U.S. Public Transportation Is Facing A "Make Or Break" Moment

This could be the end of U.S. public transit as we know it. Whether that will be a good or bad thing depends on what happens next.
December 11, 2020, 2:00pm
People waiting at bus stop
Bloomberg via Getty Images

This year, Congress did something it had never done before: as part of the CARES Act, it gave transit agencies $25 billion to run trains and buses.

For those who pay close attention to American public transportation policy, this was a big deal. Never before had Congress given transit agencies so much money to simply provide service, or for "operations" as it is known in the industry. Typically, the federal government gives transit agencies money to buy new vehicles, build new lines or conduct maintenance, which are all important. But Congress never provided this much money to do the most expensive part of public transportation: provide frequent service by subsidizing the cost of running more trains and buses, even though that is what transit users want most.

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"I was surprised to see the willingness of Congress to contribute $25 billion to operations," said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute. "I absolutely did not expect that at all."

That's about where the good news for public transportation in the United States in 2020 ends. 

Even in comparatively normal times, being a transit advocate in the U.S. and an optimist do not mix. But as with almost everything else about the U.S. in 2020, this has been a particularly difficult year to be an optimist about the future of U.S. transportation. In fact, we could well be entering a multi-year nadir the likes of which U.S. public transportation has never experienced. Ben Fried of the non-profit advocacy and research group TransitCenter said "It's as much of a make or break moment as you're going to see."

This was not a sudden heel turn. The country entered 2020 "grappling with long-term ridership loss in most places," recalled Fried. Although there were a few bright spots in cities that had conducted comprehensive bus network redesigns, for the most part the American transit story was the same it had always been. Most of the money was going to roads and the money that was going to transit was being spent on expensive projects that take too long to build and were in conjunction with highway expansion projects. 

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And then coronavirus hit, decimating ridership nationwide to approximately 20 percent of the pre-COVID baseline and even lower in the most transit-dependent cities and killing hundreds of transit workers. Although the CARES Act's $25 billion for transit temporarily staved off drastic cuts, Fried said "I think it was pretty quickly apparent the crisis was going to outlast the resources in the CARES Act, especially for the bigger transit cities. The clock started ticking pretty quickly after the bill passed. We knew another crisis was going to be on the horizon."

As transit agencies finalize their 2021 budgets, the country now stares down the barrel of that crisis. Without more federal help, getting around U.S. cities in 2021 will be much harder and more expensive. According to a survey conducted by the American Public Transportation Association, 61 percent of the country's transit agencies will have to cut service and 54 percent will lay off staff without significant federal funds. Among the proposed cuts.

  • New York City's MTA could cut subway service by up to 40 percent and possible "suspension of service and/or major weekend changes." Entire bus routes could be eliminated with overall bus service slashed by up to 40 percent as well. And the commuter railroads could have service cut by half. Thousands of workers would be laid off.
  • San Francisco's MUNI is running at a $150 million loss and will need to lay off about 22 percent of its workforce as well as undertake drastic service cuts.
  • Washington D.C.'s WMATA has proposed the most draconian cuts of any major transit agency in the country, rendering it useless. All weekend service would be eliminated, 19 stations would be closed, trains would run every 30 minutes, and service would stop after 9 p.m. Bus service would also be slashed by 55 percent.
  • In Philadelphia, SEPTA is losing about $1 million a day and General Manager Leslie Richards told the Philadelphia Inquirer that "I cannot state clearly enough that every option will be considered...That is both on the cuts side, as well as on how we need to make changes. We simply cannot afford to approach it in any other way.”
  • Boston's MBTA is floating a cut to all ferry service, reduced bus service, and halting all weekend commuter rail.
  • In Denver, RTD is running 60 percent of pre-COVID service for the foreseeable future and is considering widespread layoffs. 
  • Atlanta's MARTA bus service wasted little time gutting bus service, slashing 110 bus routes down to 40 in April. For the most part, those cuts have not been restored.

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The cuts that are on the table would be a systematic gutting of U.S. public transportation, and show the situation is actually more dire now than it was back in March. "To be honest, I'm feeling more anxiety now," Fried said. And even though Congress is discussing another round of funding that could provide transit up to $15 billion, few in the public transportation sector, including Fried, believe this will be enough particularly for the larger agencies. "So it's a very unnerving and dangerous place that we're in right now."

It is even more galling that these cuts—which, if nothing else, will involve laying off tens of thousands of transit workers around the country in the middle of an economic emergency—will hurt the very same workers hailed as heroes for working through the pandemic at great personal risk.

Aside from job losses for tens of thousands of transit workers in the middle of a recession, the proposed service cuts would disproportionately inconvenience if not outright jeopardize access to jobs for essential workers. This is appalling on two fronts. First, it makes the lives of many essential workers worse. Either they will continue to slog on public transportation despite the service cuts and have less time to spend with their loved ones, or they will have to resort to private transportation via a for-hire vehicle or buying a car of their own. TransitCenter found one in four essential workers who commute on public transportation make low incomes. 

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Second, TransitCenter found essential workers who commute on transit are more likely to be people of color. Throughout the pandemic, transit use has broadly remained higher in low income neighborhoods and non-white neighborhoods. This is precisely the type of structural racism the summer's reckoning on race was intended to call out.

Even more unnerving is that this is all a battle just to retain the same transportation landscape that was deeply unequal, inaccessible, and inconvenient for the vast majority of U.S. residents. The goal with this federal funding is to prevent things from getting worse, not to make them better.

"Obviously, we have to stem the bleeding before we make improvements," said Beth Osborne, director of the non-profit Transportation For America. "It's so much more expensive to let everything fall apart than build it from scratch."

Any flickering lights of hope require a high-powered telescope to detect. But insofar as any exists, it resides in the unprecedented operating funding from the CARES Act. If the federal government did in fact get into the habit of consistently funding operations costs, it could be a game-changer for U.S. transportation. Freemark found it would be expensive but not prohibitively so to accomplish the Biden transition team's stated goal of providing high-quality frequent public transportation to every urban area with more than 100,000 people, costing somewhere between $2 billion and $47 billion annually depending on how one defines the parameters. Even $15 billion annually—an amount that can be found in the couch cushions at the Pentagon—would be transformative to the lives of millions of U.S. residents. As with so many other things in this country, the pessimism stems from the way things actually are, the optimism from what can be. In the meantime, transit planner and consultant Jarrett Walker reminds us "It's OK to be absolutely furious."

Correction: a previous version of this article said a TransitCenter report found essential workers are more likely to be people of color. The report found essential workers who commute on transit are more likely to be people of color.