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Roya Sabri headshot

Worker Safety Is Central to the Economic Case for Keeping Public Transportation Running

Public transportation systems have seen huge declines in ridership during coronavirus-related shutdowns. Here's why cities should do whatever they can to keep them running.
By Roya Sabri
public transportation

As the world socially distances to protect the most vulnerable from the new coronavirus, many activities and public services have quieted. One such service is public transportation. Over the past two months, public transportation channels across the world have seen significant declines in ridership.

That slump could at first be a relief for the essential workers who keep those systems running, but it also comes at a cost. First and foremost, at least in the United States, public transit workers have not been adequately protected. City officials across the U.S. have been slow to implement safety measures on buses and trains. Transit workers have been getting sick, and over 100 have died from coronavirus-related complications around the country.

A reduction in ridership, ironically, has led to overcrowded bus lines in some areas. As ridership decreases and many bus and train operators choose not to work due to unsafe conditions, people are relying on reduced service. In some cases, this means buses are more crowded than they were three months ago.

In Tampa, Florida, for example, service on the busiest routes has decreased from running every 15 minutes to every hour. “I absolutely don’t feel safe,” Vera Johnson, a Tampa bus driver, told the local television news channel WTSP-TV.

Transportation funding is a huge challenge

From a financial perspective, a decrease in ridership also means that cities won't see the same flow of revenue from fares — and cash-strapped City Halls are finding it difficult to sustain current transportation needs. In some cases, the future viability of public transportation itself has been brought into question.

Some support comes in the form of the federal coronavirus aid package passed in late March, which allocated $25 billion to public transit agencies.

The funds come as a relief to cities like San Francisco that rely significantly on fare revenue for operation. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is losing an estimated $37 million per month due to loss of ridership. Fares represent 60 percent of the system’s operating budget. “For BART, these emergency funds can be the difference between needing to shut down when our reserves run out and maintaining service to keep the San Francisco Bay Area moving,” BART general manager, Bob Powers, told Mass Transit Magazine.

The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has received $3.8 billion from the relief bill, but it’s asking for double that amount. Without additional support, MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick Foye told Fortune Magazine, “The present and future of the MTA are in serious jeopardy.”

Even if cities receive adequate funds to keep moving, there remains an innovation gap. Cities need to keep transit workers and riders safe and comfortable. Business-as-usual is not cutting it — and the businesses that rely on their employees to get to and from work could suffer in the long run, too.

The economic impact of public transportation

It should come as no surprise that letting public transportation decay during months of city-wide shutdowns does not benefit people or local economies. For one, public transportation is providing means for many essential workers to keep the U.S. running.

And a study from 2013 found that the hidden value of public transportation to any city is between $1.5 million to $1.8 billion a year, depending on its size. Public transportation nurtures agglomeration — a technical term for the clustering of people that brings economic productivity.

Transforming transportation for the good of drivers, riders and the economy

Some cities are already seeing a phased reopening of activities. As activity resumes, protecting transit workers should be of utmost priority. To accomplish a reopening of normal transit operations that protect all, the World Resources Institute (WRI) offers five principles for city leaders that can guide investment and growth.

Ensure stability through revenue support to transit operations: As the country reopens, fare revenue will likely remain low as people fear bus crowding. Cities should explore alternative financing options — congestion pricing and parking management are two options.

Create high-quality bus and transit infrastructure: Washington, D.C. is already taking advantage of a 95 percent decrease in ridership to conduct summer maintenance on much of its Metrorail system. The WRI recommends using this time to create dedicated bus lanes to improve transit reliability and comfort.

Modernize and electrify bus fleets: Cities have a chance to use stimulus funds to modernize their fleets — an opportunity that doesn’t come around often. If a complete overhaul isn’t possible, cities should invest in incremental upgrades, the WRI suggests. Digitization can improve service quality and thus increase ridership.

Invest in cycling and walking: The WRI points to a study that shows every $1 million invested in cycling creates up to 11 jobs. Milan is looking to cycling and walking as it emerges from its coronavirus crisis by permanently opening 22 miles of streets to bikes and pedestrians.

Get governance right: Cities should not work alone, the group concludes. Coordination, especially when it comes to transportation, is essential. By working together, cities can ensure that they don’t just survive the pandemic, but rebuild to be greener, safer and more productive.

The WRI makes it clear that investing intelligently in public transportation systems during and after the coronavirus pandemic will aid economic recovery. These are large-scale interventions.

On a more human scale, policymakers around the wold have employed temporary interventions to protect operators and riders, including signage to remind rides about social distancing, deploying larger vehicles and having riders enter from a bus’s back door. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is providing bus drivers with a button to push if their buses become over-crowded — a manager can then send more vehicles onto the route.

There’s no question that reaping the economic benefits of a healthy public transportation system requires a healthy and happy workforce. Letting public transit workers fend for themselves as ridership increases just isn’t ethical.

As Ronald Spring, a New York bus operator, said at a March 5 meeting with New York’s MTA: “We are supposed to have systems in place for this. We are supposed to have equipment for us to go out and serve the public even in a crisis. But we didn’t see any of that happening like it should have.”

Another driver, Daniel Cruz, who tested positive for coronavirus, told the New York Times that even though he loves his job, he is not looking forward to going back. “I feel like we’ve been left to defend ourselves,” he said.

If driver shortages of more than 90 percent in places like Detroit should communicate anything to city officials, it’s that public transportation investments and improvements must put frontline employees first.

Image credit: Matthew Henry/Unsplash

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

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