Urban Transit After COVID-19
by Robert Poole, Reason Foundation, April 8, 2021 (excerpt)
Here is a recent set of headlines from a couple of reputable sources, to introduce a discussion of how urban transit will need to change when we enter the post-pandemic period:
The reporters of these stories reflect genuine concerns, but my impression is that many in the transportation community have not fully thought through the implications for urban transit in the “after” COVID-19 times.
One expert who has is Steve Polzin, a former transit official, university professor, and most recently as a senior advisor for research and technology at the U.S. Department of Transportation. After reading a detailed paper that he and a colleague produced while at DOT last fall, Reason Foundation commissioned Polzin to write a policy brief focusing specifically on how transit will have to change, and why. The new report, “Public Transportation Must Change after COVID-19,” was published last week and you can find it here.
Polzin first reminds us that in the five years prior to the coronavirus pandemic, transit experienced a significant loss of ridership, before appearing to stabilize at a lower level by 2019. Then the pandemic led to former transit riders avoiding buses and rail transit in favor of cars, bikes, walking, and working at home. Comparing January 2020 (pre-pandemic) with January 2021, unlinked transit trips were 65% less (though transit vehicle miles of service decreased only 23% for the same months).
Alas for those hoping for a post-pandemic return to “normal,” among the factors leading to permanent changes are, of course, some degree of permanent shifts to working from home, either part-time or full-time, along with the continued popularity of network companies like Lyft and Uber, a millennial generation that is getting older and buying houses in the suburbs, and a general movement of people and companies from higher-density to lower-density locations.
Polzin points out that even if many people work at home Mondays and Fridays, but still work in the office mid-week, this will “make it harder to justify peak capacity capital investments and complicate service scheduling.” In terms of permanent work-at-home shifts, he notes that if this share doubles from pre-pandemic levels of 5.7% to about 12% of people working from home, that could mean 15%-to-20% fewer downtown workers, a major change for downtown-focused rail transit systems.
Another section of the brief looks at declining vehicle occupancy by transit mode: bus, light rail, heavy rail, and commuter rail. All four are down significantly, but some much more than others. And this makes a surprising difference in the environmental friendliness of these modes. Here is his comparison of pre-pandemic vs. December 2020 fuel economy of various commuter modes, drawn from the U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center plus estimated occupancies from the National Transit Database. The metric is passenger miles per gasoline gallons equivalent; hence the highest numbers are best.
|Demand response (Uber, Lyft)
*assumed to be unchanged
As of December 2020, the most fuel-efficient means of commuting was the car, followed by light trucks—but only because occupancy embedded in the transit calculations was so drastically low. Obviously, when we get past the pandemic those figures should rise but whether mass transit will be able to rebuild enough ridership to be more fuel-efficient (and hence more carbon-friendly) remains to be seen, and as you can see from the current numbers, transit has a long way to go.
A major premise of the Biden administration’s transportation agenda is to greatly increase federal spending on transit, compared with only modest, constrained increases for highways (with very little scope for adding highway capacity). This approach poses major risks of putting billions of taxpayer dollars into projects that will have costs far greater than their benefits (e.g., light rail systems for medium-sized cities, megaproject expansions of heavy rail and commuter rail systems, etc.).
At the very least, it is premature at this juncture to commit funding for major new rail transit projects before we have some idea of the extent of transit ridership in the first several years after nationwide vaccinations....
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Fix Oahu! Excellent input by transportation experts Robert Poole and Steve Polzin