The Best Way to ‘Lure’ People to Public Transit Is to Make It Work

As transit agencies try and rebound post-pandemic, they must remember people use public transit when it is fast and convenient, not because of cheap gimmicks.
April 22, 2021, 1:00pm
People walking next to E train New York City
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
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Every few weeks, some national media outlet runs a story about the challenge facing transit agencies after the pandemic recedes and some semblance of normal life is restored. The premise: if people don't start taking transit again in similar numbers as before the pandemic, transit agencies will be in financial turmoil. Invariably, these articles—often in the headline—use the same word: lure. As in, "Can 8 Million Daily Riders Be Lured Back to N.Y. Mass Transit?" or "In Washington, Metro is considering discounted fares to lure workers back this fall."

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To be sure, the pandemic has resulted in a drastically different landscape for U.S. transit agencies. But, thanks to tens of billions of dollars in funding from the federal government, transit agencies are no longer in any immediate financial trouble. In some cases, federal bailouts have actually put transit agencies in a better financial position than they were before the pandemic. Ridership is down—still less than half the pre-pandemic baseline—but that's mostly a result of people going fewer places rather than actively choosing other modes of transportation. The question presented in these stories is what happens a year or two down the line if ridership is still down for whatever reason. Hence the need to "lure" back riders.

How will transit agencies "lure" back riders? If these articles are to be believed, mostly with new fare structures, discounts, fancy apps, and other gimmicks that sound good in a press release and might get a local news hit or two. Along these lines, New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang floated the idea of making the subway free for a week in May because "a lot of New Yorkers need to be reminded about how incredible our subway system is." 

Some of these ideas are better than others, but they tend to be ones that were good ideas before the pandemic too. New fare structures, for example, could be a useful tool given that fewer riders may want monthly unlimited passes if they're not commuting into the office every day. Either way, all of these articles encapsulate a systemic failing in American transportation that always prioritizes the language of innovation over the basics. And the basics are meeting people's transportation needs, whether they are going to work, school, the store, the doctor, out to dinner, or any number of other reasons people travel. There is only one tried and true way to get more people to take transit more often, and it is to provide fast, frequent, and reliable service. If they can't do that, nothing else matters.

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The language of "luring" back riders is revealing in itself. It implies that agencies have to tempt people to take public transit with incentives or rewards other than the obvious, stated goal of getting people from A to B in a fast, comfortable, and safe manner. 

Transit agencies have tried to "lure" riders many times over the years, and it works about as well as you'd expect given the word's patronizing implications. Even before the pandemic,  transit ridership was gradually declining for years, a report by the non-profit advocacy group TransitCenter found, thanks to factors transit agencies could control—less and slower service especially during off-peak hours and failing to adapt to demographic changes and new commute patterns—and outside their control like cheaper financing for new vehicles and lower gas prices. Somewhere in between was the rise of Uber and Lyft, especially in the most transit-friendly cities, giving people an easy alternative to waiting 23 minutes for an A train at 10:30 p.m.

By and large, transit agencies responded to these challenges by feeling sorry for themselves. A telling example came from New York City Transit which runs the city's subways and buses and accounts for one out of every three public transit trips in the United States. 

In 2018, NYCT gave a presentation to its board on long-term ridership trends; subway ridership had been declining since 2016 and bus ridership since 2013, even though the city's population and employment rates were increasing, two traditionally predictive metrics of transit ridership. Off-peak and weekend ridership, particularly in the outer boroughs with less frequent service, fell the most. 

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The MTA concluded all of this was not their fault, even though, as I wrote at the time, there was excellent evidence to suggest riders were switching away from the city's subways and buses because of systematically poor service (this was, after all, at the tail end of the subway crisis which began in earnest the year prior). One of the most damning pieces of evidence was the fact that people who paid flat monthly fees for unlimited rides were taking fewer trips per month on average from 2016 to 2018. In other words, they were opting for other ways to get around even when their rides were already paid for.

Despite mounting evidence that people were dissatisfied with subway and bus service, the MTA spent more energy figuring out how to pass the blame than fix the problem. Officials quite literally blamed riders for delays that were, in fact, the result of bad management and poor maintenance practices. After listening to the aforementioned presentation, then MTA President Joe Lhota was asked by a reporter about why he thought riders chose Uber over the subway. He replied, "some days I drink Coke and some days I drink Pepsi."

But in 2019, something miraculous happened. People did come back to the subway. Ridership increased for the first time in five years. Not much about the rest of the world had changed. Gas prices were still low, cars were still easy to finance, and Uber and Lyft still existed. What did change was the subway actually started running better thanks to Andy Byford and his team's efforts to address all the bad management practices previous leaders had ignored.

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The story is similar with the country's buses, the workhorses of American public transportation. The 2010s were a dire decade for the humble bus, but there were a few bright spots, specifically in cities like Seattle and Houston that redesigned their bus networks to reflect urban growth, new travel patterns and rising business districts. To be sure, ridership increases were not uniform and, in Seattle's case, even tapered off by the end of the decade for various reasons. But there's no question cities that took bus service seriously fared better than ones that didn't. Meanwhile, New York's MTA made a big fuss about its new buses with USB ports while those same buses barely moved faster than walking pace and, despite all the massive demographic changes to New York City in the last several decades, it is, by and large, the exact same bus network it has always been.

In 2019, TransitCenter, a non-profit transit advocacy group, surveyed current and former transit riders around the country to try and figure out the root causes of declining ridership and how to reverse the trend. The report's main takeaway was that, for all the factors transit agencies can't control, there are many things they can. Specifically, "respondents who report higher satisfaction with transit were more likely to increase their use of transit over the past two years. In other words, the quality of the transit experience matters, and when transit works for riders, they’re likelier to use it more."

It's somewhat depressing that a national non-profit needed to conduct an extensive survey to conclude what should be the most basic fact of running public transit or any other entity that asks people to pay money for its services: people won't use it unless it's good. 

There are some halting signs transit agencies are starting to get it. New York, for example, has created three new busways in recent years, experimented with cameras that fine drivers who park in bus lanes, and have at least toyed with network redesigns (many of these initiatives began under Byford and it's not clear how seriously the agency still wants to do any of it). San Francisco has placed a greater emphasis on buses and busways since 2017. Pop-up bus lanes during the pandemic—defined by the urgency with which transit agencies are implementing them more than any actual differences in how they look or work—in Boston and D.C. existed, which is more than I would have thought possible a few years ago. And these types of dedicated lanes are critical to getting buses out of the traffic Uber and Lyft have exacerbated.

But none of this is nearly enough, especially if transit agencies want to...ahem…"lure" riders back post-vax. Tellingly, the TransitCenter report does not once use the word "lure." Instead, it goes with a different word. It asks "how to win back America's transit riders."