The unprecedented double punch of decreased capital funding and a drastic ridership drop due to COVID-19 put transit networks across the U.S. on the ropes. With city and state budgets radically reduced and questionable hope for federal or state stimulus funding, some are forecasting the end of the transit era.
But to paraphrase Mark Twain: Reports of transit’s demise are greatly exaggerated. After all, transit is more than a means of moving people from place to place. Transit networks drive city and state economies. And particularly now as transit begins to transition to electrification, these networks create investment opportunities; spur job creation; and enable resilient, sustainable communities.
Far from becoming a thing of the past, transit is on the cusp of reinvention. I believe the basic need for socialization is an incentive in advancing transit networks, especially in our country’s dense urban areas.
The pandemic has shifted our approach to mobility. Social distancing, for example, is causing cities to reprioritize public space for people, cycling, and multimodal travel. The pandemic has also highlighted long simmering issues in transit funding and systemic inequity.
This makes transit networks ripe for a transition to a better normal. Electrification can play a major role. Advancing electrification along with other measures that improve transit requires innovative, sustainable funding mechanisms, as well as tools to develop informed scenario planning and budget allocations that equitably address passenger needs. Together, these measures will safeguard passengers and workers while synthesizing positive temporary changes into permanency.
What does a transit reset look like? On the financial side, it means moving beyond the Federal Highway Trust fund — an inadequate and unsustainable funding mechanism — and reconceiving innovative funding mechanisms. For the sake of equity, it requires agencies make more socially-considered decisions. Electrification can advance these strategies.
Innovative funding for electrification could take the form of tax credits to private entities that purchase electrified buses for transit. This advances the transition while freeing agency dollars for other transit investments.
We can address equity through electrification, eliminating polluting buses, and reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions believed to contribute to higher rates of asthma in children, an important consideration in lower income areas that often house these vehicles and are disproportionately impacted by asthma.
Getting there from here
Long-term strategies and budgeting will be required to advance this better normal. Therefore, tools such as scenario planning — looking at potential occurrences and delivering insight related to different mobility conditions and budget allocations — are increasingly important. Many transit agencies are focused on weathering the short-term financial storm, leaving little resources for future operations. Scenario planning can highlight risks and tradeoffs and help to balance immediate needs with long-term goals. NJ TRANSIT is using AECOM’s MobiliticsTM scenario planning tool and near real-time anonymized cell phone data to understand behavioral changes, shifts in travel patterns, and technology advancements. Using scenario planning and data analysis informs current and future service enabling adjustments around technology and pandemic-related factors and allowing for informed budgetary decisions.
Technology will help
Rider confidence in transit safety is vital. AECOM provided cleaning and disinfection protocol guidance to SEPTA to help protect against COVID-19. While emphasizing mask-wearing and social distancing, transit agencies are also implementing technologies like automated passenger counting, touchless fare payment systems, and integrated intelligent solutions to safeguard riders and workers. AECOM’s Transportation Resilient Integrated Passenger Solutions (TRIPS) provides an integrated approach to support safety by conducting a technology gap analysis, identifying solutions, and designing a system architecture that encompasses the passenger journey.
As the pandemic continues, mobility issues will remain in flux and more changes will follow. By rethinking transit funding systems, proactively planning for a range of outcomes with scenario planning and integrating technology to support rider confidence and everyone’s safety, we will reinvent transit to deliver a better normal for everyone.
A transportation professional with more than 45 years of experience, Tom Prendergast has worked at and led public and private sector agencies and firms dedicated to public transit.