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How to save America’s public transit systems from a doom spiral

Don’t let buses and subways become another casualty of the pandemic.

In an underground subway station, riders are seen inside an open subway train, and others are seen on the platform in the foreground waiting for their train.
Riders board an F-line subway train in New York City in January 2023.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images
David Zipper is a senior fellow at the MIT Mobility Initiative, where he examines the interplay between transportation policy and technology. His work has been published in the Atlantic, Slate, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, and elsewhere.

America’s largest public transportation systems are facing their greatest challenge in generations — a crisis with the potential to decimate their service, cripple local economies, and diminish quality of life.

When Covid-19 arrived three years ago, most transit passengers stopped riding, shrinking transportation agencies’ fare revenues. Today, ridership remains far below pre-pandemic levels. Unless they can quickly find new sources of funding, big transit systems will be forced to drastically curtail service, which would drive away still more passengers and place those systems in an even deeper financial hole.

Such a scenario would directly affect current riders, but it would also devastate cities whose post-pandemic priorities — such as revitalizing downtowns, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and boosting equity — rely on the ready availability of mass transportation.

But a death spiral is not inevitable. To escape it, transit leaders must offer a full-throated defense of their essential role in American life. They must then secure new and reliable revenue streams from state and regional sources, which will require convincing residents and legislators that transit is worthy of subsidy — not an easy thing to do in a country where the vast majority of people don’t ride the bus or train. “Do you know how many times the median American rides transportation each year?” Brian Taylor, a professor of urban planning and policy at UCLA, asked me.“Zero.”

A chart showing total number of US transit riders per week. Total weekly national public transit ridership hovered around 180 million in early March 2020, plummeted down to 40 million by April 2020, and has slowly increased since then but now hovers at 140 million, significantly below the pre-pandemic baseline.

The only realistic way for transit officials to garner public support for the funding they desperately need is to demonstrate an ability to replace car trips, not just serve economically disadvantaged people who lack other means to get around their city. Otherwise, they forfeit the pro-transit arguments that resonate most with the public: curtailing congestion, reducing auto emissions, and boosting economic growth.

And to replace cars, transit agencies must offer fast, frequent, and reliable trips. This should be the core mission of any functional public transportation system, but increasingly, transit leaders are being pushed to focus on distracting priorities like electrifying buses, eliminating fares, and fighting crime. The biggest US transit agencies must be allowed to simply focus on delivering high-quality service. There is no Plan B.

20th-century suburbanization triggered a fiscal crisis for transit

To appreciate the urgency of transit’s current predicament, one must first understand its turbulent past. “The cycle I’m worried about now is one we saw from 1945 to 1970,” said Nicholas Bloom, a professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College and the author of the forthcoming book The Great American Transit Disaster: A Century of Austerity, Auto-Centric Planning, and White Flight.

A black-and-white photo of a dense residential street with a streetcar running down the center.
A Washington, DC streetcar circa 1921-1923.
Hum Images/Universal Images Group

Mass transportation’s heyday came in the early 20th century, when privately run streetcars were ubiquitous throughout urban America, and residents of cities like Boston and New York City flocked to new subway lines. But the rapid ascent of the automobile prompted many regular passengers to decamp for car-oriented suburbs, with employers following. Declining ridership eroded transit companies’ finances, leading to deteriorating service that drove away still more riders.

With transit companies teetering on the brink of collapse after World War II, local and state governments intervened to prevent service from disappearing altogether. A wave of public takeovers included the creation of Chicago’s CTA (1947), Boston’s MBTA (1964), Philadelphia’s SEPTA (1964), and New York City’s MTA (1968).

Adding to transit’s postwar woes was a federal government focused on cars, not buses and trains. The landmark 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, for instance, launched the modern interstate system that catalyzed suburbanization while destroying many dense urban neighborhoods. Only with the 1964 Urban Mass Transportation Act did Congress start to provide a modicum of financial support for transit.

But it came with a big catch: The feds would subsidize capital expenditures, such as purchasing new buses or building a new rail line, rather than the ongoing provision of service, which was mostly paid from a combination of fare revenues and contributions from state and local governments.

In 1960, just over 12 percent of commutes to work occurred on transit, but by 2019 that figure had fallen to 5 percent. It was even lower in most of the country; the national average was propped up by a few populous metro regions that developed before the automobile’s arrival, where residents had more reason to use the bus or train because of limited downtown parking.

In New York City, for instance, 32 percent of commuters in 2019 traveled to work via transit; the figure in Boston was 13 percent and in Chicago 12 percent. Those three regions plus San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia accounted for around 65 percent of total transit trips nationwide.

In major metros, transit has been indispensable

Unlike in the rest of the United States, transit agencies in these big, dense cities have long derived much of their operating revenues from passenger fares. In 2019 New York City’s MTA recovered more than half of its operating expenses through farebox revenue, while Chicago’s CTA drew 41 percent and Philadelphia’s SEPTA 35 percent. By comparison, the comparable figure for Phoenix’s Valley Metro was 14 percent, and for Dallas’s DART 12 percent.

Fare revenues allowed the biggest transit systems to provide more service, which made taking the bus or train more appealing for those who could otherwise use a car. Research has consistently found that transit’s regularity and reliability — more than its price — exert a powerful influence over mode choice. “The two most important factors driving satisfaction with transit are service frequency and travel time,” observed the nonprofit TransitCenter in a 2016 report.

Big transit systems’ singular ability to replace driving has brought them powerful allies. Their regional business groups often see transit as a means to avoid the crippling congestion that would hinder economic growth and depress real estate values. In Washington, DC, an alliance of corporate executives called the Federal City Council played a key role rallying the region to create Metrorail, which opened in 1976.

Such agencies have also found support in regional referendums and state budgets. According to the American Public Transportation Association, state and local governments contributed more than $500 billion toward transit systems between 1975 and 2019, with the largest systems getting a disproportionate share of those funds. Although suburban and rural residents may never ride the bus or train themselves, many still appreciate transit’s ability to mitigate congestion, grow local economies, and reduce greenhouse gasses and air pollution.

“It’s essential that transit lead people to drive less in order to win a statewide coalition,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the undersecretary for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “When talking to people who don’t use the T [Boston’s rail system], I’ve always said, ‘The more people who ride the T, the more people who get off the road.’” The same argument was lampooned by The Onion in a 23-year-old headline, “98 Percent of US Commuters Favor Public Transportation for Others,” but it’s true — subsequent research found that many people really do support transit subsidies in the hopes that others will drive less.

Although pre-Covid transit was far from perfect in megalopolises like Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC, agencies’ ability to offer service competitive with car travel set them apart from peers in the rest of the country, which primarily serve low-income riders with limited (if any) access to a car.

Then came the pandemic.

After Covid, big transit systems’ finances fell off a cliff

Few parts of the American economy were upended by Covid as much as public transportation. Ridership nationwide plummeted around 80 percent in March 2020, shrinking farebox revenues as it fell.

That decline was less crippling for smaller transit agencies than those of major metros. A system that collects only 11 percent of its operating budget from fares (like Austin’s Metro did pre-pandemic, for example) could endure a massive drop in riders without incurring a significant budget deficit. But similar ridership declines would — and did — devastate bigger agencies that were far more reliant on fares. Adding to their pain, the largest systems often endured the steepest drops in ridership because their relatively more affluent passengers were more likely to work from home or have access to a car. By April 2020, transit trips in metro areas with over 2 million residents were down 83 percent, compared to 66 percent for smaller regions.

A woman sits alone in an otherwise empty train car
A virtually empty Boston transit train in April 2020.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

Seeking to avoid a repeat of transit’s near-death experience in the mid-20th century, Congress threw agencies a lifeline in 2020 by approving the first of several Covid relief packages, ultimately totaling $69 billion. That aid broke with federal precedent by directly funding big agencies’ operating costs, which allowed them to minimize service cuts even with far fewer riders.

But now the federal money is running out, while fare revenues remain low as ridership in big metros like Boston is barely half its pre-pandemic level and downtowns are still suffering from the remote work trend. “We’re calling it the ‘big red,’” said Randy Clarke, general manager of WMATA, the transit system of the DC region, which is projecting a deficit of over half a billion dollars by fiscal year 2025. New York City’s MTA faces an even larger gap, estimated at $2.5 billion in 2025 and increasing thereafter.

At the same time, ridership patterns have been scrambled, requiring agencies to navigate a fast-changing environment. Downtown lines have generally seen ridership fall the furthest and recover the slowest, but demand for routes connecting neighborhoods has been more resilient, especially during off-peak hours.

Facing a financial cliff, transit agencies are raising the alarm. In a blog post last December, Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority, a financial oversight body, warned, “If no action is taken, the CTA, Metra, and Pace [Chicagoland’s three major transit systems] will be faced with difficult choices to cut service, raise fares, or both.” The Bay Area’s BART recently created a public website titled “Financial Crisis” to draw attention to its plight. “We can’t afford to lose transit,” it proclaims. “Don’t let BART go broke!”

To keep BART running, the agency says it needs more financial support from California — not, notably, the federal government. David Bragdon, who was executive director of the nonprofit TransitCenter when we spoke in February but has since left the position, doesn’t expect Congress to ride to the rescue again. “I don’t think there’s ever been — or will be — a point in time when federal funds are transit’s primary source of revenue,” he said. “Politically, that’s not how this country works with regard to its urban areas. Even in the most flush times, the vast majority of mass transportation funds are generated regionally and at the state level.”

To avoid a downward spiral of falling revenue, curtailed service, and lower ridership, transit agencies will need to convince governments and voters to give them more money. To do that, they need to focus on transit’s competitiveness with driving — and not be distracted by other priorities.

Eliminating fares sends transit in the wrong direction

During the pandemic, popular discourse about public transportation’s societal value underwent a shift. With so many people staying home, transit’s ability to mitigate traffic by replacing car trips seemed less urgent. Instead, public discussions focused on its role providing mobility for low-income “essential workers” who would otherwise be unable to reach jobs that housebound residents relied on them to perform.

“The people using transit now are working in hospitals that are saving lives,” wrote transit consultant and author Jarrett Walker in Bloomberg CityLab in April 2020. “They are creating, shipping, and selling urgently needed supplies. They are keeping grocery stores functioning, so we can eat.” A few months later, anti-racism protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder also contributed to discussion of access to public transportation as an equity and justice issue.

With transit users increasingly perceived as an economically vulnerable group, a rising chorus of activists, along with influential urban officials like Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Washington, DC, Councilmember Charles Allen, spearheaded policies to eliminate fares entirely, rejecting the more targeted approach of providing discounts only for low-income riders, which was adopted in places like New York.

Transit riders are more likely to be poor than the general public, so dropping fares is a progressive policy move, although most low-income riders still say they would rather see agencies prioritize faster and more reliable trips. But eliminating fares requires transit systems to find even more outside funding to be able to function, making it harder to provide high-quality service. And it’s not clear that equity-based appeals will resonate in the suburbs and rural areas. There is no evidence that fare-free transit can meet the key goal of reducing driving, because those with car access typically care more about trip times and reliability than the cost of a transit trip.

“The fare-free dialogue can make it more difficult to win statewide support” for funding transit, said Tibbits-Nutt, the Massachusetts undersecretary of transportation. “It continues to focus the conversation on the city of Boston” rather than the interests of those living outside the city.

Forgoing state and regional funds wouldn’t be a problem if big cities, whose elected leaders are often the most bullish on fare-free transit, could themselves provide the additional money that their transit systems need. Joshua Schank, a research associate at San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute, said he would welcome a new emphasis on equity, even if it upends transit’s historical alliance of corporate, suburban, and state interests. “Maybe transit would function better if you blow up that old coalition,” he said. “You’d lose some funding in the short term, but it’s not as though transit was thriving before the pandemic. That coalition wasn’t working.”

But Bloom, the Hunter College professor, thinks it would be a catastrophic mistake to focus funding appeals on inequality. “There’s this idea of having a social equity awakening about transit,” he said. “As someone who spent the last 20 years studying public housing, social equity has not impressed me as a way of getting consistent, high funding for important and crucial public services. I just don’t see it.”

Taylor, the UCLA professor, agreed. “When framed as a social service, transit hasn’t done well securing funding,” he said. “But when it’s framed as an environmental benefit or as getting people off the road, that can work.”

Jeffrey Tumlin, the leader of San Francisco’s transit system, is already building his case for aid around the beneficial effects of replacing car trips. “Part of the argument is about climate,” he said. “Here in California, transportation is 47 percent of emissions, and of that, 72 percent is private cars and trucks. Transit is absolutely essential.”

Compared to climate change, transit’s ability to mitigate congestion and strengthen downtowns seems even easier to grasp. But the credibility of both appeals rests on transit’s ability to reduce driving. And that requires providing trips that are reliable and rapid, with the next bus or train only a few minutes away.

Let transit agencies focus on providing good service

Despite acute staffing challenges during the last year, thanks in part to an uptick in retirements, many transit agencies have found ways to improve service, enhancing its appeal to those who could otherwise travel by car. In the Washington, DC region, for instance, WMATA in February managed to deploy additional weekday rush hour trains in response to rebounding demand.

San Francisco’s Muni, meanwhile, revamped its schedule to drop peripheral routes and boost frequency on core lines like the 22 and 49 that serve neighborhoods including the Marina District, the Castro District, and the Mission District, which have always had relatively high ridership and, Tumlin said, are now seeing more passengers than before the pandemic. Neither route serves San Francisco’s Financial District, suggesting that agencies could grow ridership (and reduce driving) by adding service in areas that are within central cities but outside of downtowns.

Service improvements like these are indispensable, but some of the other priorities transit agencies are currently balancing are not. For instance, with ridership still depressed, now seems like a good time to deprioritize expensive capital projects like vehicle purchases and rail expansions, and reallocate the money toward maintenance that makes service more reliable and frequent. Or better yet, agencies could find ways to transfer money from their capital budgets to their operating budgets, where it can help them hire desperately needed operators. (President Biden’s new budget proposal would give agencies temporary authority to make such transfers with federal funds.)

With ridership still recovering and dollars scarce, it’s also unclear why transit agencies should be spending money on pricey service expansions. Massachusetts residents, for instance, might question why MBTA is planning an extension of its Silver Line at a time when ridership is still so far below pre-Covid levels that the system faces a 2024 budget deficit of up to $421 million, and when wait times between Red Line trains have increased from 90 seconds in the 1940s to 4.5 to 11 minutes today.

Another dubious move: prioritizing bus electrification, as California has done by demanding that all buses within the state emit zero emissions by 2040. Although their adoption makes for good headlines (and is eligible for generous federal subsidies), electric buses force already stretched transit staff to navigate a thicket of operational challenges, such as figuring out where to place charging stations and how to handle extreme weather. “Mandatory fleet and facility conversions should not come at the expense of the survival of transit operations,” Tumlin said.

To meet climate goals, state and local officials would be better off focusing on nudging people out of cars and into buses instead of electrifying their bus fleets. The OECD has found that diesel buses produce fewer emissions per passenger mile than even electric cars. “Getting someone on the bus is already green,” said WMATA’s Clarke. Creating Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines with dedicated lanes and priority for buses at traffic signals can cost far less than purchasing new vehicles, and unlike electric buses, it measurably improves transit service in ways that win over new riders.

A bus rides down a red-painted bus lane alongside lanes of car traffic
A bus cruises down a New York City bus-exclusive lane.
John Lamparski/Getty Images

BRT is just one of the smart, low-cost ways that cities and states could strengthen transit service. Another is the adoption of onboard bus cameras that automatically photograph and ticket car drivers who illegally block bus lanes, slowing down service and making schedules less reliable. New York City was the first big US city to use such cameras at scale, and initial evidence suggests it has substantially sped up bus trips.

States and cities could also give transit a lift by assuming responsibility for managing rising concerns over public safety on buses and subways, which can suppress ridership. Agencies are increasingly being forced to reallocate precious dollars away from operations and toward public safety, which is the core competence of mental health and law enforcement departments. Such departments, not transit agencies, should be handling transit’s growing safety and social services needs.

“I can either hire operators or hire security staff,” said Tumlin, noting that in the last year, his agency created 50 new security positions. “That’s a few bus lines’ worth of people.” In fact, high-frequency transit service is itself a powerful countermeasure against crime because it allows riders to exit uncomfortable situations without enduring a lengthy wait for the next vehicle.

“If we had a more functioning society, we would be focused more on being a transit operator,” said Clarke of WMATA, which recently paid for DC police to patrol Metrorail stations following the shooting death of an employee. “If you go to Singapore, the agency’s staff are not doing these things. They’re running transit.”

Inequality, global warming, and crime are obviously critical societal challenges. But transit agencies can help solve all three simply by providing the fast, frequent, reliable service that lies at the core of their mission. New mandates risk distracting transit officials, undermining their ability to deliver on the very goals that advocates most want.

“MBTA staff are not only being asked to address our crisis with congestion; they’re being asked to address asthma rates in low-income communities,” said Tibbits-Nutt. “They’re being asked to electrify their entire system, to open up to those who can’t afford a car, to modernize stations. There is so much being asked of them right now that it’s making it hard for the system to operate.”

Cities can’t function without robust transit

As transit’s perceived responsibilities multiply, federal dollars are dwindling. The most immediate and obvious way for state and regional governments to help is by establishing recurring sources of funding. For that reason, implementing New York City’s congestion pricing plan, which will charge motorists up to $23 to enter Manhattan’s central business district and add around $1 billion annually to MTA’s capital budget — funding that could improve maintenance and service quality — can’t happen soon enough.

New York is an exception; for most large transit agencies, obtaining necessary funds will require months if not years of negotiation and advocacy. The stakes could not be higher — not only for transit riders, but for everyone who benefits from mass transportation. We can’t have vibrant cities without it.

Those who want to see transit not just survive but thrive, including public officials as well as everyday citizens, can improve agencies’ chances for success by doing two things. First, support staff who are working to provide maximally useful service, so that residents are more likely to leave their car at home (or maybe even get rid of it). Bus Rapid Transit, bus lane enforcement, and prioritizing maintenance over service expansions are all consistent with that goal.

Second, they can resist the temptation to complicate agencies’ challenges with well-intentioned but counterproductive mandates to go fare-free, electrify buses, or spend their own money on public safety.

The focus must be on providing the high-quality service that reinforces transit systems as assets worthy of investment. The alternative — widening budget deficits and deteriorating service — would be a tragedy for some of America’s greatest cities.

“Right now we are still in a crisis,” said Bloom. “But if you want to make today’s low the permanent low, cut the transit service.”

“You won’t get it back.”

Lucas Peilert contributed research assistance.

David Zipper is a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, where he examines the interplay between cities, transportation, and technology.

Correction, March 29, 3:50 pm ET: A previous version of this story misidentified David Bragdon as the executive director of the nonprofit TransitCenter. He left that position at the end of February.

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