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Part of the series “Viewpoints on Resilient and Equitable Responses to the Pandemic” from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to question how this virus will affect the many public and private systems that we all use. We hope this collection of viewpoints will elevate the visibility of creative state and local solutions to the underlying equity and resilience challenges that COVID-19 is highlighting and exacerbating. To do this we have asked experts at UNC to discuss effective and equitable responses to the pandemic on subjects ranging from low-wage hospitality work, retooling manufacturing processes, supply chain complications, housing, transportation, the environment, and food security, among others.

John Tallmadge is a lecturer in the department of city and regional planning and is the executive director of Bike Durham, an organization working to ensure that everyone in Durham has access to safe, affordable, sustainable transportation. He also oversaw regional transit services for over 20 years for GoTriangle. In this episode, he talks about the impact of the pandemic on public transportation.

Transcript – Viewpoints on Resilient & Equitable Responses to the Pandemic. John Tallmadge: Public Transportation

We’re now about six months into the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. It has touched all aspects of our society, and public transportation is no exception. This Spring, the immediate impact of COVID-19 on the individuals who ride, operate, manage and govern all forms of public transportation was swift and dramatic. Though many of the initial effects were stabilized, more devastating and long-term impacts are looming in the near future.

In the early days of the pandemic response, as local and state governments issued stay-at-home orders, transit customers who used public transportation to get to schools or to most white-collar jobs stayed home and off of transit. This led to a rapid crash of ridership on Commuter Express buses, commuter rail, subways and micro-transit, like scooter sand bike-shares. Many agencies big and small reported declines of 75 percent to more than 95 percent of normal levels. In response, service levels were cut drastically or suspended altogether.

Customers who rely on public transportation to get to essential jobs in the food service, in health care, and many other industries continued to ride, mostly on local bus services. Some who had lost their jobs due to the stay-at-home orders in response to COVID-19 were no longer riding to work, but still rode in order to get to stores or make other essential trips. Ridership on local bus services fell by one-third to one-half, which is a lot, but not nearly as much as the commuter-oriented services.

Transit agencies have faced daunting challenges figuring out how to keep services running for essential trips while keeping their frontline workforce safe and healthy. After a fairly short period of experimentation, most transit agencies made the following changes to allow for social distancing between operators and customers:

  • On buses, they allowed boarding only through the rear-door
  • They suspended fare payments, allowing all to ride free-of-charge
  • They limited the number of customers on board and kept them more than six feet away from the transit operator. In Durham, on buses with 35 seats and standing room for 20 others, they settled on a maximum of 16 customers on board. And this is the range that most agencies have.

Additionally, many transit agencies provided personal protective equipment (PPE) to their operators, first hand sanitizer and gloves, then masks as those became more readily available. Some agencies provided face masks for their customers or required them to wear them. They also began much more frequent cleaning and disinfection of the vehicle interiors.

These seeming simple changes had a dramatic effect on transit agencies and their customers. In high demand corridors, the reduction of passenger capacity resulted in customers waiting at stops until a bus with extra room available came along. Many agencies had to reduce service to weekend levels, or redistributed services to shift it to those areas that had the most remaining demand. While one might surmise that those reductions resulted in significant cost savings for the agencies, you have to consider that the uncertainty about how long we would be living with COVID-19 means that transit agencies have not been laying off staff. For the transit agencies, the elimination of fares, reduction in sales tax revenues and the extra costs associated with the extra safety measures pointed to a dire financial situation.

In late March, the federal CARES Act was enacted, and thanks to the work of transit advocates, the American Public Transit Association and many transit agencies, the funding package included $25 billion to aid transit governing bodies in paying for COVID-related protections and offsetting lost fare and sales tax revenues. However, since this bill was rushed through Congress to address the national crisis, it allocated the transit revenues according to standard formulas. While this distribution was successful at staving off the immediate financial crises and provided security for at least a year or longer at small and medium-sized transit agencies across the country, it did not account for the much deeper needs of the nation’s largest transit agencies that generate much of their revenues through customer fare payments.

As the months have passed, and the uncertainty about how long we will be living with the virus endures, many transit agencies and their local governments are again looking at the likelihood of deep deficits or scaled back plans for expansion. And it is the largest transit agencies in the country who are facing the most dire situations, in some cases by the end of 2020. The double-whammy of huge reductions in fare revenue and drops in sales tax and other local revenues due to the economic downturn, has these agencies facing projected deficits of hundreds of millions of dollars for the coming year. Leading transit advocacy organizations and the American Public Transportation Association have estimated the investment needed to prevent extensive cuts in service, large employee layoffs and drastic impacts on the entire transit supply chain is $32 billion. That is the ask before Congress as they consider another round of COVID-19 relief.

This crisis comes at a time when many communities across the country have been looking to expand public transportation’s role in addressing pressing needs to undo the racial and economic inequities of our transportation system and to eliminate carbon emissions. In order to move forward, transit agencies are going to need $32 billion in investment from the federal government now, and a serious, coordinated effort at the federal, state and local levels to suppress the community spread of the virus.


Photo: A Chapel Hill Transit bus passing South Building at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo by Ildar Sagdejev.

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