COVID-19 devastated public transit, and underscored how indispensable it is


Ridership and revenues plummeted during the pandemic, but transit service remained essential for many frontline workers. After the pandemic, it’s important that the lessons learned are used to create better, more equitable transit networks.

Ridership and revenues plummeted during the pandemic, but transit service remained essential for many frontline workers. After the pandemic, it’s important that the lessons learned are used to create better, more equitable transit networks.

Last year was a tough one for public transit. Thousands of train operators, bus drivers, mechanics and other staff were infected; the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in New York alone experienced the deaths of 136 employees.

With office workers doing their jobs from home, restaurants, bars and shops closed, events canceled, and many of the ordinary parts of life paused, U.S. transit agencies were in the strange position of actively discouraging people from getting on board. Ridership in April 2020 was 80% lower than it was in April 2019. That triggered a financial crisis as fare revenue dropped and tax revenue decreased. And through it all, agencies had to keep operating service, increasing cleaning, requiring masks and putting more buses in service on busy routes.

As part of the Urban Edge’s ongoing “COVID-19 and Cities” series, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research is examining the urban landscape a year after the pandemic began. These stories take a look back at the past year and ahead to what will be different in the years to come.

It’s easy, after a year of the pandemic, to assume that transit is changed forever, to imagine a future where downtown skyscrapers stand empty because everyone works from home, where those who do commute use cars out of fear of infection, where people flee the cities where transit ridership is highest. Not surprisingly, many of the people who were declaring transit irrelevant in 2019 are still saying the same thing, except now citing COVID-19 for the irrelevance.

We’ve learned through the pandemic, though, that the initial assumptions about COVID-19, transit and cities have proven to be incorrect. As it turns out, the risk of transmission via surfaces — the fear cited by elected officials in New York for overnight shutting down subway service — is minimal. In fact, there’s very little evidence linking infections with transit at all — being in a well-ventilated vehicle with people wearing masks appears to be far less risky than social events or restaurants. Population density also has little impact; it’s crowding within households that matters.

I suspect we’ll find the same for longer-term impacts. As we come out of the pandemic, we’ll be vividly reminded that, as always, people enjoy gathering. Cities exist because physical proximity leads to interaction, ideas, culture and commerce. And it’s no accident that at the heart of every major economic center in the world, there’s a transit system: transit moves a lot of people without taking up a lot of space, and it allows everyone to enjoy the benefits of access to a city. A pandemic does not change the inherent geometry of transit. And, even throughout all of this, transit has proven its value, getting essential workers like nurses and grocery-store clerks to their jobs every day.

In general (as I wrote 15 years ago), massive catastrophes rarely change the trajectory of cities. The 1918 flu, which killed 675,000 Americans, was followed by a decade of transit ridership growth. After being nearly destroyed by fire in 1871, Chicago continued its previous growth. As did San Francisco after being leveled by an earthquake in 1906. High-rises or air travel weren’t ended by 9/11. “Cities are among the most fragile of our creations, but they are also among the most resilient,” I wrote after Hurricane Katrina, and it’s still true.

This is true on a smaller scale, too. Cities grow additional centers, but the places that had lots of activity 20 or 50 years ago still do today. I have no doubt that there will be some changes in ridership patterns, but I predict they won’t be fundamental (and all I can do is predict — nobody knows for sure what will happen.) What we’ll find, I think, is that places that were doing well before COVID-19 will do well after. And, sadly, places that were struggling before the pandemic will struggle when it ends. COVID, like nearly all disasters, is inequitable.

An inequitable disaster highlights the existing inequities in our transit networks. Traditionally, transit decision-makers in the United States have focused on 9-to-5 white-collar jobs in downtown areas. That’s the ridership that evaporated this year; some commuter-rail systems have seen ridership down by 95%. But ridership on the routes that carry essential workers, and that people depend on for everyday errands like going to the grocery store, has held up.

We should have been focusing more on those trips in the first place, and investing in infrastructure and services designed to carry lots of different people on lots of different trips. The past year has highlighted the folly of designing single-purpose transit systems. After COVID-19, plans for improving local bus service, building bus rapid transit and urban bus rapid transit, and transforming regional networks for all-day trips, look even better, while plans for park-and-ride-based commute service focused on peak times seem even less useful.

Thus, COVID-19 has shown us the shortcomings of the transit we have now. Those deaths at the MTA are a reminder that we’ve always asked transit employees to do hard work in difficult conditions; I would hope, that after seeing bus operators in action as frontline workers, we would think about making sure they have safe working conditions (and such simple things as restrooms to use at the end of a route) every day.

The discussions about cutting service to fill funding gaps, with agencies finding their futures dependent on the whims of Congress, show the fragility in our transit funding systems. The fact that some agencies have struggled to put enough buses on the street to avoid crowding shows just how threadbare our networks often are.

Hopefully, the COVID-19 pandemic leaves us with the resolve to make things better, not simply to restore the service we had before 2020, but to create more useful, more equitable networks. Hopefully, agencies that adjusted on the fly this past year and figured out new ways to operate will apply that same level of ingenuity to recovery. But that will take political resolve, and that’s where I fear for the future. Federal funding bills have largely filled the gaps left in agency budgets by cuts in fare revenue and higher costs for operating service. But some elected officials already are saying that transit is less relevant in the post-COVID world, and suggesting that there is no need to fund it, and we’re seeing NIMBYs who say transit lines will spread disease. In the long term, pundits may be a bigger danger to transit systems than any issues around public health.

In 2020, the most devastating year transit has experienced in our lifetimes, COVID-19 proved just how important it is, and transit agencies showed what they are capable of doing. But COVID-19 is also reminding us that we can’t take transit for granted, and testing how much we value it.

Christof Spieler is a vice president and director of planning at Huitt-Zollars, a senior lecturer at Rice University, and author of “Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit,” published by Island Press in 2018. He served as a member of the Harris County Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board of directors from 2010 to 2018.

Christof Spieler


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