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Before the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. transit agencies had seen a 57% growth in ridership on commuter rail and transit lines over the last two decades. More money was available for new construction and extensions to existing routes. From 1998 to 2018, 17 new commuter rail systems and 21 additional light rail and streetcar lines gave riders more choices and faster commutes, as Trains writes in an article. In our city, for example, LA Metro construction crews dug subway tunnels, laid tracks, and poured concrete for new stations.
Optimism was running high — and then COVID-19 spread across the country. Riders avoided public transportation as stay-at-home orders, remote work, and business closures ended many commutes and personal trips, not to mention the fear over being in close confines in busses, trains, and even ride-sharing. Ridership quickly tanked, and with it, naturally, revenue.
According to Transit, as few as 5% of normal passenger volumes were not uncommon by April, especially on commuter rail. Public transportation lost revenue from fares, tolls, sales tax levies, and appropriations from state and local governments. Not to mention transit operators had to invest in increased cleaning and disinfecting of trains and stations, protective equipment for workers, and employee testing.
The CARES Act provided $25 billion for public transit, but the ongoing pandemic is still keeping riders away, adding daily to revenue losses. All of this despite recent studies showing public transit to be one of the most COVID-safe places to be outside the home. Many transit systems are still running at just 10-20% of pre-COVID levels.
Los Angeles, for its part, has reportedly made substantial cuts to their service. By Sept. 2020, LA Metro was up to 55% of its normal ridership, when compared to about 31% in April. The agency recently said it had to cut about 10% of trips on Jan. 4, and that cancellations will likely continue over the next few weeks.“ We are trying to keep buses at no more than 75 percent of seated capacity — lower than the 130% standard we used prior to the pandemic,” Metro officials said.
The pandemic also revealed the differences — and inequalities— between those who depend on public transportation and those who have other options. For example: people residing in suburbs who were offered the opportunity of remote-working largely abandoned commuter trains at the start of the pandemic. Essential workers, on the other hand, like grocery store workers, hospital janitorial workers, and people who work at man distribution centers continued to ride buses and subways in order to show up to work in person and earn a paycheck.
Patrick Foye, chairman of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, told Trains: “There is no denying the unimaginable difficulty of this year. It has devastated MTA finances, leaving us with hard options that could have lasting consequences on this region for years to come.”
Needless to say, commuters in the U.S. face higher dangers out on the roads in personal cars, bicycles, and even on foot than in busses and trains. In a recent report, the American Public Transportation Association pointed out that “passengers are about 20 times more likely to experience a fatal crash in a car than when using public transit,” because of the dangers of the high-speed auto travel of typical American commuting.