Public buses and trains would seem to be obvious COVID super-spreader sites. No matter how carefully or frequently disinfected they are, the mere turnover of people and difficulty of social distancing in cramped vehicles has sent ridership plummeting. In metro Detroit, for example, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation system (SMART) has endured an 80 percent decline since the pandemic’s onset.
Once a beacon of hope for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and a way to level the economic playing field between the haves and have-nots of automobile ownership, mass transit now faces an existential crisis that portends a bumpy ride for when the post-COVID era dawns.
Most public transit agencies in metro Detroit — including city buses, the QLine, and Ann Arbor’s The Ride as well as SMART — turned off their fareboxes in March 2020 as the pandemic first hit. The revenue drop was substantial, but the first federal stimulus bill — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act — channeled $25 billion into bolstering transit systems. SMART received $61 million, DDOT took $64.3 million, The Ride got $20.7 million, and QLine picked up $1.3 million to ease losses and absorb costs of hazard pay, cleaning services, and personal protective equipment.
Still, nobody knows how long riders will stay away. If car sales are any indication, it could be a while. Stock for both AutoNation and Cars.com more than tripled between mid-March 2020 and early February, reflecting a huge surge in used car sales. Federal data shows lower-income Americans are most likely to buy previously owned vehicles; they’re the same cohort most likely to use mass transit. And convincing higher-income people to use mass transit to reduce their carbon footprints will be tough when working from home achieves that aim in a far bigger way.
To thrive post-COVID, transit systems will need to reconceive their schedules and expand the available services, says SMART Deputy General Manager Robert Cramer. SMART already dropped several commuter routes designed to carry workers from the suburbs to downtown when widespread telecommuting took hold last year.
“It’s not a matter of when we turn services back on, but what services we turn back on,” Cramer says.
That means less focus on those 9-to-5 routes running to corporate hubs like downtown Detroit and more emphasis on other, evolving employment locales. Cramer points to light industrial logistic sites, such as Amazon’s expanding collection of hubs and developing retail hot spots like Detroit’s New Center district.
However, the outlook is entirely dependent on consumer behavior. Lasting health and hygiene fears may keep ridership down even once COVID is under control, Cramer says, noting that the best SMART can do is publicize its above-and-beyond sanitation protocols to calm jitters.
Meanwhile, polling data, as the pandemic has continued, suggests the public’s anti-transit views have softened. In May, nearly half of frequent mass transit users said they would reduce or cease riding, according to a survey by IBM. By September, that figure had fallen to 27 percent.
Something that won’t change post-pandemic? Steep costs for buying, maintaining, and insuring private vehicles. Eventually, even the biggest germophobes may be forced to overcome their fears in the face of the significant cost savings that come with using mass transit.
The best systems like SMART can do, Cramer says, is to hang in there and improve the systems for the days when riders return — whenever that may be.
“Change is difficult when everything’s smooth sailing, because people are entrenched in their habits,” he says. “This is an opportunity to make major changes, because as we return, people will have to relearn how to do things anyway.”
In fact, Cramer expects the beleaguered sector will re-emerge with new practices and, perhaps, a sharper focus on serving the greatest number of passengers.
“Transit is in a good position, as an industry, to use this opportunity to innovate and adapt to how people are getting around today and how they’ll be getting around in the future,” he says. “It’s given us a good outlook that we’ll be able to sustain this crisis and reemerge whole on the other side.”