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What Will Transit Become?

No one doubts the tremendous impact this pandemic has had on our state’s transit providers. Some systems experienced a loss of 90 percent or more in ridership at the peak of the shutdown, and recovery has been understandably slow. But the truth is, transit ridership had been falling for years before the pandemic, and it's likely that this quarantine period will only accelerate some of the trends behind that decline. Some of those trends include the migration of jobs and people away from dense cities where transit works best, concerns about the safety of transit, as well as a newfound enthusiasm for letting employees work from home.

For example, in a recent POLITICO article, Alex Clifford, CEO and General Manager for the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District, noted that many of his riders are hospitality and tourism industry workers who depend on transit to get to work. “When their jobs come back, I need to have the service there for them,” Clifford told POLITICO. “And if it’s not there, guess what — they’re either going to lose their job, or they’re going to find another way to get to work. And once they figure out that other way to get to work, they’ll probably never come back,” he said. “They’re lost for good.”

It is clear, regardless of the pandemic’s disastrous impact on transit, service providers need to reconsider their models in order to survive in the long term. As Michael Pimentel of the California Transit Association recently wrote, “public transit agencies must continue to evolve to deliver service that responds to changing commute patterns, addresses the unfounded skepticism about the safety of transit service, and that more fully meets the needs of their core ridership.” But the question is, how are these agencies going to change?

The direction California’s transit operators are going to change will depend heavily on the way they respond to two questions. First, once the world gets past the immediate impacts of lock down and things resume to be closer to the “normal” we once experienced, will operators in our urban areas be willing and able to invest in technologies that deliver seamless service and mobility solutions to anyone seeking an alternative to driving? Before the pandemic, some regions were moving in this direction, but this major disruption might be just the impetus needed to jump into that new and exciting realm. Hopefully the state and federal funding programs that are keeping operators alive through this difficult time can be used to encourage innovative solutions as we emerge from the current challenges.

The second question that will really influence the amount of change we might witness in the transit industry is this: can transit better balance its dual role of mobility provider for the transit dependent and commute alternative for choice riders? Long before the COVID crisis, transit was tasked with playing an integral role in California’s fight against climate change, and expected to help remove single-occupant vehicles from the road with attractive commuter services. This type of service has been more or less successfully implemented in many parts of the state. But in a world of finite resources, this move created pressures on agencies to fund these types of services and unfortunately at times that might have cost service provision to those who rely on transit for basic mobility. For some agencies, this wasn’t too much trouble because they primarily serve one or the other type of rider. Other agencies have definitely suffered from the “split the baby” problem only to find themselves inadequately serving either aim. Again, if funding partners want to assist transit providers with policy direction on this problem, now is the time to think about the outcomes that state and federal leaders seek.

We all hope that this moment of crisis can be used to help transit find ways to overcome the challenges that it faced prior to the virus. If we don’t act now, inertia will surely find us right back in the middle of the decline we were suffering over the last decade, and that might lead us to have to make even more difficult choices in the future.

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