The COVID-19 pandemic is having huge impacts on transportation. Telecommuting trends may persist. Traffic is down, bus and train schedules have been slashed, and air travel is at levels last seen in the 1950s. COVID-19 is affecting transportation today, and the pandemic will likely have huge impacts on how we get around in the future. This blog series explores intersections between the COVID-19 pandemic and the “3 Revolutions” in transportation: shared mobility, vehicle electrification, and vehicle automation. The goal of this blog series is to identify key strategies that can help transportation leaders in pursuing climate and equity objectives – after the worst of the pandemic subsides. If we can respond to the enormous challenge that this virus poses, it will also enable us to increase the resilience of our transportation systems, and respond to similar crises that may emerge in years to come.
When the virus wanes, what can encourage people to return to shared travel—and ensure it is safe to do so? Shared travel makes transportation more affordable, equitable, sustainable, and logistically feasible. But fears of sharing may linger. Shared modes will need to come back safer, better, and more reliable than they were prior to the pandemic, or people will not share.
During the pandemic, public transit has been one of the hardest-hit modes of transportation. Data from mobile apps indicates that transit ridership has plunged by 50% or more in major cities around the world and transit demand in the United States has dropped by nearly 80% nationwide. Google reported that in early April, foot traffic at transit stations was down by more than 50%. These numbers are especially stark when compared to other transportation modes. Apple, for instance, has recorded a 76% drop in routing queries for transit during the pandemic but only a 45% drop in queries for driving. Similar patterns are being reported overseas. Researchers at ETH Zurich showed a much larger decline in the use of public transit than other travel modes.
While this transit ridership freefall is unprecedented, transit was already in big trouble before COVID-19. Most U.S. transit operators saw declining ridership and fare revenues prior to the pandemic. This is due to many factors– including increased competition from ridehailing and reductions in barriers to auto ownership. But the pandemic may take the difficult situation for transit operators from bad to worse. Fare revenues only cover a small portion of many agency’s budgets. Local funds tied to tax revenues make up the large part of many of our nation’s transit budgets. The looming pandemic era recession could serve another hit to those transit agencies reliant on sales taxes. Federal funding will play a key role in filling growing budget gaps. The CARES Act includes $26 billion to support transit, but it may not be enough for many struggling agencies.
Transit operators will need to leverage additional resources to tackle both COVID-19 issues and broader ridership decline issues head on. Operators are already working with health authorities to keep transit workers and riders safe during the pandemic. Operators are taking a number of different types of actions including by erecting Plexiglas barriers to protect drivers and ticket sellers, frequently cleaning stations and vehicles, eliminating fare payment, and implementing other policies and procedures designed to minimize potential contamination. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is a priority for drivers and riders in paratransit shuttle services, where close interactions are often necessary in order to secure passengers’ wheelchairs into vehicles.
These practices will need to start now and continue as the economy reopens. New informational campaigns will also be critical in raising public awareness of safety practices, ensuring that people feel safe and comfortable enough to return to transit. And as though implementing these safety protective practices is not enough work, agencies will also need to redouble their efforts to compete for riders. The coming era for transit will require innovation. Flexible service options and new financing tools will enable operators to strategically fill gaps and bring back riders.
The two main ridehailing service providers, Uber and Lyft, have taken a variety of steps to respond to COVID-19. Remarkably, both companies are discouraging use of their services, displaying messages that remind consumers to travel only when necessary. Both companies are also providing some drivers with cleaning and sanitization materials (though perhaps without fully meeting demand).
Both companies have paused shared ride features (i.e., UberPool and Lyft Share) in their respective apps. The pandemic could certainly have sustained impacts on the popularity of shared ridehailing, despite the previous period of growth for shared ridehailing. Pricing structures and marketing will affect the rate at which consumers return to each, and there may be a role for policy. Collaborations between ridehailing companies and public health officials to restrict access to shared vehicles for those with contagious diseases could also bolster consumer confidence in ridehailing safety. Ridehailing data and other travel data can also help experts track how diseases spread (or predict how they could spread).
Ridehailing services also filled various gaps in the transportation network during the crisis. Ridehailing can be an alternative option for those dependent on transit, when transit schedules have been cut. Both Uber and Lyft are partnering with healthcare organizations and hospitals to offer nonemergency medical transportation for those without ready access to a car or other convenient travel options. The nation’s largest microtranst operator, Via, developed a semi-private version of its app dedicated to helping essential employees get to work. This type of gap service could be a good addition to a city or region’s emergency preparedness planning efforts.
Bike gears and scooter wheels kept turning during the early stages of the pandemic. Use of bike and e-scooter sharing services (i.e., micromobility) in places like New York and San Francisco spiked in March as people sought to avoid traveling in confined spaces. As concern over COVID-19 grew, cities and companies disagreed on the appropriate role for micromobility. The City of Sacramento asked Jump (Uber’s scooter division) to remove its shared bikes and scooters from city streets. Lime and Bird, two of the largest micromobility companies in the world, paused operations in markets across the world. Yet Wuhan, China simultaneously relied on scooter-based delivery to supply residents on lockdown with groceries and other goods. The e-scooter company Spin argued that its service enabled essential workers to travel safely.
The story of micromobility during the COVID-19 pandemic yields two lessons. First, micromobility—like ridehailing—is an important complement to public transit. Shared bikes and scooters may not be able to get people as far as commuter trains and buses, but they can help keep people and goods moving around dense urban areas when other travel modes fail. Second, cities need to work with health authorities and researchers to understand the true health risks that shared bikes and e-scooters pose—and then coordinate with each other on an appropriate response. If the risk is low, cities could promote bike and e-scooter sharing as good alternatives to public transit or driving during health emergencies. Many cities also already subsidize use of shared bikes and e-scooters for historically underserved populations. For these communities especially, but also for all communities, additional subsidies that support frequently cleaning micromobility units will ensure that riders are safe.
A safe return to shared travel is necessary— and it will be a difficult task. The challenges in our immediate path are significant, but the first step is envisioning good outcomes for a sustainable transportation future. Without a commitment to shared mobility—especially mass transit and pooled rides—we will see a resurgence of single-occupant vehicles and an undermining of progress towards climate and equity objectives.