Life After COVID-19: How Has Public Transit Changed as a Result of the Pandemic?

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Since March 2020, many commuters in the United States started working from home — so long as their jobs allowed for remote work. And, in the wake of this shift, we’ve all seen the commentary on social media: in California, for example, Los Angeles’ notorious traffic congestion became nonexistent at one point — and, with fewer cars and buses clogging streets, even the air felt cleaner. In fact, there’s been “a remarkable worldwide reduction in ambient air pollution” with particulate matter concentrations in L.A. decreasing by 25–30% as compared to the same month a year ago (via The Lancet).

With the COVID-19 vaccine rollout well underway, offices have started issuing reopening plans, which means folks who aren’t essential workers will likely start commuting more regularly in the very near future. For many, “reentering” society or getting back to things they used to do can be unnerving. For example, once-packed subway trains and buses don’t seem all too enticing, no matter one’s vaccination status. Do you really want to squeeze onto a crowded train platform or be stuck in a metal cylinder for 45 minutes with folks who may or may not be wearing masks?

For some, public transit is the only option when it comes to commuting, running errands, and accessing resources. However, for those with the privilege and means, driving might hold more appeal, but that option could usher in a whole host of problems, from the return of gridlocked highways and emissions to higher gas prices. It’s also no secret that under-funded public transportation agencies across the country have been struggling — and the subject of President Joe Biden’s latest improvement project. So, what have we learned from the pandemic — and how will those lessons inform our approach to taking, building, and maintaining public transit?

As Cities Reopen, Commuters Return to the Streets

Confined space, close proximity to others and seats, bars and buttons that you and thousands of other commuters touch daily. Those are the things of public transportation. And none of them feel particularly safe in a post-COVID-19 world. Of course, some riders who can’t afford a car, don’t have access to one or who work in an area that makes driving impractical have no choice but to rely on public transit. Even now — and throughout the pandemic — essential workers have taken buses and trains daily.

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Right now, though, it’s difficult to determine whether or not how many of those commuters with a choice will opt for personal cars over trains. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where revised shelter-in-place orders have allowed some businesses to reopen, more and more folks have begun commuting and crossing the state-owned bridges. But even after reopening began, The Mercury News reported that traffic on the Bay Area’s bridges was still 40% below normal. Meanwhile, commuters who take the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART commuter trains, have climbed a smidge higher, though they still haven’t returned to pre-COVID-19 levels.

However, in the Bay Area, just 20% of commuters take public transit or carpool, so maybe San Francisco isn’t the best city by which to measure how bad the traffic will get. For that matter, neither is L.A. — though we can imagine both California cities turning into an even messier gridlock than usual. Like other public services and spaces, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is now requiring passengers to wear face coverings while on trains and buses and asking folks to practice social distancing when it comes to selecting a seat or place to stand. In fact, the SFMTA website is even encouraging San Franciscans to try out modes of rentable transit JUMP Bikes or Lime scooters, which allow for personal space.

The End of Public Transportation (As We Knew It)

In pre-pandemic New York City, over 8,000 subway train trips occurred daily, carting nearly 6 million New Yorkers from home to work and back again. According to the New York Daily News, subway ridership fell by a whopping 93% in April, though the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) predicts that number will transform into a 60% decrease by the fall — still a significant drop, but, on the other hand, that’s a lot of commuters sharing a tight space.

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“Customers’ awareness of and engagement with their own safety will be key [to reopening],” said interim NYC Transit President Sarah Feinberg. “Everyone in the system will have a role to play in keeping our city healthy.” While being aware and mindful of one’s own health and limitations is important, that statement doesn’t really put one’s mind at ease. Many New Yorkers rely on the subway and bus systems to reach jobs that are many neighborhoods — and sometimes rivers or boroughs — away from their homes.

Moreover, because subway trains became relatively empty, New Yorkers who are experiencing homelessness have used subway cars as places of refuge, especially during the pandemic when social distancing has been near-impossible to maintain in shelters. “They should be offering anybody on the street access to a hotel room. They aren’t doing that. That’s the main problem,” Giselle Routhier, policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless, told the NY Daily News. “People don’t feel safe [in shelters].”

For now, the MTA has hired private contractors to boost subway and bus cleanliness. According to the agency, those contractors work to disinfect subway cars and buses every 72 hours, while workers aim to clean station surfaces several times throughout the day. As is the case in other major cities, passengers must wear face coverings on public transit. As the city’s reopening continues, many New Yorkers are hard-pressed to find alternatives.

While the city’s infamous yellow cabs have protective barriers between passengers and drivers, the cars can’t be cleaned thoroughly between each ride. Lyft and Uber, meanwhile, have mandated that all passengers wear face coverings, sit in the back seats of the cars and, when possible, roll down windows to promote air flow. Needless to say, even rideshares — the apparent future of transit — aren’t adequately prepared to address the health concerns of a post-COVID-19 world. All of this is to say that the future of public transit is bound to change drastically, but we’ll have to wait and see just how transportation agencies plan to accomplish this.