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The Pandemic Gives Public Transit a Needed Opportunity

The pandemic brought a world of pain to the nation’s public transit systems. Ridership plummeted across the board. Services were slashed. U.S. cities with the largest transit systems predict it will take years to return to pre-pandemic ridership levels.

Nationally, ridership fell 53.3% in 2020 according to the latest statistics released by the American Public Transportation Association. The New York City metro region, which makes up a third of all transit trips in the country, was down 55.6 percent in 2020 (APTA). The chart below will give you a sense of how the decline in ridership in NYC compared to other metropolitan areas:

2020 public transit change in ridership from 2019:

  • San Francisco: - 67.0%

  • Washington, D.C.: - 65.4%

  • Boston: - 57.4%

  • Chicago: - 56.7%

  • New York City: - 55.6%

  • Seattle: - 53.1%

  • Atlanta: - 51.1%

  • Los Angeles: - 42.5%

  • Dallas: - 41.6%

  • Houston: - 40.4%

  • Miami: - 39.8%

The ridership decline in 2020 followed a year when the public’s use of transit actually seemed to be turning a corner. U.S. ridership in 2019 was up 3% – 54 million more trips – following several years of decline (APTA).

Even though the pandemic brought back declining ridership, stretched budgets, and sub-optimal on-time performance, the post-pandemic world presents new opportunities for agencies to re-envision exactly who is dependent on public transit and what they need.

You may not ride transit, but someone you depend on does.

Yes, ridership statistics are the most eye-catching, but it’s clear that ridership is no longer the single most important metric for transit. It’s about equity. A usual suspect at the transportation thought leadership conference, “equitable transit” is finally taking one foot off the platitude platform and on to an actionable level.

The sharpest decline in transit ridership occurred in regions with higher percentages of white, educated, and high-income workers. Regions with more jobs in hospitality, transportation, and utilities saw lower declines (Hu and Chen). In a recent rider survey, 79% of black and brown respondents said that they were riding transit as often as before the pandemic, 11 points higher than the U.S. average. In fact, 73% of those respondents reported that they rely more on public transit during the pandemic. Only 4.7% of respondents said they will never return to public transit, none of which identified as minority (TransitApp).

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the conversation around who is essential. So many of the people we rely on day-to-day are still going to work. They don’t get to go on zoom calls in the middle of the day. They’re still showing up to bus stops, rain or shine, not knowing if there are going to be shelters at the stop, not knowing if the bus is going to come, not knowing if people on board are going to wear masks. As a transportation and equity advocate, Tamika Butler, observed “If they’re still showing up, and they’re dependent on transit, then we’re a transit-dependent country” (State of Public Transit).

Public transit has always underscored discrepancies between one community and the next. For example, the difference in commute times between black and brown neighborhoods and white neighborhoods is about 12 minutes a day, or 50 hours a year (City of Philadelphia). Facts like these haven’t been at the center of conversation for transit policy and decision makers. Recently, however, they are becoming part of the more general question of how people get to the places they need to be. Under the guise of “essential workers” and free transportation to vaccination centers, issues of equitable transit are beginning to receive funding.

Public transit’s take on the 80/20 rule.

When Congress writes new multibillion-dollar transportation bills every few years, typically about four-fifths (or 80%) of the money goes to highways and roads and one-fifth goes to public transit. This is a pattern that has held since the early 1980s. To many, that disparity makes sense. After all, roughly 80 percent of trips Americans take are by car or light truck, and just 3 percent are by mass transit (National Household Travel Survey).

But this causality is backwards. Decades of government investment in roads and highways — starting with the creation of the interstate highway system in 1956 — have transformed most cities and suburbs into sprawling, car-centered environments where it can be dangerous to walk or bike (NY Times). In addition to that, other reliable transit options are scarce. Essentially, our current infrastructure all but forces everyone to drive.

When funding does come around for public transit, it’s usually for large capital improvement projects to improve transit infrastructure. But improving the nation’s transportation system isn’t always a question of laying down new cement and steel. Often, the most effective changes may be operational, such as improving arrival predictions and increasing the frequency of bus routes to make them more useful to riders -- even a 1% increase in frequency results in a 0.4% increase in ridership!

For decades, transit systems have been saddled with an obligation to support themselves by chasing ridership to increase revenue and reduce the burden on taxpayers. But the pandemic showed that the operation of buses and trains is essential to those workers who do not drive - and who we all depend on.

COVID federal transit funding has finally given agencies a chance to work on themselves. The CARES Act, CRSSAA, and American Rescue Plan have allocated almost $70 billion to U.S. public transit (Federal Transit Administration). With that backing, agencies around the country are running free bus service pilots, eliminating transfer fees, and increasing bus frequencies in areas hardest hit by COVID.

How we make “finally” last.

The pandemic highlighted transit inequities that have existed for a long long time. The reason that these inequities are in focus now is not because transit agencies have suddenly seen the light, but because when they look for where to spend their federal subsidy, they find that the only sensible place is where the riders are. The two assumptions that transit authorities are now operating under, along with their outcomes, are highlighted below.

Who are these riders?

They are lower-income essential workers, often people of color.

Public transit is finally measuring equity.

What do these riders need?

Operational needs like accurate arrival predictions, reduced fares, and increased frequency.

Public transit has finally received funding to address equity.

To make sure these changes are not only impactful but long lasting, drop the term “transit-dependent rider” (during the pandemic: “essential workers”). The flip side of a transit-dependent rider is a “choice rider,” who could drive but chooses not to. Yet, both groups depend on strong public transit. The why is obvious for the first group. But for the second group? It’s because they depend on those who depend on public transit. Maybe, we should categorize the first group as “essential riders” because while not everyone is essential, everyone is transit-dependent.



  1. Beragl, Jenni. “US: Tackling social inequity, some cities may ditch bus, subway fares” 14 June 2021.

  2. Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 - Federal Transit Administration (FTA), 14 June 2021.

  3. Guerrazzi, Siena. “Data is a Tool for Equity and Inclusion” 18 Oct, 2019.

  4. Hu, Songhua and Chen, Peng. “Who left riding transit? Examining socioeconomic disparities in the impact of COVID-19 on ridership” Jan 2021.

  5. Impact of COVID-19 on Public Transit Agencies - APTA, March 2020.

  6. Philadelphia Transit Plan - City of Philadelphia, Feb 2021.

  7. Plumber, Brad and Popovich, Nadja. “America Has Long Favored Cars Over Trains and Buses. Can Biden Change That?” 28 May 2021.

  8. Popular Person Trips (PT) Statistics - National Household Transportation Survey (NHTS).

  9. Public Transit Ridership Up for Third Quarter of 2019 - APTA, 11 Dec 2019.

  10. Rider Happiness Benchmarking Report - TransitApp, April 2021.

  11. State of Public Transit” - Swiftly, 23 Feb 2021.

  12. The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Public Transit Funding Needs in the U.S. - American Public Transportation Association (APTA), 27 Jan 2021.

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