Public Transportation in a Post-Pandemic World

Like nearly everyone, you are likely counting the days until you won’t feel the need to carry around copious amounts of hand sanitizer or remember if you grabbed your mask off the counter. But, as we continue to move closer to a post-pandemic world, we’ll need to rethink how we operate on a daily basis, specifically when it comes to public transportation.

Many of us are getting used to a new work commute consisting of simply rolling out of bed and wandering into the living room. However, the commute for essential workers who rely on public transit has become more difficult and more dangerous. Public transportation has had to quickly pivot and implement measures to protect its riders and operators. For example, the Twin Cities cut light rail hours and Detroit requires bus riders to wear masks. In Chicago, Metra, the fourth busiest commuter rail system in the United States, slashed its weekly schedule by half while on the other hand, the Chicago Transit Authority decided to not alter their train schedule at all.

It’s a difficult line to walk — especially for an essential service whose success largely depends on ridership.

So while public transit normally tries to encourage ridership, now they must do the opposite. And in some cities like Madison, WI, they’ve gone so far as suspending fares altogether to help out riders, sustaining a financial blow in the process.

A Change in Plans

Before the pandemic, a packed bus or light rail likely signaled a successful transit system. But now with riders struggling to keep a six-foot distance, a half-empty bus is the ideal. In the long-term, keeping a safe distance between riders may prove challenging for major metros like Chicago or Detroit, who are already struggling to enforce masks and distancing on buses.

So what does the future of public transit look like?

“The transportation effects of COVID-19 are consequential and likely to last for years,” said Tom Lynch, Madison transportation director to the Wisconsin State Journal. “After having to quickly adapt to abrupt changes, we now look to recovery. We want to use this opportunity to build the transportation system we need in the future.” This includes exploring other infrastructure to support public transit such as redesigning streets or increasing walkability.

Many Midwest metros are taking this opportunity to reassess their transportation needs. And most restructuring will doubtlessly revolve around money. Currently, a third of the Twin Cities Metro Transit budget comes from fares. In Chicago, state law mandates that 50% of the regional transit agencies’ budgets need to come from fares. This certainly proves difficult when ridership is dramatically down, and the costs associated with payroll and the deep-cleaning of buses and trains is adding up.

The pandemic revealed how incredibly crucial public transportation is to keep society running. As an essential service, the future measure of success for public transportation may need to not solely rely on ridership. According to the New York Times, we might have to “[look] at transit more like essential police or fire infrastructure, and less like a business whose customers should keep it afloat.”

A “New Normal”

We know, you might be sick of hearing the buzzwords “a new normal”, but it does fully encapsulate the notion that we won’t be able to go back to how it was before COVID-19, at least not for awhile. For instance, many former public transit riders may feel skittish and opt to drive instead, increasing traffic. Or, other systems of transport like driverless cars or buses may be implemented more quickly. Chicago has even explored a more futuristic approach with an aerial gondola system to transport riders over the city.

The need for efficient and affordable public transportation is apparent. Even before the pandemic, projects throughout the Midwest were underway to expand and improve public transit systems, such as the Twin Cities’ Southwest Light Rail or Chicago’s Red Ahead program. While projects like these continue to move forward, the hope is that decision-makers will pause and reflect on how to make changes to support this essential service and how to improve the health and safety of its riders and workers.  

Frank Jermusek

Frank Jermusek, J.D.

President / Managing Director

Frank Jermusek is a Principal at SVN | Northco headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota. SVN has become one of the most recognized commercial real estate brands in the world with over 200 offices globally.