Whether you love it or hate it, transit receives public funding because government leaders and a majority of the public believe that transit yields an array of benefits that enhance our quality of life and economic productivity. These beliefs are supported by a significant amount of high-quality research. The emerging COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly put transit in a different light. Social distancing has made the “mass” in mass transit a serious health concern, and indeed mobility itself is not a high priority when society is in self-quarantine. What does COVID-19 mean for public transit providers? What does it mean for the cities and regions they serve? How long will it take for transit to recover? And will transit emerge fundamentally transformed for better or worse?
Until the COVID-19 threat is over, the most obvious impact on public transit is that fewer people will be using it. Service will likely be reduced as demand falls, and inevitably, there will be budget challenges for transit providers. Transit budgets will likely mirror challenges in the airline industry and Amtrak. Indeed, most households and businesses will face similar financial challenges from COVID-19.
When the need for social distancing subsides, public transit will have to work hard and smartly to regain its market share, but it should successfully reattract its customers. Past experiences with work stoppages associated with labor disputes have adversely affected ridership well after the dispute is resolved, but typically the loss is not permanent. Strikes, however, are relatively short-term events. Major infrastructure repairs sometimes take many months or even years, which may be better comparisons to the current situation from a timing perspective. Typically, even from long-lasting interruptions, transit ridership eventually recovers.
COVID-19 could be different as health-related fears may be difficult to overcome, potentially undermining the whole idea that urban density is a good thing. But it is well documented that dense cities are highly productive, efficient in their use of infrastructure, and are environmentally sustainable. Successful metropolitan areas will overcome the challenges raised by COVID-19 so that they can continue to derive the benefits afforded by density and compete with other regions. Transit will certainly be a key element in achieving attractive, productive development patterns.
Another challenge is that in response to COVID-19 both workers and businesses alike will have grown accustomed to working remotely, depressing the underlying demand for transit. One might ask whether these new approaches to work will fundamentally reduce the need for transit in the long term. But as long as cities continue to fulfill key economic and social functions, and as long as there is a desire for face to face interaction, the newfound ability to work remotely will not reduce the need for transit, rather it will only expand the capacity of cities to deliver goods, services and experiences on their limited land area. The fate of cities and transit are inextricably linked.
Dr. Richard Voith is a well-known expert in real estate economics, transportation, and applied microeconomics. As President & Founding Principal of ESI, Dr. Richard Voith oversees a wide variety of projects in the realm of housing, labor markets, transportation, and economic development.