Coronavirus Outbreak Triggers New Thinking About Transit’s Essential Role

And the success of telework will make transit's recovery from the crisis more difficult and more in this week's New Starts.

An unknown person wearing a mask waits for a bus in Los Angeles during the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by Chris Yarzab / CC BY 2.0)

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Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation developments worldwide.

Transit Is the Bedrock of Urban Civilization, Says Influential Thinker

When you consider who is still riding mass transit now that the only ones riding are making “essential” trips, a leading thinker about mass transit service says we should stop talking about the “transit-dependent,” for that term actually describes all of us.

In a CityLab essay that has gained wide notice, transit planner, consultant and “Human Transit” author Jarrett Walker argues that mass transit is doing nothing less than keeping the supply and service chains on which the rest of urban society depends functioning at this critical time.

Not only are lower-income city residents still using transit for essential trips such as grocery shopping or medical appointments. Those riders also include the largely lower-paid service workers who staff the grocery stores, drugstores, takeout restaurants, distribution centers and hospital supply rooms that keep the rest of us fed, supplied and as healthy as possible. As they have shed service, he writes, transit agencies have strived to make sure that enough service is provided to get these people to their jobs, and the “empty” buses and subway trains look that way because transit agencies are also trying to maintain the social distance that protects both the riders and their operators.

“The goal of transit, right now, is neither competing for riders nor providing a social service for those in need,” he writes. “It is helping prevent the collapse of civilization.”

He also argues in the essay that going forward, we should stop talking about transit as a “business” and “the transit-dependent” as some group of unfortunates for whom buses (especially) and trains are a form of social welfare. We are all “transit dependent,” Walker argues, because the services we count on even more now would not function were these people unable to get to work.

Moreover, he continues, thinking about transit simply in terms of “ridership” and recovering lost riders after the crisis passes ignores the role transit should play in moving the rest of us around. Pollution has largely disappeared from the skies over cities worldwide thanks to the severe curtailing of auto travel, and if we all simply get behind the wheel once we’re free to move about the city again, all of those negative externalities will come roaring back with a vengeance. “Once again, we’ll need incentives, such as market-based road pricing, to make transit attractive enough so that there’s room for everyone to move around the city. That will mean more ridership, but again, ridership isn’t exactly the point. The point is the functioning of the city, which again, all of us depend on.”

Mobility Tech Company Offers App to Repurpose Idled Transit Buses

Of course, the steep falloff in mass transit ridership has meant that buses now sit idle in storage lots in many cities, and in some smaller ones, all of the buses have been idled as agencies have shut down scheduled service completely. An article in Forbes, riffing on the above Jarrett Walker essay, also notes that an Israeli mobility technology company has come up with a way these agencies can put those idled vehicles back on the streets.

Moovit, which produces a real-time transit trip planner for riders, mobility-as-a-service products for transit operators and transit use data for reporters, has developed an app that transit agencies can use to provide mobility-on-demand for essential transit users.

The “Emergency Mobilization On-Demand Service” gives riders an app they can use to request or schedule trips on public transit vehicles. An algorithm allows transit agencies to schedule vehicles to pick up and drop off riders much like the now-disabled Uber Pool and Lyft Line services operate. The advantages for both riders and agencies: Riders can get door-to-door service from their local transit agency, local transit agencies can keep buses in use and drivers employed, and the vehicles can be used in such a way that social distancing requirements are met, something that cannot occur with private cars.

According to Moovit, the emergency mobility-on-demand service can be installed and implemented within one week.

Corporate Execs See More Telework When Things Return to “Normal”

Another reason transit agencies will find it harder to bring lost riders back to the buses and trains once the stay-at-home orders are lifted: Many of those riders will still be working from home.

A ZDNet article cites a Gartner Group survey of 317 corporate chief financial officers that found 74 percent of them plan to keep workers who had been working in the office prior to the COVID-19 outbreak offsite after the travel restrictions are removed.

One-quarter of the respondents, Gartner said, plan to move at least 20 percent of their onsite workers offsite permanently. Six percent of them plan to keep 50 percent or more of their workers offsite.

The article noted other moves corporate C-suite officers were making to lower expenses during the crisis and keep them lower afterwards.

As many of those working from home occupy higher-paying positions, these moves could eat into ridership at peak hours and on commuter-oriented services at many big-city transit systems after travel restrictions are eased.

Bills Before Congress Presage Major Shift in Thinking About Transportation Spending

Two related bills recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives signal a profound shift in the standards used to determine how transportation infrastructure dollars are spent.

The advocacy group Transportation for America reports on its blog that the two bills will require federal transportation funding to prioritize access in allocating infrastructure funds.

This would mark a radical departure from some 75 years of transportation policy. During this period, federal funding programs have emphasized vehicle speed as the principal measure of effectiveness when it comes to infrastructure spending.

The consequences of this policy are many, and many are anti-urban, perhaps none more so than the proliferation of what Strong Towns calls “stroads” — highways through urban areas that are designed primarily to move vehicles at high speeds from one place to another but which are lined with buildings, sidewalks and street furniture more appropriate to lower-speed city streets.

The bills — the Improving Access to Jobs Act and the Improving Access to Services Act — would, if enacted, prevent metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) from increasing the ratio of auto to non-auto access in urbanized areas and create performance metrics to determine how well state transportation departments and MPOs are increasing access to employment and commercial centers by all modes of transport. States that fail to improve all-around access would be required to spend 10 percent of their budgets on such improvement each year until the Secretary of Transportation determines that they are in compliance with the requirements.

Both bills were introduced by U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) and his two Future of Transportation Caucus co-chairs, Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.) The bills separate jobs from services because transit users will tolerate more transfers and longer travel times on journeys to work than they will journeys to perform errands like grocery shopping, which are often part of chained trips involving multiple destinations.

“Our transportation systems are failing Americans who face growing congestion, roads and transit systems in disrepair, and long-standing inequities that disproportionately hurt marginalized communities,” Rep. García said at the announcement. “Any future transportation policies must make smarter investments to improve access, cut travel times, and lower the financial barriers to mobility for all.”

Know of a project or development that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

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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.

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Tags: covid-19transportation spendingmobility as a service

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