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Transit Agencies Fight to Survive While Addressing Transit Equity Issues

And a study shows free transit strengthens economies and more in this week's The Mobile City.

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Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of noteworthy transportation developments.

The work-from-home crowd may not represent the bulk of the American workforce, but that cohort and the many other workers who have had their hours cut back or eliminated have put the nation’s mass transit agencies in a world of hurt. Facing deficits running in the tens and even hundreds of millions, big-city transit systems are preparing to implement dramatic service cuts that would hamper their ability to serve many essential workers. At the same time, however, they are making their case for another huge infusion of coronavirus relief — $12 billion for the coming year for New York alone. While prospects that this aid will be forthcoming from Washington in time to avert the worst look slim, the good news is that most Americans understand the nature of the crisis and support increased emergency aid for transit.

Meanwhile, some of the same agencies staring down these budget holes are taking steps to address transit equity issues.

And a study conducted by researchers at a Chilean university finds that while free transit doesn’t really get cars off the road, it does make people’s lives better by increasing the use of transit for discretionary trips, thus stimulating local businesses.

Transit Agencies Prepare “Doomsday Service Plans” While Seeking More Relief

In city after city, the story is the same: COVID-19-related falloffs in ridership have driven transit agency budgets over a cliff as well. As a result, transit systems in several large cities are preparing for dramatic cuts in service. In Washington, The Post reports that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority is planning on offering buyouts and implementing major service cuts to close a $176 million budget gap. The Philadelphia Business Journal reports that the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority is considering closing stations, eliminating service on some lines and raising fares to climb out of a $300 million hole. And New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, facing a three-year forecast deficit of $16.4 billion, is proposing to slash subway service by 40 percent, cut regional rail service by half, and cut service on more than a quarter of the city’s bus routes.

The Bloomberg CityLab article that mentions the planned New York cuts also notes that agencies in several other large and mid-sized cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco, are working on “doomsday service plans” to attack their operating deficits. The effect these cuts would have on their regions’ economies would be profound, Ben Fried of Transit Center told CityLab: “We’re talking about debilitating the major economic centers of activity in the U.S. if we let this happen,” he said. “It’d be a blow to the whole national economy.”

Oddly enough, this doom and gloom could be grounds for optimism. Transportation analyst Bruce Schaller is cited in the CityLab article as saying that civic and government leaders understand the existential threat such dramatic service cuts represent to urban economies and are not likely to let them go unaddressed. Transit-employee unions in Washington point to the incoming Biden administration’s pledge to provide $10 billion for mass transit in his first year in office as a reason for WMATA to hold off on its planned service cuts. And Metro Magazine notes that a survey conducted by the American Public Transportation Association found that 77 percent of Americans support emergency funding for mass transit.

But, as Schaller told CityLab, things will likely get worse before they get better: “We know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It’s hard to say how far it is, and what the shape is. But we will deal with it when we get there.”

Chicago, Cincinnati Implement Programs to Promote Transit Equity

Yet even though transit agencies are starved for cash, many recognize that they need to do more to serve the less advantaged residents who often depend on their services the most. Two agencies this past week took steps in that direction.

The Daily Southtown, the Chicago Tribune’s newspaper serving the city’s southern suburbs, reports that a three-way agreement among Cook County, Metra and Pace will create a pilot project that lowers fares and increases transit service in Chicago’s South Side suburbs. Metra, which operates regional rail service in and around Chicago, will cut fares in half for riders on its Metra Electric and Rock Island lines, which serve southern and southwestern Chicago-area communities, while the suburban bus agency, Pace, will triple the frequency of service on a heavily used bus route through several southern suburbs.

The fare cuts and service improvements are being implemented under a three-year pilot project called “Fair Transit South Cook.” The changes are set to take effect Jan. 4. Households in the areas targeted by the pilot spend a disproportionate share of their income — as much as 50 percent and sometimes more — on transportation, and the project aims to reduce this. The initiative may also help reverse a several-year slide in ridership on the Metra rail lines. Cook County will pay the agencies $30 million over the duration fo the pilot to make up for the lost revenue.

Meanwhile, low-income bus riders in Cincinnati will once again be able to get help paying their transit fares through the revival of a program called “Everybody Rides Metro.” WCPO reports that the Southwest Ohio Regional Regional Transit Authority is reviving the nonprofit foundation that provided subsidized rides for low-income Cincinnatians from 2008 to 2016 thanks to a voter-approved sales tax hike in May that provides funding to make this possible.

“Each bus ride that ERM and its partner organizations make possible is a connection to jobs, healthcare and other vital human services that help beneficiaries maintain self-sufficiency,” SORTA Board Chairman Kreg Keesee said in a news release.

ERM will receive $500,000 annually to provide subsidized fares and other assistance to low-income riders in Cincinnati Metro territory.

Study: Free Transit Makes Local Economies Stronger

Advocates for free transit make several arguments in its favor. One is cost-effectiveness: many systems spend more collecting fares than they get in revenue from them. Another is environmental: By encouraging transit use, free fares will cut down on driving and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Streetsblog USA reports that researchers at the Universidad Católica de Chile have found that the second argument doesn’t hold water, but they did find a third reason for supporting free transit. This one’s economic: The researchers found that riders increased their use of transit at off-peak hours.

The researchers recruited a cross-section of Santiago residents of varying incomes and gave them a two-week unlimited transit pass good for travel anywhere in the city. The pass holders took 28 percent more trips than non-pass-holders did, but all of the extra riding occurred outside peak commuting hours. (The study was conducted prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.)

Where did these riders go? To restaurants, shopping centers, parks and other leisure destinations where they met with friends and spent money in local businesses. And the pass holders said that they would not have taken those trips at all had they not had unlimited free rides.

The effect was greatest, of course, where pass holders lived close to frequent transit service. The article notes that cities that implement free-fare policies citywide could find themselves multiplying these beneficial effects by improving the quality and frequency of transit service. As far as reducing driving is concerned, charging fees for car use might be more effective, according to transportation planner Enrica Papa, whose article on the effects of free transit in The Conversation was cited in the Streetsblog report.

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

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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: public transportationchicagocovid-19cincinnati

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