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Public transportation has been in a state of crisis since the coronavirus pandemic began. Ridership in major cities in the U.S., Europe and China is down by 50-90% from pre-crisis levels. Local taxes used to subsidize systems in America, such as sales taxes, have taken a big hit as well. Transit operators are running out of money quickly. While the federal government has allocated $25 billion in emergency aid to help cover operational losses, the next six months will still present an enormous financial challenge to local agencies as they struggle to attract riders back onto buses and subways and continue capital projects.
As urban research scholars specializing in public transit costs, we worry that this dynamic could result in damaging decision-making. Historically, it has been during times of crisis that agencies have deferred maintenance, cut service and canceled expansion projects. It’s these choices, made under extreme duress, that have crippled American transit agencies before.
But there is a way forward. We offer these pathways for saving transit, immediately and into the future.
What to do nowFor the duration of the pandemic, agencies need money to continue running service, and to keep operators and passengers safe. Spending priorities need to shift and mimic the best practices used in cities that keep their public spaces clean and their infection rates low. U.S. transit agencies should do all of the following interventions:
On the operations front, agencies should also adjust schedules and consider new kinds of routes and vehicles that serve hospitals, testing centers, industrial clusters and grocery stores rather than office buildings and schools. In San Francisco, the SFMTA dramatically reduced the scope of its network by slashing 72 of 89 routes. Temporary cuts allow transit agencies to focus their workforce and resources into the routes that serve essential workers and medical centers while also maintaining enough service to permit social distancing onboard the bus.
What to plan over the next yearAs the economy begins to recover from the pandemic, transit agencies will have to rebuild ridership. This will be a difficult task: Historically, transit ridership and employment have been intertwined. With unemployment skyrocketing, we expect transit ridership to rebound slowly.
This article first appeared on www.citylab.com
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