Car and freight travel have reached pre-pandemic levels, but mass transit and passenger rail are not expected to fully recover. Many employers allow remote work, and for some the model of commuting to the office daily may be over. It’s high time to rethink how federal and state transportation dollars are spent.
Despite people’s preferences for personal transportation, Congress has allocated $69 billion in three separate stimulus funding acts to public transit systems since the pandemic began; an additional $109 billion in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act; and $16 billion in spending for fiscal year 2022.
That’s a total of $194 billion for public transit, or more than $580 for every person in America. Yet even before the 2019 pandemic, only 5% of Americans regularly used public transportation, according to the Census Bureau, and far fewer take public transportation now. That means the federal government spends more than $11,000 for every American who regularly uses public transportation. In its latest budget request for fiscal year 2023, the Administration requested an additional $23 billion for public transit.
This is partly due to the power of the AFL-CIO Transportation Workers Union, which represents 150,000 transportation workers. According to OpenSecrets.org, the union paid $1.8 million to political candidates in the 2020 election cycle, 89% of which went to Democrats.
Americans’ preferred modes of transportation were shifting away from mass transit before the pandemic, and those shifts have accelerated during the pandemic and after. The highest ridership level for the Washington Metro was in 2011, and it has been declining since then – steadily until 2019, and a steep decline since then.
Transit systems rely on millions of riders per day (New York) or hundreds of thousands of riders per day (Washington, DC) to avoid wasting large sums of money. These systems are already dependent on federal and state subsidies, and unless they return to heavy ridership, subsidies will increase or transit systems will go out of business.
Data for Washington, DC shows the average number of daily subway rides in 2022 was 125,000, down not only from pre-pandemic 2019 levels of 626,000, but also below pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 .
In New York, weekday subway ridership in the week of March 21 was around 3.2 million, or 56% of pre-pandemic levels. Interestingly, in a trend seen elsewhere, weekend ridership was around 1.75 million, or 64% of pre-pandemic levels, showing that a higher proportion people returned to the metro for leisure than for work. Since fewer people were using the subway on weekends before the pandemic, weekend ridership is still much lower than weekday ridership.
Other major cities, such as Chicago and Los Angeles, are seeing similar trends.
In order to pass the final round of fiscal year 2022 spending, Congress had to suspend the Rostenkowski test, which states that if there are insufficient funds in the Highway Trust Fund, amounts spent on transportation in common must be reduced.
Americans prefer the flexibility and safety of cars over group travel, where they risk catching Covid. TomTom, which provides traffic information and navigation systems, estimates that traffic is higher at midday than before the pandemic, and slightly lower at peak times.
One of the reasons for subsidizing public transit, even if it is running at a loss, is that low-income and “essential” workers use it. However, the development of digital platforms has enabled new forms of shared transportation such as carpooling and vanpools to operate at lower cost than buses and subways.
These new forms of transportation are much more convenient than traditional public transit and would be preferred by low-income and “essential” workers, but are not considered public transportation for the purposes of Department of Transportation funding.
For example, if a nurse is off duty at midnight, she may prefer to take an Uber home rather than wait for a bus or subway, especially since crime has increased in many cities.
New apps can provide faster, cheaper public transport. Via, for example, has implemented app-based “microtransit” systems in cities like Arlington, Texas; Jersey City, New Jersey; Sacramento, California; and Gainesville, Georgia.
Via’s microtransit services take the form of shared vehicles that pick up individuals (more than one person per car) a few blocks from their starting point and drop them off a few blocks from where they want to go. to surrender. This “on-demand” shared ride is similar to the technology used by ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft, which offer individual rides. In Gainesville, Georgia, Via rides replaced existing bus service and offered rides at a 59% lower cost per ride.
America naturally values its essential workers. That’s why Congress is doing them a disservice by funding buses and subways that arrive less and less often rather than app-based services. The $11,000 spent per regular transit rider could buy quite a few Uber rides to benefit travelers and the American public who subsidize transit.
If cities wanted to subsidize low-income people, they could use food stamps as a model. Some people receive debit cards for groceries through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Likewise, they could receive Supplemental Travel Assistance Program (STAP) cards to access new app-based transportation technologies, which could provide municipalities with substantial savings compared to providing large empty buses. on fixed routes.
Technology, travel and personal preferences are changing. But Congress bypasses the Americans by approaching transport in the same way as in the 19and and 20and centuries. Federal and state governments should work to provide Americans with transportation that meets their personal needs, not the needs of those who want to spend ever more money on mass transit systems than fewer people use.