Transit Ridership Dropping Due to Coronavirus; Long-Term Funding Consequences Feared

The effects of a global pandemic on American shores are beginning to emerge for public transit systems. The consequences of a drop in transit ridership could extend beyond the end of the pandemic.

March 12, 2020, 10:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Transit Ridership

Bridget Zawitoski / Shutterstock

On March 9, Toronto Public Health officials released an announcement assuring residents that was safe to use public transit amidst the coronavirus scare, reports Ben Spurr. The announcement responded to a far less assuring announcement, made the day before by Governor Andre Cuomo and Mayor Bill De Blasio, suggesting residents of New York City should avoid public transit to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

COVID-19 hit close to home for the New York Port Authority—Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is one of the confirmed cases in the pandemic.

Last week, expectations about how coronavirus would impact public transit relied on experience from Asian countries, but following the announcement about Cotton and the statements of New York's political leadership, U.S. transit systems began to feel the effects. Transit ridership dropped by 170,000 passengers—8 percent—on BART between the last week of February and the first week of March, according to an article by Rachel Swan. [Update: Reports now reveal ridership on the New York MTA system dropped 18.5% on Wednesday, March 11 relative to the comparable day in 2019—a total of 996,000 riders.]

As pointed out in an article by Aaron Gordon, decreased transit ridership could have a long-term impact of transit funding, and not just because of a reduced amount of fares being paid by riders as they work from home and avoid public gatherings that tend to drive transit ridership (as driving is additionally incentivized by plummeting oil prices).

On average, 56 percent of a transit agency’s budget comes from state or local subsidies, according to that same Department of Transportation report—the rest comes from the federal government or is directly generated by the agency through advertising or other initiatives—and a big part of convincing politicians those subsidies are worthwhile is by demonstrating people use the system with, you guessed it, ridership figures.

So, if ridership plummets, that argument becomes harder, especially if government budgets become stressed bailing out all the other at-risk businesses and populations that need more money. When it comes to governments at all levels, transit has a long history of taking the back seat during crunch time. And if people abandon it in droves due to coronavirus, history may repeat itself once again.

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