A Plunge in Mass Transit Ridership Deals a Huge Blow to Climate Change Mitigation

Transit agencies ask Congress for relief as commuters return to their cars and fare revenues tank. Meanwhile, driving direction requests—and carbon emissions—soar.

People wearing masks are seen crowded together on a subway platform at the Fulton Street Subway Station on July 8, 2020 in New York City. Credit: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Before the pandemic, Hailey Vogel lived an itinerant life enabled by the Big Apple’s robust transit system.

A research manager at New York University, Vogel—like many New Yorkers—used mass transit daily to get to and from work, to visit friends and to run errands of all sorts before stay-at-home orders and a lingering fear of catching Covid-19 in enclosed spaces brought the city to a virtual standstill.

But even though New York City’s infection rates have waned and the city slowly began to reopen its economy in June, the 26-year-old Brooklynite has yet to step foot on a public bus or take a subway line since March.

“I’m not there yet,” Vogel said. “I’m not confident that things are clean enough to make regular train riding part of my routine.”

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Vogel’s sentiment appears to be playing out across the country as transit agencies from coast to coast report lost revenues ranging from hundreds of millions of dollars to several billion. And in some of the nation’s biggest cities, budget deficits are hitting agencies so hard that they’re considering permanent cuts to subway and bus lines.

In California, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is projecting an estimated $568 million revenue loss over the next four years. The agency has already reduced service by 30 percent and said it may be forced to permanently cut 40 bus lines without additional federal aid. And New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is facing such an alarming budget deficit—a $10.3 billion loss over the next two years—that one analysis estimates the authority would have to cut half of the city’s bus and subway lines to make up the difference.

In fact, many of the nation’s transportation agencies, including all 85 transit operators in California, are now calling on Congress to inject fresh aid into local and state public transportation systems or risk service reductions in the coming years—a move that experts say would have enormous consequences for efforts to curb climate change as demand for transportation returns to pre-pandemic levels.

Congress provided some relief when it issued $25 billion in the CARES Act for transit agencies back in March. But transportation advocates say that funding is now clearly inadequate to address the scale of the economic crisis the industry faces. The financial impact Covid-19 has wreaked on all U.S. transit agencies is estimated to be more than $40 billion through April 2021, according to a recent analysis by TransitCenter, a national public transportation advocacy group.

Officials from California to Illinois to New York have all said that cutting service would be a last resort. Still, some agencies, including New York’s MTA—which operates the nation’s largest public transit system—have said all options are on the table as they face an unprecedented hit to revenues.

“To be clear, this is a four-alarm fire,” said MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye at an agency board meeting back in June. “We are facing the most acute financial crisis in the history of the MTA.”

Less Mass Transit a ‘Big Concern’ for the Climate

For years, environmentalists and other mass transit advocates have pointed to public transportation as a way to reduce pollution and help curb climate change. But as cities across the country come out of lockdown, and people begin moving around again, commuters by the thousands appear to be choosing driving over public transportation.

One recently updated study found that traffic, and carbon emissions, quickly rebounded across the world in early June as lockdowns began lifting. And in the United States, phone and other device data suggest that while all of the nation’s traffic plunged during the height of the pandemic in April and May, only public transit use remains below pre-pandemic levels as states reopen.

Requests for driving directions surged more than 50 percent above pre-pandemic levels in early July after hitting a low in April of roughly 60 percent below them, the data from Apple Maps shows. Conversely, requests for public transit directions remain about 50 percent below pre-pandemic levels in July after plunging as low as 80 percent in April.

If that trend continues, it means even more traffic congestion—and carbon emissions—than before the pandemic, said Elizabeth Irvin, a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

As the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., the transportation sector is responsible for nearly a third of the nation’s total emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But when compared to cars and trucks that burn gasoline for fuel, mass transit’s carbon emissions are far lower. Trains and buses move more people with relatively less power and in some cases can operate on the electrical grid rather than burning gasoline.

“In much of the country, transportation is already the largest source of climate emissions,” Irvin said. “(Mass) transit is a big part of mitigating that.”

recent analysis that Irvin helped put together found that buses produce about one-quarter fewer carbon emissions than private vehicles per trip-mile, and rail produces about 80 percent fewer emissions.

That’s why reducing public transportation in any way will inevitably lead to more carbon emissions as long as people have a need to travel, Irvin said. “In the long term, when we finally have a vaccine and we return to some form of normal, it’s a really big concern if everyone is afraid to ride transit and we see a permanent decline in transit ridership,” she said.

Transit Agencies Look to Congress

As transit agencies struggle to maintain current operations, capital projects meant to expand transit or make public transportation systems more green are also at risk of being cut.

In its June announcement calling for an immediate infusion of an additional $4 billion in federal aid, New York City’s MTA said it was also suspending indefinitely the $54.8 billion in capital projects that its board had approved earlier in the year. Those projects included plans to modernize transit infrastructure and facilities to make them more energy efficient and reduce emissions.

And with some agencies reporting that they have already burned through most of the funding received from the CARES Act, transit officials are again looking to Congress to provide additional support for both operational expenses and capital projects.

The nation is at a critical juncture in which it may have to decide how robust its transit systems are over the next several decades, said Laura Calderon, the executive director for the Illinois Public Transportation Association.

As in other states, Illinois’ transit agencies saw a dramatic drop in ridership and revenue this year. The Chicago Transit Authority has lost over $1 million per day of farebox revenues alone during the pandemic, the agency said.

But Illinois has been insulated from hits to revenue for its transportation capital projects, Calderon said, because state lawmakers passed a major infrastructure bill late last year. That legislation increased the state’s gas tax, dedicating $45 billion over six years to capital projects, including expanding the state’s transportation systems and making them more environmentally friendly.

If state lawmakers hadn’t passed that legislation, Calderon said, Illinois transit agencies would be having much harsher conversations regarding their budgets right now.

At the federal level, House Democrats have been responsive to the industry’s pleas. In May, the House passed the HEROES Act, which included funding for transit agencies, such as the additional $4 billion in aid requested by MTA. And in June, House Democrats also passed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill, known as the Moving Forward Act, that earmarked $500 billion for transportation needs, including funding for green infrastructure projects, such as helping transit agencies transition to fully-electric vehicles.

But both bills face a significant uphill battle in the Republican-led Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been reluctant to support any federal aid proposed by Democrats.

Calderon said she doesn’t expect the Senate to pass either of the bills, especially in an election year. Still, passing a federal infrastructure plan “would really be the saving grace that is needed” to support struggling transit agencies and repair the country’s crumbling public transportation infrastructure, she said.

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