When the pandemic hit the US in March 2020, public health officials told people to stay home. But many couldn’t. Essential workers—grocery store cashiers, health care workers, cooks, drivers, and chefs—continued to punch in every day. Others went out for groceries, or doctors’ appointments, or to take kids to school. So all over the US, including in Pittsburgh, Americans kept riding the bus.
Yes, public transit ridership dropped like a stone after many places instituted stay-at-home orders. Americans took 186 million transit rides in the last week of February 2020, according to data compiled by the American Public Transit Association; a month later, that number had fallen by 72 percent, to 52.4 million. At the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which operates in the Pittsburgh area, ridership fell 68 percent.
Who kept riding? In a country where race is tied to economic opportunity and geography, transit riders have long been disproportionately low-income and people of color. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but they were the riders who stuck around. An analysis from the APTA found that white men were more likely to have given up transit during the pandemic; people of color, people who spoke Spanish, and women did not.
“The pandemic made the invisible visible,” Stephanie Wiggins, the CEO of Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said in November. Her peers across the country realized: They needed to better serve the people who needed them.
By November 2020, the Pittsburgh transit agency had made dramatic shifts. Among more than 20 major changes to bus service, officials moved resources away from “commuter” routes—those serving people who worked traditional office jobs on traditional schedules, who now were mostly at home—and toward lower-income neighborhoods, those with larger shares of people of color and households without cars. They added more weekend and off-peak service, because many of the people still riding buses and light rail were either working outside conventional “peak hours” or were taking transit just to get around.
“Public transit is an equalizer, a way to provide access to marginalized communities,” says Adam Brandolph, a spokesperson for the Pittsburgh agency. “The pandemic changed the way we were perceived, but also, just as importantly, the way we perceived our riders.”
Researchers from the Urban Institute, a think tank, found similar attitudes at four other transit agencies where they interviewed leaders and staff. “They were really explicit that the Black Lives Matter moment and the vulnerability of the pandemic really influenced the way leadership thought about what role transit plays,” Jorge Morales-Burnett, a research assistant with the institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, says of his interviewees. Around the country, one word rings from community meetings, press releases, official speeches: equity.
Equity has, in theory, always been at the center of public transit. Agencies are legally obligated to provide equitable service for everyone in their community. Even before the pandemic, some agencies had begun equity-centered programs.
But US public transit has generally focused on commuters, especially those with traditional 9-to-5 schedules, who travel between city fringes and downtown business districts—riders who are less likely to be low-income and more likely to be white. That’s despite the fact that, even in the biggest cities, where transit use is more common, just half of pre-pandemic trips were to and from work. In smaller systems, the share is even less. The Port Authority of Allegheny County isn’t an exception. “Our system is very downtown centric, and it has historically relied very much on the commuter,” says Brandolph, the spokesperson. As a result, service within cities, serving people with less-regular work schedules or who took transit for other purposes, got short shrift.
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That age may be over, says Alex Karner, who studies transportation equity as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. “The pandemic really exposed the truth that there are people for whom public transit is a vitally important public service,” he says. He says agencies now realize they will no longer be able to rely on peak-period commuters. When Urban Institute researchers surveyed 73 US and Canadian agencies on what service might look like in a “post-pandemic” era, more than half said they thought “peak period” travel would decrease. Nearly 70 percent said white-collar workers would take fewer rides. So transit agencies must decide what the new normal will be—and who it will serve.
Agencies have coalesced around a set of pandemic-era strategies targeted at serving their most frequent riders. The changes have been enabled, in part, by a miraculous fact about transit right now: It is not strapped for cash. Even though ridership is still below pre-pandemic levels, federal infusions from the CARES Act, last spring’s American Rescue Plan Act, and the recent infrastructure bill have sent billions of dollars to agencies of all sizes. So some, like Allegheny County’s, say they’ll continue to retool routes to serve the bulk of their riders, especially brown and Black riders who have historically been underserved. Some, like San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency, have committed to increased frequency, especially outside of the typical weekday rush hours.
Others, like the Greater Richmond Transit Company in Virginia, have gone more radical: They’re no longer charging to ride the bus. While many agencies stopped collecting fares early in the pandemic to protect the health of transit operators, GRTC leaders say they’re sticking with the strategy and are prepared to keep rides free through 2025. Boston, Los Angeles, and Denver—some of the biggest systems in the country—are studying whether free rides work for them.
Sixty-four percent of Richmond’s riders are Black—in a region where just under a third of residents are Black—and another 10 percent are Hispanic or Asian. More than half of riders live in households that bring in less than $25,000 a year. So Richmond transit leaders see committing to free rides as a double-down on equity. “With Black Lives Matter, and what we learned about our riders being essential workers, we're now saying we need to do this work with integrity and with intention,” says Julie Timm, GRTC’s CEO. “We need to continue to reconnect communities that were disenfranchised for several generations.”
Faith Walker, executive director of a Richmond transit advocacy group called RVA Rapid Transit, says the free-fare experiment in the midst of the pandemic helped residents understand the role that transit plays in essential workers’ lives, and its power to correct social wrongs. “This is a way we can honor and restore the equity back to people who serve us so well,” she says. “This is the best way we can say thank you.”
The financial hit is less severe in Richmond than in other areas, because fares brought in less than 13 percent of the transit system’s budget. For now, much of that gap is being covered by new local taxes. Going forward, Timm hopes to tap the state for more funding and to appeal to local businesses and philanthropists for help in keeping transit free. The initiative, coupled with a system redesign that debuted in 2018, seems to be working: Ridership numbers are nearly back to pre-pandemic levels.
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Outside of that corner of Virginia, though, the math on free fares can get more complicated. LA Metro’s fare revenue in 2019 was also 13 percent of its operating budget, but that totaled roughly $250 million. Other big-city systems in Chicago, New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area rely more heavily on fares.
In Pittsburgh, transit advocates praise the agency’s quick moves—to a point. Laura Wiens, the executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, says she’d like to see the Port Authority take a closer look at its fare policies. Her group has long advocated for free or reduced fare rides for low-income people receiving other social benefits, like food stamps. “I think it’s really crazy that we have a system where fares are preventing cities from maximizing our existing investments in our transit system,” she says. “It prevents us from getting all the benefits: the health benefits, the racial equity benefits.” Brandolph, the Port Authority spokesperson, says the agency is looking into free rides but hasn’t figured out how to replace the revenue it would lose.
Despite transit agencies’ renewed focus on equity, and especially racial equity, transit advocates see plenty of work to be done. Riders in Pittsburgh still complain that buses don’t always show up on time; riders in Richmond wish bus stops were cleaner and felt like safer places to wait. A growing number of activists say transit systems are deeply flawed. Destiny Thomas is an urban planner who founded the Thrivance Group in 2020 as a values-driven planning firm. She says transit service is still too focused on connecting workers to businesses and places where they can spend money, like sports stadiums. What if transit were focused on linking people to other neighborhoods instead?
“When people ask me if change is happening, from an informed place I have to say no,” Thomas says of the past two years. But she says critical conversations are beginning, which makes her hopeful about the future of US transportation. “We’ve been galvanized,” she says. “Everyone is excited and leaning into the notion of a more equitable and beloved community.”
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