Effects of COVID-19 on Public Transit in the U.S.

By Josh Peterson, Cat Calancea, Dallin Smith, Brindalyn Darby, and Alma Meyer

In mid-March 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States and public transportation ridership decreased by an average of 70% nationwide. The drop in public transit usage stayed that way for months to follow. There are many factors that have and will continue to come into play as transit systems attempt to recover from this drastic — but hopefully temporary — reduction in usage. These factors include the development of better sanitation and social distancing measures, encouraging riders to return to transit, gaining the favor of public opinion, and securing funding.

In order to address the factors affecting the future of public transit, we must address the question, why did people stop riding public transit? Was it because they were afraid of the COVID-19 virus, or because they didn’t have anywhere to go due to working from home and cancelled events? While both of these scenarios play a part in the decline of public transportation, the main issue that we will address is the fear of COVID-19 transmission while riding public transportation. There is a widespread conception that riding public transportation will increase your chances of contracting the virus. This conception especially holds true in larger cities where the lack of ridership is at its highest. However, recent studies have shown the opposite. In New York City, a survey was given to 1300 patients who had contracted the coronavirus. Only 4% had recently used public transit. In another study researchers compared the rate of transit ridership with the count of positive COVID cases. Recently, COVID cases are on the decline while ridership is increasing. This suggests that transit ridership has little effect on contracting the virus. Public transportation services have made safety one of their top priorities during the pandemic and most, if not all, have put in sanitary and social distancing measures to protect riders and workers from the virus. Even with these measurements in place, false fears of COVID transmission still exist.

As previously mentioned, ridership decline in major cities was significantly greater than in smaller towns and cities. That holds true for most cities; however, in some cities that have high populations of low-income residents, such as Los Angeles and New York, ridership decline was around 60%, which is less than the nationwide average. These cities have relatively lower decline in ridership because of their high population of low-income residents, who depend on transportation services. Low-income individuals tend to rely on and use public transportation more than higher income individuals. Their dependence on the transportation industry allowed for lower declines compared to other large cities like Washington, D.C., where the decline was upwards of 90% at the start of the pandemic.

As pandemic situations began to improve, it became apparent that alterations were needed inorder for public transit to operate safely. The best ways to limit the spread of this virus include individuals wearing a face mask, distancing household groups, keeping high touch surfaces sanitary, and filtered, well-ventilated air systems. Specific health and safety measures to protect from this virus were added in many transportation systems to keep current riders and regain many lost riders. Routes and schedules were also viewed and adjusted temporarily to meet the lower demands.

Adding safety measures to help slow the spread of this virus had to be done on a case-by-case basis for each system. Each fleet needed to be evaluated and adjusted. The safety measures implemented included physical distancing of parties, new touch-free devices, implementing antimicrobial surface treatments, and improving or adding ventilation systems and air sanitation. The goal of all such additions was to reduce the risk of ridership. These pandemic safety implementations helped to reduce the spread of Covid19 on public transportation systems Jones et al.

Another key element for the public transportation industry during the pandemic has been to reduce, reevaluate, and alter former routes and schedules. With fewer people going places, the demand for transit and transportation in general has decreased, making it economically feasible to reevaluate the planning systems. Such evaluations have led to a decrease in trips, a change in routes, and the reduction of stops. Because of the pandemic, stop reduction was determined by both demand and potential virus spread rate. Route and schedule changes needed to be constantly evaluated to meet the pandemic demands.

The decrease in transit ridership due to COVID-19 will continue to have a lasting impact on infrastructure growth in the future. One of the major ways in which we have seen a long-term change in transportation is the way that the world is currently getting to work. Due to the pandemic, people have learned that telework is a viable option, and more companies are getting on board with allowing their workers to remain at home instead of using transportation to work in an on-site office.

Although some states, including Utah, are opening up things like restaurants and venues, people continue to be more hesitant to be in places where there are crowded spaces. Even if sanitation efforts are continued or increased, it is possible that these fears may continue to remain. At least right now, the return to “normal” isn’t there yet. Still, there is one group of people that work in industries that will always require transport. This class is the blue collar workers — those who have to be on-site in order to work; whether they be construction workers or the food workers. It is expected that this group will continue to grow and will be in need of transportation to get to their destination.

According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the lack of transit ridership due to COVID-19 will cause a deficit of approximately 11.6 billion dollars nationwide by the end of 2023. The 11.6 billion dollars only includes losses from ridership fares and taxes. The sanitation and social distancing challenges associated with this pandemic will cause higher costs in sanitation and less ridership per vehicle. According to APTA, the total deficit caused by COVID-19 is projected to be 39.3 billion by the year 2023. With this deficit building, action must be taken by all transportation services to increase ridership and boost funding, or alteration of the transit systems will be required.

This will require transit systems to adapt to meet the needs of essential workers who must work on-site, increasing sanitation services, and appealing to public opinion to encourage ridership. With COVID-19 vaccines now available to the general population, people are travelling in greater numbers. This will help public transit systems throughout the United States to recover, but a return to a “new normal” may require continued adaptations.

As you can see, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a drastic impact on public transit systems across the United States. A drastic loss of ridership caused huge funding deficits and the need to decrease services. However, transit services are adapting to the increased sanitation concerns and social distancing requirements. Many studies have concluded that COVID spread cannot be traced to use of public transit. As people return to their normal activities, we hope that they will see the need to support local transit services, both by increasing ridership and supporting measures for increased funding to help these systems recover from the deficits caused by the pandemic.