The pandemic has dramatically accelerated a broader decline in public transit use across the nation. While the causes and scale are different, the current drop in transit ridership induced by the coronavirus comes after five years of falling transit patronage nationwide. UCLA ITS has studied this pressing issue in a number of areas, including Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and California, and developed visualizations of ridership trends.
With social distancing measures and shelter-in-place orders, transit ridership has plunged much deeper recently, with Transit App, Moovit, and Google reporting 50 to 90 percent declines in transit use in major metropolitan areas. As UCLA ITS Director Brian D. Taylor recently noted, the virtues of public transit are precisely at odds with coping with the pandemic: transit is good at moving a lot of people in the same direction at the same time to and from dense activity centers, all of which go against the public health mandate not to move nor congregate.
However, public transit must stay open to allow those without other means of transportation to travel to essential jobs. And for those who stop taking transit, many may adjust to other means of travel and not return after the pandemic ends — for instance, during a much smaller travel disruption like Los Angeles’ “Carmageddon,” we found very little new use of public transit both during and after the freeway closures. The consequences of coronavirus for public transit will thus last long beyond the current crisis.
Past experience suggests that public transit use recovers slowly following epidemics. Public health officials expect that public concerns with crowding and disease transmission will persist for some time after a resumption of activities, so former transit users who can drive private vehicles may be more likely to eschew riding on transit. On the other hand, lower-income households, particularly those that have been hit hard economically by the shutdown, may find it harder to hang onto cars and may be forced to give them up in favor of riding public transit. As a result, we may find that public transit use will be slow to rebound in the near term, and that the user base may skew more lower-income than before.
Perhaps no transportation issue has garnered more popular and media attention than the extraordinary declines in traffic congestion in large cities. Congestion is almost non-existent, even in places where it is endemic. And many pernicious byproducts of congestion have fallen as well: Pollution is down, and so are collisions. For workers making essential trips, this reduced delay is a real benefit. For people taking walks outside to break the doldrums of quarantine, the clean air and absence of traffic noise is pleasant. And for medical personnel bracing for a rise in COVID-19 cases, the reduced need to respond to and treat vehicular injuries can only help. An ambulance that doesn’t need to be at a freeway crash site can get to a household where someone has COVID-19. In the short term, we have seen some benefits to go along with the massive costs that have accompanied closing the economy.
In the long term, however, the effects on traffic will likely be short-lived. The reason for this is that people are not learning other travel habits while they refrain from driving. It isn’t that the government is only restricting driving; it has asked people not to travel at all, and dramatically reduced the supply of places to go. As such, there is little reason to think that people will change their travel behaviors when quarantine ends. In fact, if the quarantine’s effects on public transit finance result in transit offering less service, some transit riders may switch to driving once the emergency ends.
This is not to say that longer-term effects on travel are impossible. The pandemic has caused millions of people to shift to work at home who did not do so previously — because their employer did not permit it, because they preferred not to, or both. Employers may find, however, that working at home is not as problematic as they feared, and workers may find that they enjoy it more than they thought they would. If this is the case (and it may not be), then as restrictions are lifted, we can expect that a non-trivial number of workers may continue working at home who did not do so before, at least part of the time. Were this to occur, however, we would see a change in the mix of modes, but probably not a change in congestion. The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion would still hold: in a busy metropolitan area, empty road space will be filled.
Similarly, while growing numbers of people shopped online before the pandemic, many more do so now. This shifts personal travel (trips to and from stores) to commercial deliveries. While this may not reduce total vehicle traffic much, it likely shifts the type and timing of traffic. In both of these cases, some people who may have been reluctant to embrace either of these before the pandemic have now done so, and past research suggests that many are likely to stick with these changes moving forward.
A final point is that the reduced traffic we see now comes at an enormous cost. Congestion is down because people aren’t traveling, and people are not traveling because much of the economy has ground to halt. This economic contraction has thrown millions of people out of work, and injected tremendous stress and precarity into their lives. To the extent we can learn any lessons from this hiatus in traffic congestion, it is not that we should have less economic activity, but that we should seek to sever the link between a prosperous economy and clogged roads. UCLA has provided past guidance on how to do this, including how and if it affects accessibility, ways to mitigate congestion including congestion pricing, and how congestion pricing can be effective while maintaining equity.
Fragmentary evidence suggests that new transportation services that focus on moving people, like Lyft and Uber, have witnessed substantial declines in patronage, while those focused on small goods deliveries have seen sharp spikes in demand. As with public transit, demand for ridehail services may be slow to rebound after quarantine restrictions are eased, while tens of millions of customers newly accustomed to home delivery may continue to demand such services in the months and years ahead.
As personal travel has plummeted across all modes of transportation, new mobility companies are struggling to find alternative sources of revenue to keep their businesses running. Many new mobility companies are not profitable — even under normal circumstances — and rely on venture capital investment and the depreciation of millions of privately-owned vehicles to exist. In light of the decline in user travel and the country’s economic downtown, venture capital investment in new mobility companies may subside. As a response to this decrease in funds, many companies will have to reduce their operations costs to save money, including laying off employees.
On the flipside, the exponential rise in unemployment in the United States may push more workers to these new mobility companies for much-needed income as part of the gig economy. As noted above, more Americans are relying on shopping and delivery services that limit their personal contact, but this growth increases risks for workers. Without a proper internal structure in place for drivers at many companies, these workers — many of whom are already struggling financially — may see increasingly precarious wages and working conditions.
In addition to pivoting their operations, new mobility companies may adjust how they invest their research and development budgets. In light of the need to physically distance from other people, companies may start to invest more in autonomous vehicle (AV) development. And companies already bringing AVs to market, like Waymo, may consider adding delivery of goods to their capabilities platforms as a way to bring in more revenue.
To consider the impact of COVID-19 on transportation finance, it’s important to know from where the public sector gets revenues for transportation and where and how they spend it.
Consider the case of public transit. Most transit expenditures fall into either capital costs (e.g. buying land, engineering, construction, buses, and trains) or operating costs (e.g. labor, pensions, health benefits, fuel, electricity). Transit is a public service that depends on federal, state, and local money for far more than it does on the fares people pay. In fact, fares do not cover capital costs and cover between 10 percent and half of the operating costs. A large portion of the revenue transit agencies receive at the state and local level comes from sales taxes. During safer-at-home orders, sales tax revenues have dramatically declined because stores and other businesses are closed. In the coming years, government officials may be more reluctant to push forward new ballot initiatives for sales taxes at a time that’s seeing record rates of unemployment.
To recover from a loss in revenue, in the short term, agencies can slow down or temporarily stop some of their capital projects — like building subway line extensions — but they must continue their daily operations. These types of costs require more federal, state, and local operating support because fare revenue will be lower than usual. Systems can cut costs slightly by reducing service a bit because demand has declined.
Other potential short-term solutions for transit agencies include reallocating money that they have reserved for capital costs towards operating costs. The agencies can slow down or cancel capital projects, construction of new lines and purchasing of new equipment, but these delays will not prove enough down the road. Another option is for the agencies to request longer time periods during which to pay bondholders the money that they have borrowed against future sales tax revenue. But this is also not enough long term. The agencies can not also look to fare increases as a solution since the riders include large numbers of low-income citizens, many of whom have lost their jobs due to the closing of businesses.
Ultimately, the only option is government support and perhaps, at some point, additional contributions in the form of charitable donations or employer support by purchasing transit passes for their employees in much larger numbers. But, there is no avoiding the burden this will place on taxpayers.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an excellent illustration of the fact that density comes with costs alongside benefits. Density is helpful for anything that relies on returns to scale. On the positive side, this list includes consumer markets, scientific breakthroughs, and cultural innovation, all of which have long been more prevalent in urban centers where people of different backgrounds mix and exchange ideas. On the negative side, it includes viruses. A virus can travel more easily when people are closer together, meaning transmission is easier in a city than the countryside. Social distancing is essentially an attempt to make urban life less urban — to minimize the proximity and frequent contact that make city life vital and unique.
So should cities rethink density in light of COVID-19? Density is always controversial, so no one should be surprised if COVID-19 becomes a talking point against increasing it. But reducing density to the point where it could strongly suppress COVID-19 or a similar disease is in many areas impossible — there is no future configuration of most cities where people are not regularly within six feet of one another. We cannot convert our existing metropolitan areas to farmland levels of density.
COVID-19 does highlight the dangers of crowding, but crowding can sometimes be controlled through more, not less, development density. The most vulnerable people in Los Angeles, California, (and much of the rest of the country) live in dense homeless encampments. Many of these people have compromised immune systems, and an outbreak of COVID-19 among them could be devastating. Were they housed — which would be easier if housing density were higher — the risk would be lower. The same is true for lower-income families that live in overcrowded units. More apartments would mean less crowding and a pathway to safety. In short, one way to control the very high, possibly problematic levels of density in some neighborhoods is to modestly increase densities in many other, more affluent neighborhoods nearby.
It’s also worth noting that, some of the places that have contained the virus most swiftly and effectively, like Taiwan and South Korea, are among the densest on earth. COVID-19 has hit New York City very hard, but also landed disproportionately on low-density Louisiana. This fact strongly suggests that it is good governance, more than any particular pattern of living, that matters.
A final point is that density does have benefits. It brings people together, and these interactions — both intentional and serendipitous — help create new ideas, and help those ideas spread. Viruses aren’t the only things that are more contagious when people are closer together. Urban areas are hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is in these same places that the now-nonstop search for treatments and a vaccine is occurring. COVID-19 thrives on the sort of proximity cities offer, but it will likely be tamed by innovations that same proximity enables.
Access to Opportunities
Even with so many Americans heeding government orders to stay at home, a disproportionate number of lower-income people are forced to take a higher risk when it comes to their health and safety.
While public transit ridership has dropped around the country, for many it is still their only option for essential travel. If car ownership or car repairs are not financially possible, those with limited financial resources have to set aside public health recommendations to sustain themselves. As Evelyn Blumenberg, professor of urban planning and director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies said: “For low-income workers who have to take transit, they’re in a confined place, in close proximity to other people. Their problems are compounded. They have no other option.”
Aside from limiting congregating on public transportation, having access to a car has multiple benefits during this pandemic. When making grocery store trips, those individuals with cars are more able to stock up on weeks worth of food and groceries. Those without a car may be limited by what they’re able to carry on their selected mode of travel (e.g., transit, walking, or biking). During these times, the simple act of making multiple trips out of one’s home can significantly increase your risk of falling ill. In car-dominant cultures like Los Angeles many services rely on personal vehicles, including drive-up testing sites. Of the two dozen COVID-19 testing sites in Los Angeles County, only a handful offer walk-up services.
Furthermore, a majority of low-wage workers are performing essential services during this period, putting themselves at risk delivering food and goods, interfacing with multiple customers. Their transportation options moving forward, given the deep, looming economic downturn are particularly precarious, especially for those struggling to afford cars at a time when work is increasingly scarce.