On April 6, Tumlin announced that Muni was suspending about 75% of its bus lines. “I never thought I’d say this,” tweeted Tumlin, a true believer in public transportation as a social unifier. “Please don’t take Muni if you have other options.”
The toll of the coronavirus on air transportation is well known: It’s emptied airports and
Now experts predict that U.S. rail and bus systems may never fully recover from the pandemic. That could present new obstacles to millions of low-income commuters and set cities on a course toward heavier congestion and
As shelter-in-place orders and business closures have kept millions of workers at home, the most-used transit systems are carrying 70% fewer riders than usual, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Those riders left include workers in essential industries—nurses, janitors, grocery and pharmacy clerks, and others that state and local governments deem pandemic-critical. About 2.8 million of these use public transit, making up 36% of all riders, according to an analysis of 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data by TransitCenter, a think tank.
Along with revenue from fares, sales tax receipts—another key funding source—are expected to dry up with the economic shutdown.
The SFMTA is staring down a $200 million quarterly loss. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority estimates a weekly revenue loss of $142 million during the city’s lockdown. (“The decline in ridership in the pandemic time is something that’s desirable, although it’s had a dramatic impact on our revenue,” says
The third federal relief package will send
Most systems have slashed operations. Seattle has cut 103 bus routes and is running fewer trains; Miami has canceled express buses and is preparing to outsource overnight service to
The crisis is likely to have long-term effects. When workers head back to the office, some may determine it’s less risky to drive, bike, or walk than to pack inside a bus or train. “These riders will be very slow to return—and may never return,” says Candace Brakewood, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. “Those who will return are the dependent riders, without a car and without the means to purchase a car.” They may find systems gutted by funding cuts, with fewer routes, reduced frequency, and less coverage.
Experts say transit systems would be more resilient to shocks if they could depend on regular infusions of federal funding, rather than revenue sources tied to the ups and downs of the economy. In the U.S., emissions from cars and trucks are the leading source of planet-warming greenhouse gases. Giving up on transit during one crisis would only compound another.
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