Post-pandemic public transit may not end up looking all that different—but its goals may have to change

Kristin Toussaint, FAST COMPANY

Concept designs with plexiglass shields probably aren’t coming to transit. Instead, cities have to figure out how to make the systems safe and useful for the people who don’t have a choice but to use them.

As cities start to reopen, packed rush-hour subway rides seem like they’ll have to become a thing of the past: It’s hard to social distance on a packed train. But transit will still be crucial for helping people—especially lower-income residents—get around, and experts say straphangers will be back even before COVID-19 has been controlled. So what does that mean for the trains of our future?

Post-pandemic public transit might not actually look all that different. There probably won’t be partitions or more space to keep people apart, because that’s antithetical to its service. “Public transit is really good at moving a lot of people in the same direction at the same time. That’s when the music happens,” says Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies and a professor of urban planning and public policy at UCLA.

What could change, though, is the number of touch points a rider has to interact with on a trip; the appearance of sanitation tools on board, such as hand sanitizer or mask dispensers; the behaviors of the passengers as more people don masks and gloves in public; and how often and where trains and buses run.

“Once agencies are able to stabilize their workforces, then they can really approach this question of how to allocate service, and a lot of what agencies have to do now is just a quicker, more nimble version of what they should be doing all the time, which is responding to rider needs,” says Ben Fried of TransitCenter, a foundation that advocates for better transit in American cities. “This is obviously an extreme situation where people are worried about being able to keep their distance on vehicles, but it sort of raises the same issues that always come up for transit: Are you providing enough service for people to get where they need to go?”

Transit ridership has dropped 92% in New York City and 94% in San Francisco. With people still wary of COVID-19 spreading through crowds, transit systems can’t go back to the high level of occupancy they had right away. Without that same occupancy, Fried says, it’ll be important for trains and buses to come more often, and for agencies to redistribute service in the system to routes that are in need, like to medical facilities and in neighborhoods where people with essential jobs live and work, rather than to downtown business districts that rush-hour service previously catered to.

The pandemic may also shift the main role of public transit. Prior to the coronavirus crisis in the United States, public transit served two main markets, Taylor says: getting people to those densely packed business districts where parking is difficult and often expensive, and as a critical mobility option for people without access to private vehicles. With people working from home and some residents saying they may buy a car post-pandemic, that second use case will play a bigger role as we come out of this crisis.

In that case, frequency and cost could be even more crucial to make sure the people that need to take public transit actually can, but those changes could be at odds. “Some of the ways people talk about reducing touch points is fare-free transit. . . . There’s been movement around that, but that entails costs as well. That’s a lot of revenue that you give up,” Taylor says. And with ridership down, transit systems are already under huge financial strain. “If you lost $400 million a year in fair revenues, you have to cut service or get additional revenues to cover the shortfall,” he adds. “The question is, would fare-free transit benefit people more, or more frequent service?”

There are still a lot of unknowns about what public transit needs to do, or even can do, in the post-COVID-19 world. One thing activists like Fried are sure of, though, is that everyone can’t switch to their own personal vehicles out of a concern for their health. “This applies to most big American cities but especially New York—the city just stops functioning if any significant share of subway riders decided to drive,” he says. Though people may have an aversion to closed, underground systems, they may still feel comfortable on buses, and in that case, Fried adds, dedicated bus lanes would help keep service moving, even through more traffic.

Taylor’s team at UCLA is just starting to dive into this issue of public transit in and after a pandemic, and he says they’ll kick off a project in June looking at alternative ways to measure performance in a system where social distance will have to be maintained. He’s also been looking at how transit systems have responded in the past to pandemics and other events, such as terrorist attacks, that caused a drop in ridership and fear of transit’s crowds.

“It’s a slow curve back, and the question we have is, ‘What will happen to those longer-term changes?’ Will those seats be replaced by other people who are making other kinds of trips on that system, or will they not be filled at all?” he says. “I would tend to think the former, but anyone who tells you they know for sure at this point doesn’t know what they’re saying.”