Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation developments worldwide.
Whatever else might be said about the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, this much is clear: in the United States, the return to a “new normal” will not happen quickly, nor will the recovery be the rapid “V-shaped” one many economists hoped for after the country went on lockdown. But news from abroad suggests that one of the things we should prepare for as the economy recovers is an outcome that will dismay open-streets, pedestrian and bicycle advocates: commuters getting behind the wheel instead of returning to the buses and trains. Meanwhile, transit systems are beginning to restore service cut at the start of the lockdown, and they’re asking Washington to send them more money to help them provide what is now being reframed as an essential social service for those who need it most.
As Cities Reopen, Fearful Transit Riders Take to the Roads Instead
Advocates for reclaiming streets for non-auto uses may face an uphill battle to achieve their goals if early figures from cities now reopening around the world are any guide. According to charts published in a Washington Post feature, the COVID pandemic has sent transit ridership plunging in large cities everywhere, with drops of anywhere from 70 to 90 percent from year-ago levels on most of the world’s large transit systems.
But as these cities lift restrictions on travel and business activity, transit ridership isn’t recovering as fast as driving is. Bloomberg News reports that traffic-clogged roads have returned to several global cities, especially in China, that have lifted shutdown orders while riders continue to avoid their subway and bus networks. “Driving has emerged as the socially distant transportation mode of choice,” the article states. Several riders-turned-drivers quoted in the article cited fear of contracting the virus as a reason for their mode shift, and one worker in Frankfurt noted that her company was urging employees to avoid public transportation altogether.
And Quartz reports that while Americans are “driving like it’s 1999,” with vehicle miles traveled having fallen to that year’s level, states are already reporting increases in VMT even before lockdowns are lifted, a stat Massachusetts’ state transportation secretary attributes to “quarantine fatigue.”
Another factor keeping riders off public transit: The shift to work from home. While only 40 percent of all U.S. jobs can be performed remotely, the share of workers who can work from home who actually do will likely remain higher even after the pandemic passes, according to an Atlantic article examining likely post-COVID work trends.
Notwithstanding all this, the complete- and open-streets advocates aren’t giving up the fight to reclaim space given over to cars for other uses. But they are sounding pessimistic in the near term: In an essay in Outside, bicycling reporter Eben Weiss wonders, “Could the Pandemic Kill Car Culture?” His conclusion: Maybe, if cities stick to previously announced plans to shift their transportation policies to favor pedestrians and bicyclists and de-emphasize car travel, but not in the near term thanks to those drivers getting back on the road.
Transit Systems Slowly Restore Service While Their Executives Ask Washington for More Relief Money
Yet even while ridership remains significantly below pre-pandemic levels on transit systems all across America, some systems are moving to restore service cut in response to plunging ridership and transit worker demands for greater protection from the virus. In late April, San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), the first large transit system to implement a drastically reduced service plan, restored some of the bus service it had cut. And this coming Monday (May 18), the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) will restore all of the surface transit service that it cut under a “lifeline” service plan implemented just over one month ago. In addition, services will run on their regular weekday schedules instead of the Saturday ones adopted in late March.
One of the reasons for the ramp-up in service is to ensure that the essential workers using it can maintain social distancing. Capacity reductions intended to promote social distancing on the buses mean more buses must run on routes still operating in order to safely carry the riders that remain, and as the lockdowns have dragged on, more riders have opted to travel again, leading to overcrowding on some of those buses.
Of course, this will cost money. Thus both the transit industry trade association and the heads of 15 major transit agencies across the country have separately sent pleas to the federal government to provide more relief on top of the roughly $25 billion mass transit got in the first coronavirus relief bill, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Transportation Today reports that the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has asked Congress to provide another $23.8 billion in assistance to the nation’s mass transit agencies to cover projected revenue shortfalls through the end of the year. In the same letter, APTA also asked Congress to reauthorize the Surface Transportation Assistance Act before it expires in September to allow infrastructure repairs and improvements to continue.
Meanwhile, POLITICO reports that the heads of five of the country’s largest transit agencies announced they were pushing for $33 billion in total aid to transit in a conference call with reporters on May 12. The five — Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York CEO Pat Foye, New Jersey Transit Corporation CEO Kevin Corbett, SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards, Bay Area Rapid Transit General Manager Bob Powers and Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority CEO Jeffrey Parker — were also among the 15 large transit agency heads from systems serving 11 metropolitan areas in 10 states and the District of Columbia, plus New Jersey’s statewide transit system, who signed a letter to the leaders of both houses of Congress May 6 stressing the need for additional relief funding for transit without specifying an amount.
“The federal government must recognize the ongoing emergency and the vital role of transit infrastructures as economic drivers, but also as agencies that transport first responders and essential workers during the pandemic,” Foye said during the virtual event. “This is a national disaster that requires a continued national response. The ongoing impacts of the pandemic are outpacing the historic levels of support previously included in the CARES Act.”
Study: Auto Loans Could Stall the COVID Recovery
Signs that the “V-shaped recovery” won’t materialize are growing: Americans have been using their stimulus checks to not only pay necessary bills but also to pay down credit card debt, and savings rates have shot up sharply as the public steels itself for further lean times. A Brookings Institution study identifies something else that may keep those times leaner longer: the car payments most Americans are making.
According to a Brookings blog post on the study, on the eve of the coronavirus lockdown in March, Americans had taken out 116 million auto loans averaging $11,176 for a total of $1.3 trillion in outstanding auto-loan debt. This makes auto loans one of the biggest categories of debt in the country.
In addition, the amount of this debt rose nearly $395 million in the years since 2009 in inflation-adjusted dollars. The 55 percent rise in what’s owed outpaces the gain for every other category of debt except for student loans, which rose $544 billion, or 75 percent, during the same time period. (Total outstanding mortgage, credit card and other debt all fell over this same time period.)
To make matters worse, the car owners with the greatest debt burden are those least able to service it without difficulty. Lower-income individuals, the blog post states, now carry car loans with terms as long as 84 months and interest rates in the subprime range. As a result, they are asking for more payment deferrals. And interest rates on these loans tend to be higher in the cities where driving is a must due to spread-out development patterns and lack of effective transit service.
All this, the report argues, could put a damper on the pandemic recovery efforts. The way out of this ditch: Promoting and investing in urban places whose design and infrastructure promote alternatives to driving, strengthened financial protections for borrowers and more affordable ways for lower-income households to access vehicles without having to buy them.
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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.