After a year of coronavirus lockdowns and a massive shift to remote work, public transit systems around the world are seeing plummeting ridership and revenue, leading to cuts and layoffs. The London Underground, one of the world’s busiest systems, has been operating at around 20 percent of its usual capacity.
Somini Sengupta, Geneva Abdul, Manuela Andreoni, and Veronica Penney argue in the New York Times that declining transit ridership spells disaster for our collective efforts to address climate change. “Public transit offers a relatively simple way for cities to lower their greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention a way to improve air quality, noise and congestion.” Now, “transportation experts are scrambling to figure out how to better adapt public transit to the needs of riders as cities begin to emerge from the pandemic” and counter the trend of private vehicle purchases.
Transit agencies face a monumental challenge. “If commuters shun public transit for cars as their cities recover from the pandemic, that has huge implications for air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Most importantly, if transit systems continue to lose passenger fare revenues, they will not be able to make the investments necessary to be efficient, safe and attractive to commuters.”
The challenge for cities, write the authors, is to maintain and improve public transit systems now so that riders will eventually return. “People will feel more comfortable traveling in a new modern public transit system,” said Mohamed Mezghani, head of the International Association of Public Transport. “It’s about perception in the end.”