Mass Transit Has To Change for the Post-Pandemic World


The Biden administration has grand dreams for mass transit. In its blue-sky vision, subways and buses will do everything from reducing traffic congestion to curbing climate change. But like generals preparing for the last war while failing to imagine how the next one will differ, it has the perfect strategy for an era that has passed.

The pandemic took the “mass” out of mass transit. In April of last year, the Chicago Transit Authority saw total ridership down 79% compared to a year earlier. In November, it was still down by 69%. The Metra commuter rail system took an even bigger hit, with passenger loads off by 97% in April and 92% in November.

Chicago is not unusual. In New York, subway use today is one-third of what it was before. In Washington, D.C., it’s one-sixth.

A lot of things will rebound nicely once vaccinations have been administered to everyone who wants them. Restaurants, bars, schools, entertainment venues and sports arenas will fill up with people weary of being homebound. Airlines will reap a boom from a pent-up demand for travel. Brick-and-mortar stores will take back some of the sales they’ve lost to Amazon.

But mass transit won’t return to anything resembling its previous passenger use — not sooner and not later. Many people who used to take the bus or the train to the office will keep working remotely all or most of the time. Some of those who return to their workplaces will be more inclined to drive thanks to reduced traffic. Other riders are gone, having left for suburbs or small towns.

None of this seems to have made an impression on the administration. President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for doubling federal funding for mass transit to “modernize existing transit and help agencies expand their systems to meet rider demand.”

But rider demand is the problem. Even before COVID-19, Americans were switching to other options. The CTA lost 90 million customers between 2012 and 2019 — a 16% decline. Nationally, public transportation ridership in 2018 was the lowest since 1965. Car ownership per capita has soared. Rideshare services have gained a huge base of customers.

In a normal market, companies invest less in products with declining sales and more in products that are in growing demand. Americans have migrated away from mass transit, even in places where it is extensive, affordable and convenient. But Biden wants to spend more on the very type of transportation whose real-world appeal has eroded.

Mass transit systems, losing huge sums of money, face two bad options. One is to cut back on service, making it less attractive and chasing off some passengers. The other is to spend money to improve service and comfort, which would cost money without pulling in many more riders.

Putting funds into fixed rail networks is a particularly bad idea, because they are too inflexible to adjust to changing habits. Yet in Chicago, plans are in the works to use the federal grants to extend the Red Line and reconstruct the Blue and Brown lines. Other cities have similar ideas.

Expanding and upgrading light rail networks may attract some new riders, but it won't reverse the long-term decline. The Biden plan would mean spending more dollars but getting less and less for each one.

The pandemic has made plain the importance of mass transit to low-income and Black and Latino Americans, many of whom have kept using it to get to essential jobs. But these groups were also using public transportation less than they used to, even before COVID-19.

Those who lack cars may be better served by vouchers that could be used for Uber and Lyft trips or for hourly car rental programs such as Zipcar. Cites could also incorporate on-demand "micro transit" systems that use buses or vans to pick up and drop off at locations and times that change automatically in accordance with passenger needs.

A company called Via partners with cities to provide this type of service in places from Jersey City, New Jersey, to Arlington, Texas, to Orange County, California. Chief revenue officer Dillon Twombly told me that Via is an answer to the question, "How do we maintain and increase accessibility to transit networks and maintain equity?"

The point is not that there is any one way to cope with transportation needs in the post-pandemic era. It's that the world has changed, and transit will have to change with it.

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10 thoughts on “Mass Transit Has To Change for the Post-Pandemic World”

  1. Biden US to use mass transit then I urge these changes:

    Add more routes
    Drone buses (driverless buses)
    More light RR service
    More hubs
    Use Hyperloop
    Link to AmTrak line
    Expand Uber & Lyft.
    VTOL copter service from local heliport.
    Bus Rail connection X country: hybrid bus hwy “trains” for X country IE LA to St Louis
    Reuse idle malls for Hubs for mass transit

    Hell I live in La Canada & no way can I take a bus to Pasadena
    Too complicated & complex
    & U want US to use Mass Transit.
    Hell I cant read the LA Metro bus route map
    Remedy or lose

    1. No on has ever accused the democrat party of being intelligent. The party is all about power to the party and nothing more.

    1. Mass transit is dead.
      It couldn’t meet it’s costs before the pandemic and certainly can’t post pandemic. Uber and Lyft are popular due to their ease of use and cost efficiency. They will survive.
      Airlines are on their way out. People hate flying crammed in their tin cans exposed to everyone else’s viruses.
      The future is:
      Individual flying cars.
      USA autobahn.
      Individual high speed tube transit or hyperloop.
      Monorail vairiants.
      Individual High speed train. Mag or air bearing suspensions. 150+mph
      Drone taxis.
      No hubs, no routes, no buses, no mass transit.
      Change will occur like it or not. Flying cars require no infrastructure, so they may end up being the cheapest/most flexible in the long run. A computerized flight system that allows you to go point to point as easy as Maps or Waze on your iphone will be a requirement with anyone being able to travel without a pilot’s license. Lots of hurdles to overcome, but change will happen.

  2. Biden & his entire Staff need to be impeached and thrown in prison for their Treason to America!

    1. gwilson- Agreed.

      Now how do we accomplish that when the DOJ, FBI, Supreme Court, and voting have all been corrupted?

      Impeachment is justified for the entire administration, over half of Congress, the Senate, and even justices for their failure to honor their oath of office to “uphold the constitution”. The so called”insurrection” on January 6th was because people know there is no way the election should have been certified with all of the alleged fraud, signed affidavits, lack of actual voter verification, and illegal election rule changes.

      Recall’s for politicians seem to be the best answer, but that can’t be accomplished until the voting is straightened out. We’re still using dominion voting systems here even though they supposedly show how to corrupt them right in their manuals.

      We CAN use the system against itself. It was designed “for the people” and has the tools to remove corruption, but we need to be vigilant on the local levels and VERIFY and validate votes and voters with a closed loop system.

      We need to remove those who will not stand for the flag or Constitution of the United States. If you don’t agree with this, America is not the country for you. If you aggressively go against this country, you should be investigated, tried and removed permanently for your treasonous acts.

      Both leading political parties have corruption in them that needs to be weeded out in order for America to be the country it was founded to be.

      Be diligent in your political weeding – just like in your garden – or else the weeds will take over even more.

  3. Well most what I’m reading is saying post pandemic world, so I guess the fake pandemic didn’t work out for them. I live in the country in Oregon the only mass transit we see is when the Gray Hound bus stops in our town and I would have to get vaccinated just to step on that piece of crapp.

  4. Mass Transit in the vast majority of locales is nothing more than another form of welfare. In Nashville the glorified school buses and toy train run empty the vast majority of the time while simultaneously clogging up the streets. How about those freeloaders using mass transit pay the actual cost of the ride rather than sucking at the government trough?

  5. The Biden Administration’s approach to public transit means there will be more construction jobs, but how soon will it be before people with choices in how they move go back to germ-filled buses and trains?

    The thought of being in public transportation (including cabs and airplanes) after over a year of lock downs, masks, shots and other limitations on our movements doesn’t seem alluring in the least. Couple that reality with the fear we are constantly bombarded with of death and illness from the virus, and the net effect hardly builds confidence that densely-crowded public transit is safe. The conflicting propaganda doled out by government officials and the mass media has a lingering and unsettling effect on the public-at-large.

    We know public transit isn’t consistently reliable and often quite untimely and inconvenient in taking us to our destinations unless someone lives in a large, densely-populated urban core where one can walk in a pinch if he/she is physically able.

  6. This is the “push” for “agenda 21”. No more “rural” living. ALL will be forced to live in cities where you can be “watched” and CONTROLLED at all times. You will not “own” anything..The “government” owns everything. You will pay “rent” to live. You will be given “stipends” for your day to day “needs”. Wise up America this country is being slid into COMMUNIST control and the brainwashed , indoctrinated, gullible,”sheeple” are letting it happen. This “SCAMDEMIC”, (flu), “lockdowns”, “social distancing” “masks” (that don’t work”) Threats of “vaccine passports” to travel or shop, is just the beginning of total COMMUNIST CONTROL over the people ..Open your eyes, and live your life.

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