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Howard A. Learner

How Can We Avoid a Public Transit Death Spiral

Public transit ridership and revenues have dropped like a rock during the COVID-19 public health crisis.

 In Chicago, CTA bus and train ridership is down by 80%, and Metra commuter rail ridership is down by a staggering 97%. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Metro Transit has 75% less riders. The same is true in many cities across the nation.

Public transit relies heavily on fare box revenues to support operations. The federal government long ago withdrew operating support until the recent CARES Act infused $25 billion to temporarily keep public transit agencies from collapsing. Essential workers need local transit to get to hospitals, water works and other workplaces.

But, looking ahead, absent funding and policy changes, the picture is distressingly clear. As the COVID-19 pandemic causes more people to work from home, and rising unemployment means fewer workers overall, that means less public transit ridership. Many people are understandably reluctant to be on crowded trains and buses, and social distancing precautions mean that less passengers should be permitted for now on each train car and bus.

Less ridership means less public transit revenues, which leads to service cuts. Fewer trains and buses, in turn, attract less riders and thereby further deplete revenues. The threat of a public transit death spiral is clear and its impacts on our lives, our climate and urban communities are truly awful.

  • People need mobility to get to jobs, see friends and family members, care for loved ones, and enjoy life. Not everyone can afford to live near downtown office jobs or hospitals or public facilities. Sidewalks are busy and bike sales are booming, and more biking and walking are good. But not everyone is physically able to do so, and not all jobs or family members and loved ones are in biking and walking range. And here in the Midwest, few people want to bike or walk across town on a cold, snowy winter day. We rely upon and need good public transit to get around town.
  • Public transit is affordable for most people. Car ownership is sometimes not. Buying a car, paying for insurance, paying for gas, paying for parking (if available at all), and paying increasing, regressive license plate, city sticker and other fees is expensive.
  • More cars on the road mean more pollution, more congestion and less progress in addressing climate change. The transportation sector is now the largest source of carbon pollution. Public transit “heavy rail” – subways and metro trains – produce about 76% less greenhouse gas emissions per mile than the average vehicle carrying a single person. Better public transit serving more riders is a necessary carbon solution and equity solution.

The situation is grim. What can and should be done to keep public transit systems from melting down?

  • Federal funding is essential. The CARES emergency infusion of funds to public transit agencies should be the “first shot,” not a “one shot.” This transportation operations and infrastructure support is essential, and our political leaders must step up big and soon.
  • State funding shifts are necessary. Let’s face it – with record unemployment and many states facing huge budget gaps with income tax and gas tax revenues way down, federal funding for trains and buses is essential. States like Illinois, which are moving forward with transportation infrastructure programs, should prioritize “fixing it first” to keep suburban commuter rail and urban transit running, while repairing aging bridges and distressed roads. The shiny new highways and ribbon cuttings will need to wait for better times.
  • Policies matter. Yes, to personal and public safety during the COVID-19 public health crisis. But it’s shortsighted when, on Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control threw into reverse years of policies and encouragement to use public transit by now instead urging employers to “offer employees incentives to use forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others, such as offering reimbursement for parking for commuting to work alone or single-occupancy rides.”  More single-occupancy cars mean more pollution that health studies have shown to increase COVID-19 risks. It’s a very tough balance, but it’s not wise to put policies into place that will be hard to remove when the COVID-19 threats hopefully recede. Let’s not trade one crisis for another.

Avoiding the meltdown of our public transit systems is an essential service to people, public health and our communities. Stopping the public transit death spiral is vital for mobility, transportation affordability, and climate change mitigation. Let’s get going on this.

Howard A. Learner,

President and Executive Director, Environmental Law & Policy Center

Howard Learner is an experienced attorney serving as the President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. He is responsible for ELPC’s overall strategic leadership, policy direction, and financial platform.

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