Mass transit 'vicious cycle'

While offices have largely reopened and travel has resumed, many commuters are only coming in a few days a week. That shift has left subways, buses and commuter trains operating at well below capacity—particularly on Mondays and Fridays…

The ridership drop also has fueled an increase in transit crime, which in turn has pushed away more riders.

“The more you lose a ridership base, the more difficult it becomes to maintain a level of service that people are used to,” said P.S. Sriraj, director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “It’s becoming a vicious cycle.”…

New York’s subway system has regained about two-thirds of its pre-pandemic ridership with about 91 million trips in November, according to the MTA. But that is about 50 million fewer rides than in November 2019. Officials worry usage has stalled out at that level.

In San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, recorded 3.7 million trips in November—a little more than one-third of the ridership before Covid.



How to sell mass transit: the author writes they should concentrate on the environmental benefits. However, fighting crime seems crucial to me.

Unless they can quickly find new sources of funding, big transit systems will be forced to drastically curtail service, which would drive away still more passengers and place those systems in an even deeper financial hole…

“Do you know how many times the median American rides transportation each year?” Brian Taylor, a professor of urban planning and policy at UCLA, asked me.“Zero.”…

The only realistic way for transit officials to garner public support for the funding they desperately need is to demonstrate an ability to replace car trips, not just serve economically disadvantaged people who lack other means to get around their city. Otherwise, they forfeit the pro-transit arguments that resonate most with the public: curtailing congestion, reducing auto emissions, and boosting economic growth.

And to replace cars, transit agencies must offer fast, frequent, and reliable trips. This should be the core mission of any functional public transportation system, but increasingly, transit leaders are being pushed to focus on distracting priorities like electrifying buses, eliminating fares, and fighting crime.



It’s a fool’s errand. There’s only a handful of metros in the U.S. that have sufficient residential density and a high enough concentration of jobs in the CBD/urban core to allow transit to be viable. And the shift to work-from-home among the office workers that filled those jobs has put enough of a dent in even those areas to start a downward spiral in transit.

The author is right that transit’s only option is to try to emphasize the benefits it provides to people who don’t ride transit - because it doesn’t offer enough benefits to the people who do ride it to get enough money into the system. The problem, though, is that those external benefits are declining rapidly. Improved fuel economy, emissions standards, and (ultimately) electrification of automobiles will all-but-eliminate the environmental benefits of transit. WFH reduces congestion far more than transit in most metros. And “economic growth” is too gauzy and impersonal a benefit to really motivate people to make sacrifices:

“Everybody’s got sympathy for the businesses that cater to office workers,” says Jacqueline Simon, the policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal union. “But it’s not the obligation of the federal workforce to make sure those businesses have customers.” Simon says that low unemployment and the fact that many private-sector salaries outpace the wages for analogous public-employee jobs means that the feds need to play nice on telework or risk a recruitment crisis.

Or, as one unhappy HUD employee more colorfully put it to me: “I was not hired to be an economic engine.”


In the fullness of time, I expect the “JCs” to require the peons to work in the office. The “JCs” I have seen in action seem to enjoy kicking the peons around, which is best done in person. I dubbed the VP Marketing at the pump seal company “Bobby bedcheck” for his habit of coming upstairs and walking the department a few minutes after 8 each morning, and a few minutes before 5 in the afternoon, to make sure everyone was at their desk working…except he would skip the 5pm rounds when he was out golfing.

There are other factors that could weigh in favor of mass transit vs private car: speed and cost. If you live in a city, the cost of parking can be exorbitant, especially if you need to pay for parking both at home and at work. A mass transit system that avoids traffic jams and stop lights has a big leg up in speed, unfortunately, subways and els cost a lot more than buses.

When I visited Seattle in the early 90s, the city had a couple interesting strategies to encourage mass transit use: city buses were free, downtown, and there was a program that offered parking at the old World’s Fair grounds, and a ride on the monorail to downtown. There was a plan to extend the monorail to the sports stadiums, but it died, due to cost.

Thirty years ago, I took a Grey Line shuttle bus from Sea-Tac to downtown. Now, they have a light rail system, that runs underground in the city. Bet that cost a bundle. And the station is at Westlake. The Grey Line shuttle stopped at several of the big buck hotels downtown. The hotel I stayed in was next door to one of the big buck places, so I had big buck hotel convenience, with cheap Steve rates. I have read that several people in Vegas have pointed out the obvious thing to do with that city’s monorail is extend it to the airport. Seems the cab companies don’t agree, so nothing happens.



Yes, but that’s the problem. Most people don’t live in a city like that. Mass transit makes a ton of sense in the NYC metro, and perhaps a handful of other very dense urban areas. But most cities aren’t especially dense, nor do they have a very large proportion of jobs in central business districts that are easily served by fixed-rail transit. So transit doesn’t offer much of a value proposition to most people in most cities.

At least, not to the riders - and not at cost. Transit is usually paid for not by the users, but the broader community. And it’s sold as a benefit to people other than the riders. For good reason, since most people don’t seen transit as being desirable as something for them to use personally, but as a way to make their car rides easier. This Onion article is frequently tossed around transit circles for gallows humor: