It’s a surreal scene for city dwellers. Empty sidewalks, sparsely populated buses, and transit agencies pleading with passengers on social media not to ride them unless absolutely necessary. And by all accounts, would-be riders across the country are obeying orders to stay home and slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The numbers are grim. Major transit agencies have reported ridership dropping by more than half over the last two weeks. But an even larger catastrophe is looming. With fewer riders paying fares, and operational costs rising due to increased sanitizing of vehicles and facilities, transit systems in cities like Boston, San Francisco, Austin, and Los Angeles have announced service cuts, including, in some cases, eliminating all overnight service at a time when there are no other options for transit-dependent riders to get around safely.
“We are seeing steep declines of 30 to 80 percent,” says Steven Higashide, director of research at TransitCenter. “At the same time, the crisis underscores how essential public transit is for people who have essential jobs or need transit to go to the grocery store or get to a doctor’s office.”
Long before a pandemic was circulating the planet, the policy team behind the Green New Deal was plotting out a path to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in the U.S. transportation sector by 2050. The recommendations in their report, “A Green New Deal for City and Suburban Transportation,” out this week, are even more urgent for a country facing not just a climate crisis, but public health and economic crises as well.
In the pre-COVID-19 world, transportation made up one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—with a majority of those emissions coming from cars and trucks. “It’s not enough to look at solutions like flying less or building high-speed rail,” says Higashide, one of the report’s co-authors. “We have to look at surface transportation.”
The report, by Data for Progress and the Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology, along with national transportation advocacy groups TransitCenter and Transportation for America, says the country can achieve a safer, more equitable, zero-emission transportation system with a change in funding priorities, a push to build multimodal streets, and a goal to put the majority of Americans within walking distance of frequent public transit by 2030.
After the 2008 financial crisis, transit ridership—particularly bus ridership—saw a similar cratering, which most systems never really recovered from. But where the recovery efforts a decade ago almost exclusively focused on infrastructural improvements, the Green New Deal’s proposal centers around bolstering ridership and service. A large part of what the policy recommendations are arguing for is operating assistance, which would allow agencies to provide more robust service while paying workers higher wages.
Accessibility—both physically and logistically—is another key component of the Green New Deal’s proposal. In addition to funding the country’s multibillion-dollar sidewalk repair backlog to improve last-mile connections, streets would be designed to be used by all ages, incomes, modes, and abilities. Increasing transit accessibility also means increasing options for suburban communities, with a push for land-use policies that incentivize denser residential development around regional rail and bus-rapid transit hubs.
Aligning federal dollars behind cleaner, more efficient modes like walking, biking, and transit—and away from projects like highway expansions, which are known to increase traffic and pollution—goes counter to the way virtually all transportation is currently funded. But the Green New Deal’s policymakers have a voice through the new Congressional Future of Transportation caucus formed in October, which is working to prioritize investments that lower emissions while advancing socioeconomic equity.
The Green New Deal’s proposal also creates an opportunity to correct previous policies that attempted to reduce emissions but failed. The deal put in place by the U.S. automaker bailout after the 2008 financial crisis, for example, was meant to require companies to produce more fuel-efficient cars, but automakers soon found a way around the policies by pivoting to SUVs. The report notes that the key to reducing emissions is not adding more electric cars, but fewer cars overall.
“The path to net-zero is easier with every car we take off the road,” says Billy Fleming, report co-author and director of the Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology. Fleming envisions not simply swapping out all 272 million U.S. vehicles with electric versions, but offering incentives to trade in an internal combustion vehicle for electric bikes, transit passes, or cash. “Any climate proposal that does include EV incentives will be most generous for low-income people or those in rural areas not well-served by transit.”
The transportation strategies outlined in the Green New Deal proposal will not only guarantee the dramatic reduction of greenhouse gases, they’re also broadly popular, according to polls by Data for Progress that accompany the report. Two-thirds of U.S. voters—across all political party affiliations—believe their communities would benefit from expanding public transit. Even more voters—77 percent—believe expanding transit would benefit the U.S. overall.
Such bipartisan support might help feed the Green New Deal’s ideas into recovery bills in Congress. On Friday, 52 members of Congress signed a letter requesting $16 billion for transit agencies be added to the stimulus, a number determined by the American Public Transportation Association. Late Sunday, $20 billion for transit was added to the bill. (Boeing, for comparison, is asking for $60 billion.)
As stay-at-home orders have recently been extended to last weeks—if not months—the financial free-fall of transportation agencies has prompted calls for a bigger mass transit bailout. TransitCenter estimates that the safest social distance practices would result in a $38 billion shortfall over the next year.
But funneling money to transit agencies wouldn't technically be a bailout, notes Fleming, because transit agencies are already public—and funding them should be as essential as keeping school districts and housing authorities running. “For them, this isn’t a bailout, this is about sustaining them through a global pandemic.”
After the airline industry, the cruise industry, and even the airport ground transportation industry immediately issued high-profile pleas for financial protection as passenger numbers plummeted, now there’s a unified call from the transit industry.
"Bailout" is the wrong word for what transit needs.— TransitCenter (@TransitCenter) March 18, 2020
Bailouts are for nonessential business, not public health resources to combat the pandemic. They're for airlines, not hospitals.
Transit is part of the pandemic response. It needs emergency resources to protect public health.
Over a 24-hour period last week, representatives from over 200 U.S. transit agencies signed on to a letter from Transportation for America and the Union of Concerned Scientists urging Congress to approve $13 billion in direct financial assistance, targeted to the agencies impacted the most, to keep buses and trains running.
Part of the challenge is that representatives don’t see public transit as an essential service for the country in the way the government views airlines and automakers, says Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America. But without emergency operating funds, Osborne says drops in ridership could lead to even more service cuts, which would make it even harder for riders to follow social distancing guidance and potentially introduce additional health threats.
“If they cut service, it means more crowded buses for the most transit-dependent that would be the least capable of working from home,” she says. “Congress needs to step in and make sure these essential systems are running to make sure these health care workers can get to where we need them to care for us and our loved ones.”
A handful of transit agencies, like Detroit, are making transit free to better serve health care workers and keep drivers protected. Houston is putting more buses into operation to create temporary shuttles between medical centers. But some transportation experts are recommending going one step further. With streets so empty, cities could experiment with dedicating lanes to transit and emergency vehicles, which would not only keep buses and other essential services moving more efficiently, it would also start to prime U.S. cities for recovery.
The upending of the American economy will make affordable, ubiquitous transit even more important. With unemployment estimated to be as high as 20 to 25 percent, household income will be lower, and many families may not be able to keep their cars.
“Bus-only lanes will allow transit to be as operationally efficient as possible with limited operators and will help transit move people in a recession at a lower cost to users,” says Juan Matute, deputy director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies. “The travel-time savings will gradually build over time as the economy and travel activity recovers. And then we’ll need bus-only lanes.”