. About half of transit drivers across the country before the pandemic were non-whites, and about 60% earned less than $ 50,000 a year, according to the Census Bureau. Around 35% do not have access to a car.
"There may be fewer people going to work each day," said Danny Pearlstein, a transit attorney in New York City. For those who are, "their commuters are the commuters on which the rest of us depend."
Those in charge of the transit agencies are calling for up to $ 36 billion in emergency aid from Congress to help weather the pandemic, on top of the total of $ 25 billion the sector has already received (Public Law 116-136). But that's short term. Whether or not they receive another bailout, public transportation systems across the country are unlikely to survive as they are now set up without continued massive bailouts by the federal government or seismic changes in the way they work.
Transit agencies change routes, eliminate services or redesign schedules. In the longer term, government officials, corporations, lawyers, and city planners are testing ideas like subsidizing taxis, using smaller autonomous vehicles, and providing fares to low-income commuters. Some officials ask local voters for money.
"Public transportation is trying to get a little smoother," said Chris Pangilinan, director of public transportation for Uber Technologies Inc. "Now it's still buses and trains for much of it, but the definition is," How do we best connect people to economic and social opportunities in their cities? "
Basic services, workers
In late July, passenger traffic on the Long Island Rail Road on Monday was down 78% year over year, even as New York City started easing orders for stay at home. Bus traffic within the city had fallen by 45%.
Other cities show similar patterns with tighter spreads.
Even during a pandemic, workers in areas such as healthcare, retail and hospitality do not have the option to telework and are usually more dependent on the bus than on the rail. The lower the household income, the more likely the worker is dependent on the bus – the opposite is true for the subway and commuter trains – according to a 2017 study by the Federal Highway Administration. According to one analysis, more than 80% of transit drivers in the lowest fifth of household income rely on the bus.
In Chicago, home to one of the busiest rail systems in the country, officials reroute buses to areas with a high concentration of transit-dependent drivers, such as low-income neighborhoods in the south and west of the city, said Dorval Carter, president of the Chicago Transit Authority, Jr .
In Cleveland, officials are considering increasing bus frequency in the middle of the day as rush hour demand for teleworking by office workers has fallen.
"This is a profound change for American public transport," said Joel Freilich, a senior official with the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.
Rail Options Limited
Commuter rails, built to move employees from suburbs to downtown offices, are relatively inflexible, leaving officials with few quick options to drastically reduce rider numbers. They sent a letter to Congress in August to emphasize their plight.
In Philadelphia, where passenger traffic on the regional railroad fell 98% year over year at the height of the pandemic, the transit system is offering a new three-day pass to attract clerks who may be working on a shortened schedule, according to Leslie Richards, director the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. Even if the S-Bahn was practically abandoned, the number of bus and subway drivers in the city only fell by about 30% in July, she said.
Dan Lieberman, spokesman for the system, said the number of drivers on Caltrain, which passes through key technology centers in California's Bay Area, fell 95% in August compared to prepandemic. Your drivers can likely work from home or drive if they need to go to an office: the average household income for a commuter on weekday rush hours prior to the pandemic was $ 165,771, according to a 2019 report. More than a quarter made $ 250,000 or more per year.
The system was in the process of switching from diesel to electric power when the pandemic broke out in March, Lieberman said. Officials have not stopped the fully funded project as, supported by their own investigations, they believe the driving force will return at some point. An election move in November that would add a sales tax to fund Caltrain could also bail out finances in the meantime.
"We have to make sure we get through this time," said Lieberman. "At the same time, the growth of the system is examined more closely."
Even before the pandemic, US transit agencies couldn't survive on tariffs alone. They relied on a combination of local, state, and federal subsidies to operate and upgrade. The U.S. dollar accounted for less than 8% of public transportation operating budgets and accounted for about 35% of capital resources in 2018, the Federal Transit Administration reported.
Officials in some cities are reaching out to voters to raise funds to prevent transit cuts.
Cincinnati voters narrowly approved a sales tax hike in May that would provide up to $ 130 million a year on bus networks and roads. In Seattle, voters will decide in November whether to approve a sales tax increase that will raise up to $ 42 million a year on bus travel.
In order to raise funds for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York lawmakers decided in 2019 to introduce a fee for motorists entering the business core of Manhattan. The first of its kind in the United States such as San Francisco and Los Angeles are considering similar ideas.
The Seattle proposal would also provide transit passes for students and low-income drivers, an idea that activists across the country have pushed. California's Bay Area Rapid Transit recently introduced a rebate for those with a household income that is twice the federal poverty rate or less.
This pandemic "further underscores the need to truly be a system that puts people first, who are really the poor transit drivers," said Monique López, a social justice planner in California.
Transit as "second class"
Fiscal conservatives have long argued that increasing federal spending on public transportation is nonsensical even in good times, and they now claim the pandemic makes that clearer.
The Senate Republicans criticized a bill (H.R. 2) that the House passed earlier this summer that would increase federal transit spending over five years and have lagged behind a competing proposal.
The government should "encourage the business-like operation of transit systems" and use new technology to complement traditional fixed-route service, said Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Bank, whose committee oversees public transport, in March. He didn't offer any details. Crapo declined an interview request through a spokeswoman.
"They're like ostriches with their heads in the sand," said Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Chairman of the Senate Minority, of Republicans' support for emergency public transport.
Randal O’Toole, a researcher at the Cato Institute who advocates limited government, said that rail transport for downtown workers was "out of date". The federal government should focus on freeway funding to create fairness for low-income Americans as transit is a second-class option, he said.
"A freeway doesn't care if you have a Yugo or a Rolls-Royce, you get exactly the same access to the road," said O'Toole. It supports a miles-based usage fee to reduce congestion.
Currently, metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and the suburbs of Washington, Virginia have reserved lanes for toll drivers.
Network of the future
Officials, city planners, and private companies are accelerating work on ways to reduce operating costs while serving drivers.
Uber Technologies Inc. works with public transportation authorities to provide subsidized taxi-like services. In April, Miami gave drivers Uber ridesharing vouchers that allowed them to drive near-empty buses late at night.
In Los Angeles, city planners are working to add bicycles and electric scooters to help people avoid long journeys on public transit. "The game we play is that we want all communities to have choices," said city planner Dylan Jones.
In Jacksonville, Florida, officials want to attract drivers with shuttle reservations. Before the pandemic, the agency swapped 40-foot buses for standby shuttles in 11 communities. Drivers in these areas can now call and get a ride on their schedule instead of taking the bus.
Jacksonville is also focusing on developing autonomous shuttles rather than stepping up the elevated monorail, said Nat Ford, the top official for the local transportation agency. The agency used the shuttles to transport coronavirus tests from the test site to the processing center.
Driver wages make up a large chunk of urban transportation budgets, said Alejandro Tirachini, a Chile-based transportation researcher. Both New York City and Chicago, home to two of the busiest transportation systems in the United States, spent about 77% of their public transportation operating costs on work in 2018, federal records show. Automation would encourage public transport companies to add smaller vehicles as large buses would no longer be as inexpensive, he said.
"The pandemic has given us an opportunity to pause and think about what we are currently offering in terms of our services, and we are openly using it as a stimulus to be the transportation network of the future," said Ford.