Think back to your first time riding transit. What do you remember? Perhaps the excitement; maybe you were very young and all the sounds, all the people, the hustle and bustle created a sense of thrill. Maybe the fear; you just moved to a new city, none of the signage is in a language you understand, and no one looks interested in helping you navigate. Pride in being complimented on your outfit by a fellow passenger, or anger at the having to suffer through the ‘tale of last night’ being shared over a far-too-loud phone call made by the person next to you. Whatever comes to mind, be it positive or otherwise, the feelings present in the experience likely dominate the memory. Our mobility activities are often heavily emotion-filled. As transit systems around the world fear their ability to continue to provide quality service amidst catastrophically reduced operating budgets, tapping into this emotional element of transportation may be key to regaining riders and ensuring the continued vitality of our transit networks as we look toward COVID-19 recovery.
Current State of Mobility Affairs
How we move, where we travel to and from, and at what times of the day this motion occurs have all been deeply impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Some of this seismic change has been in the desired direction of improved sustainability. For example, bike ridership is way up. During 2020, many cities recorded increases in roadway cycling activity of over 50% as compared to the same time period from the year prior. On the higher end, despite large numbers of people choosing to stay home, places such as Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis, and Oakland saw bike traffic volumes increase by as much as 150%. Cities have been supporting this bike boom by turning what was vehicular space over to safe, designated cycle space at unprecedented speeds. Whether motivated by a need to serve exercise, leisure, or task-related trips, this bike boom is promising. With continued support from municipalities, there is reason to anticipate that a large portion of newly converted cyclists will continue to favor this mode as the pandemic continues to move toward recovery.
Beyond the two-wheel revolution, many have reflected on the joys and health benefits they have incurred from increasing the amount they walk each day. Be it a walk to work, a lunch time meet-up, or simply grabbing a breath of fresh air, people across the country are highlighting – through survey responses, Google and Apple Maps mode-sensitive directions searches, blog posts and interviews – that though this increase in walking was initially brought on largely by way of necessity, they have no intention of trading it for vehicular travel at any point in the near future. Unfortunately, the ‘surely it can’t all be bad’ train of thought ends right about there when it comes to sustainable mobility.
Due largely to a combination of travel restrictions, work from home mandates, widespread layoffs, fear of public gathering spaces, and reductions in production, transit ridership volumes have plummeted to record lows. Big and small, dense and sparse cities alike have been plagued by a mass fleeing of their transit systems. During the first few months of the pandemic, transit ridership dropped by more than 85% in most major US cities – New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles for example – as compared to the same months from 2019. Mid-sized cities fared slightly better during the same time period, but still experienced huge patronage losses: Seattle suffered decreased ridership of 65%, Washington DC ridership dropped 78%, Boston dropped 82%, San Francisco dropped 80%, and Nashville lost 67% of its ridership.
As travel restrictions continue to loosen and vaccines have become increasingly available, a handful of systems have been able to regain 30-40% of their pre-pandemic ridership. However, a full year and a half into the pandemic, these more fortunate networks are few and far between. If ridership volumes are not recovered soon, many systems are at risk of entering a ‘transit death spiral’ with no exit in sight. The term’s sinister nature is very much deserved. Decreased ridership leads to decreased revenue, which in turn forces a decrease in service through lowered operating capacity. Finally, decreased service further decreases ridership, and voila: a devastating spiral of destruction. With transit providers currently suffering revenue losses to the tune of $4-12 million a week, service levels generally operating at drastically reduced capacities, and billions in Federal aid being described as a drop in the recovery bucket, one is inclined to think that the spiraling is already well underway.
As if the potential obliteration of our urban transit networks wasn’t worrisome enough, of further concern is the modal switch element of this widespread travel behavior change. Sizable portions of the pre-COVID transit-ridership body have shifted to single occupancy vehicles (SOVs). This is evinced through a number of channels including the massive surge in car purchases, rental cars currently going for up to three times their typical cost, and lenders having to turn customers away due to a lack of available vehicles for hire. The fact that traffic volumes in much of the country are quickly approaching their pre-pandemic levels stands to undo so much of the environmental good brought on by the shelter-in-place practices and sustainable mode use of the early pandemic months.
Consequences: What we Should be Fearful of
Under the umbrella of the transit death spiral, several anticipated outcomes have been explored by practitioners and scholars alike. In particular, the potential environmental impacts of a lasting mode switch from transit to SOVs has been discussed at length. Fears of resultant spikes in unemployment have also been explored as transit agencies employ over half a million people nationwide whose jobs depend on continued demand for transit service. Planners and mobility equity advocates also fear lost ground. The pandemic hit amidst a surge in investment in transit infrastructure not seen since the 1970s. Losing the hard-fought-for momentum and public appetite for things like bus-lane projects and other transit-favoring roadway repurposing efforts that redistribute space away from SOVs would set the field back years.
What remains grossly under-evaluated is the detriment to social wellbeing with respect to a sense of societal one-ness and communalism that could result if transit remains on its current trajectory. For many, our use of transit spaces are some of the few, regularly occurring moments in which we break from our homophilic social tendencies and coexist with others who are significantly different from ourselves. Divisions of wealth, race, language, physical ability, and even fashion sense; all of these readily perceivable variants between us coexist during most transit journeys. In addition to sharing the physical space of transit, riders share the experience of transit. Psychologist have found that both shared positive and dysphoric experiences – delayed trains and excessively overcrowded buses, for example – produce identity fusion: a visceral sense of oneness. In this sense, transit has the potential to be not only the great equalizer – a potential it has generally failed to live up to, unfortunately – but the great unifier as well, inciting growth in empathy and collectivism. That is not to say that transit will be the barer of some large kumbaya moment. I am not suggesting that it will solve our nation’s deeply entrench plights of racism, xenophobia, sexism, sizeism, or any other of the ugly -isms that plague us. What I am suggesting, is that opportunities for shared experiences and an expansion of social empathy are important, should be maximized, and their presence within our transit realms is going under-explored.
In a similar vein, the cross-race effect is the tendency for people of one race to have difficulty recognizing and processing facial features and expressions of members of a race other than their own. However, this effect has been found to dissipate with increased exposure. The more we are exposed to faces of members of other races, the more our visual processing moves from reading one another’s faces as disconnected, individual features to holistic, composed faces. Quite literally, our sensing of the humanity in others grows as we gain familiarity with those unlike ourselves. In this time of global racial turmoil and reckoning, to take steps backward due to lost integration-rich transit moments would be devastating.
On our current trajectory, we also run the risk of deepening our rooting in a two-tiered system. Undoubtedly, buses will continue to carry dominant shares of people of color for many years to come. But as COVID encourages white urbanites of means to flee the density of the city in favor of more pandemic-proof suburban and rural areas, we may be gearing up for a world in which white riders almost exclusively engage with transit via commuter rail networks on the few days a month they enter the city core and choose to complete the last mile of their trip on foot, by scooter, by e-bike rental, or rideshare. The more operating budgets are cut, the greater the gap in quality of service between these two modes is likely to widen. That in combination with a further de-integration of the races and income tiers by mode is a recipe to undo years of transit equity work conducted by planners and advocates in urban areas across the nation. We can’t allow this to happen.
Positive Ways Forward
The strength of transit’s future is unquestionably tied to the recapturing of ridership. This is both uniquely difficult and perhaps uniquely vital in the US context. The majority of our built environments were designed around the car, and our socio-civic tensions are currently running high to the point of near-break (in some contexts, far beyond broken). So far into the pandemic, forward-thinking agencies have focused on tackling these two hurdles by concentrating their efforts on equity and quality of service.
Zeroing in on the facet of equity located in one’s wallet, many cities are taking a more heavy-handed approached than ever before in encouraging riders to join or remain within the system through financial channels. For example, in Boston, the City has teamed up with Main Streets organizations as well as the regional transit provider to launch not one but two free transit pilot programs. The first is aimed at retaining riders who work in areas that are likely to see a particularly large increase in vehicular congestion as restrictions lessen. The second hopes to remove the mobility cost burden from the route that serves the highest percentage of low-income, non-white, and essential position-holding riders. Boston is not unique in its fare responsiveness to the moment. Many systems are offering discounted fares with some extending further to fare-free operations, namely for students, seniors, and low income riders.
Agencies are also showing a renewed, or in many cases simply a new, commitment to their persistent riders. While ridership across the board has plummeted, routes serving communities of color have, unsurprisingly, proven the most resilient. One reason for this is that across most of the country’s urban areas, people of color comprise the largest share of essential workers. Both in the name of rider safety and in an attempt to provide the highest quality service possible, many providers are redistributing their operating resources to these notably non-white, front-line-worker-dominant routes. Up until now, many of these routes were drastically under-provided for in favor of white and white-collar community services. Today, both route alignments and schedules are being reimagined in favor of pandemic-resistant ridership demand. This move away from such a 9-5 commute, downtown core-heavy service focus and toward a more comprehensive, all-day, and all-shift serving approach is undoubtedly an equity win.
This service redistribution toward essential worker routes also equates to a prioritizing of the neglected workhorse of most systems: the bus. Finding ways to improve the desirability of bus services has been high on providers’ to-do lists lately. Improving on-time performance, shortening travel times, and smoothing trip experiences have widely been talked about and planned for, but not rapidly acted upon. Some cities have taken advantage of the fact that bus ridership has held on more effectively than rail ridership during the pandemic to implement bus-only travel lanes, better space their stops, support all-door boarding, and put into place the host of bus-priority treatments previously wasting away on suggestion shelves. With buses generally serving a higher share of people of color and lower income earners than all other transit modes, this too has been a victory for mobility equity.
The seizing of this pandemic moment to actively engage the equity-first overhaul of many transit systems is exciting, long overdue, and dare I say may be the first step in the transit revolution that many have been calling for for decades. Still, I fear it may not be enough to save most of our existing networks. Regaining enough ridership to remain viable will require an increase in attention paid to rider psyche. Too often we forget that transportation choices are largely emotion-driven. As I suggested at the opening of this piece, saving transit may depend on an appeal to how riders feel about transit just as much as how well transit performs.
This appeal can take many forms. In the past, advertising campaigns have been run by agencies hoping to convey a statement of value or change behavior. Many of these campaigns have been met with success. Objectives have included lowering crime and confrontation in transit spaces, encouraging hyper awareness and safe behavior around tracks, and incentivizing ridership through messages of sustainability promotion. Trinity Metro in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolitan Area was one of the first agencies to run a COVID-specific campaign dedicated to “increasing ridership by building customer trust.” Ridership increased 10.6% during the first four months of the campaign back in the Spring of 2020.
Since then, many other agencies have launched their own COVID-responsive campaigns. Nearly all of them focus on system cleanliness, new safety measure protocols, and improved comparative trip times given the rise in traffic volumes. None tug on your heart strings, or put a flutter of excitement into your chest, or stir up a sense of pride. If the enduring low patronage levels of this second year of the pandemic have taught us anything, it is that providing riders with information that appeals to their sense of logic will not be enough to tip the ridership scales. As studies have found time and time again, our understanding of this virus and our calculation of risk is less rational and more emotional than we tend to account for.
The one emotion that larger providers have tried to engage with is anxiety. Anxiety is contributed to by a lack of sense of control; people believe themselves to be in greater control when they have more information. Interventions such as the provision of new apps that inform riders how crowded an on-coming vehicle is as well as announcements of infrastructure cleaning schedules and methods suggest that agencies have largely adopted this philosophy and are keeping their ridership informed to levels not previously reached. Though efforts such as these are steps in the right direction, they do not go far enough.
But which emotions should agencies be focusing on? With fear, a powerfully influential force itself, encouraging movement away from transit use, agencies no doubt need to target a big player in the motivation space. It is my recommendation that that ‘big player’ be pride. Psychologists have found that pride is a uniquely strong motivational force in situations where one is confronted with high initial barriers – for example financial or time costs or worry of the unknown. Related movements, sustainability movements in particular, have found that initiatives with a focus on instilling a sense of both personal and shared pride were most strongly associated with lasting behavior change.
Transit needs to (re)ignite that sense of pride that comes from knowing you made the responsible choice, not just for you but for your community, for your fellow Earth-dweller, for future generations. A campaign aimed at achieving this might take the high road and focus on the role that transit plays in improving upon the generally dismal state of environmental (in)justice, or highlight that the contribution you make through the farebox – and therein as a rider yourself – supports the tens of thousands of children across the nation who depend on public transport to get to and from school. Campaigns may also have to punch lower and highlight the shortcomings of the vehicular alternative. Yes, choosing private motor vehicles generally means you are choosing to negatively impact air quality, to contribute to noise pollution, to increase the pressure on cities to trade their open space for roadway space, and to decrease the amount of time you spend with members of different life-circumstances from your own. It also means subjecting yourself and others to the most dangerous travel mode possible. The situation facing most of the nation’s transit providers is too dire to be a good sport about it.
Don’t get me wrong. Demonstrating that transit is a safe choice with respect to COVID-19 contraction likelihood is important. Providing riders with reliable, accessible, real-time information is important. These steps that transit agencies have already made toward providing the best service possible are strong, necessary steps in the right direction. But we must convince the rider that transit remains the right choice if we are ever to see a safer, more just, more clean-air-filled tomorrow in which transit’s livelihood is no longer in question. Until that is accomplished, I fear that I will continue to require a particularly strong magnifying glass to find the pandemic’s mobility silver linings.