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Public transit faces uncertain future after pandemic

 

Public transportation in cities across the U.S. faces an uncertain future in a post-pandemic world.

The nations major metropolitan areas have seen drastic declines in the use of public transit for much of this year compared to last. But while some of that drop may stem from people avoiding crowds and public spaces, experts say it can also be attributed to the shift to remote work, which could be rolled back after a potential coronavirus vaccine or cure is discovered and widely available. 

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The entire rotation of the globe right now depends on whether or not were going to be able to defeat COVID-19 and whatever follows it,” Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, told The Hill.

The timing of that is extremely uncertain, so the timing of the return to normal — if there is a normal, is also uncertain,” Schofer added. 

Still unknown, he said, is how many workers will feel a desire to go back to offices or if they will prefer to continue to work from home — not to mention how many businesses will allow or encourage remote work once the pandemic dies down.

Schofer said its likely some businesses will return to insisting on an in-person presence while others do not, resulting conditions could lead to more commuters traveling by car as opposed to public transportation unless congestion becomes an issue once again. 

A survey conducted by Arizona State University (ASU) and the University of Illinois Chicago found Americans are open to sticking with some aspects of their changed behaviors from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Asked if they would like to continue some or all of their new behaviors after activities return to normal, 70 percent responded yes or maybe, while only 26 percent responded no, according to results presented by ASU associate professor Deborah Salon on Wednesday during the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) Lake Arrowhead Symposium.

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Asked which behaviors they would seek to maintain after the pandemic, nearly 40 percent of employed respondents said they would like to continue to work from home at least sometimes. The survey also found 30 percent of respondents said they would like to keep walking more and 20 percent said they would like to commute less.

The first wave of the survey was conducted between April 14 and Oct. 14, and surveyed 8,723 people. A second wave is about to start with a third planned for the spring.

Public transportation ridership in some cities is starting to rise again after steep drops in the spring, but it is still lower this fall compared to the same time last year.

In New York City, subway ridership for the month of April was about 90 percent less than April 2019, according to Metropolitan Transportation Authority data. So far this month, rates have been about 60 to 70 percent lower compared to October 2019. 

New York bus ridership was down 84 percent in April, when the virus peaked in the city, but only 50 percent on Oct. 1. 

Schofer said those who rely on public transportation and were unable to work from home, such as essential workers, have been more likely to stick to buses rather than subways during the pandemic. A bus has the advantage of allowing people to see it coming and gauge how crowded it is before deciding to get on or not, he noted.

Among those that are reducing the use of buses and public transportation we see a pretty substantial amount of individuals also report increasing car travel, something showing a massive shift that is happening,” said Giovanni Circella, a travel behavior researcher at the University of California-Davis.  

Of course, in the other direction, among those reducing driving, pretty much nobody is increasing the use of transit,” Circella said at the UCLA conference.

Dips in ridership also mean transit systems saw accompanying decreases in revenue, but Schofer noted that no transit system in the U.S. is self-supporting, relying on subsidies to cover costs.

Ruth Steiner, the director of the Center for Health and the Built Environment Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Florida, said, At this point, I think were still deep in the issues of how are we going to handle today without thinking forward because in a way we dont have the luxury to think forward because its spreading so fast.”

The coronavirus has infected more than 8.3 million people and killed more than 220,000 in the U.S., according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, and there have been nearly 418,000 new cases reported in the last seven days.

But Steiner said she hopes the coronavirus pandemic sparks a newfound appreciation for the importance of public transportation in cities of all sizes.

I also think and hope  — I have to remain hopeful that what's going to happen — is that we may come to appreciate a system that works for all populations, and not just the wealthy,” she said.