On March 18, 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic began to rage in New York, and two days after the city shuttered its schools and four days before the city forbade white-collar workers from coming to their offices, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the regional subway, bus, and commuter-rail system, warned investors in its nearly $44 billion in municipal debt: “People may permanently alter their commutation behavior after this crisis.”
The statement proved prophetic. Three years later, even as American life has mostly returned to normal, with planes and restaurants full, the nation’s mass-transit systems still struggle with double-digit ridership declines. American public transit faces its biggest crisis since city dwellers deserted cramped apartments and sweaty subways for suburban homes and the private car, beginning a century ago. The transit crisis is also an urban crisis. Successful cities thrive on density; transit enables it. Unless Congress, governors, and mayors figure out how to get more people back on trains and buses regularly, the already brittle urban success story of the twenty-first century will crack.
Americans ditched mass transit after World War I. Between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s, Columbia University’s Zachary Schrag observes, “the transit industry spiraled downward.” Automakers began selling millions of vehicles to middle-class customers, who used them to commute to burgeoning suburbs; states, cities, and suburbs, in turn, remade their streets for the auto, ripping up streetcar tracks and ditching subway expansions in favor of early highways. In the early 1920s, New York opened its Bronx River Parkway to bring New Yorkers north to suburban Westchester County. In 1929, a good-government group praised the Westchester prototype: “It is desirable to promote the planning of more highways.”
Transit never fully recovered. In 1926, American transportation systems carried 17.2 billion passengers, Schrag estimates; by 1933, the figure was just 11.3 billion. After World War II, it fell below 10 billion, as Washington subsidized both home purchases and new interstate highways. Subway and streetcar operators, initially owned by private-sector firms, struggled as riders vanished. Operators let service deteriorate, losing even more riders. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, governments spent little on transportation assets, preferring road construction.
Starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, government leaders realized that they couldn’t abandon transit altogether. Several factors—popular opposition to new urban highways, the 1973 Arab oil embargo and ensuing gas crisis, and the budding antipollution movement—led them to reconsider. New York State, under Governor Nelson Rockefeller, created the MTA in 1968. The idea, though never realized, was for this state-controlled authority to build several new transit lines, including a full Second Avenue Subway and a subway across Manhattan’s 48th Street. Congress provided states with at least modest financing, mostly directed toward building new transit systems, not maintaining existing rail lines. San Francisco opened its Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) network in 1972; Washington, D.C., launched its Metro rail in 1976. On older systems, though, customers shunned increasingly unreliable service on dilapidated trains and broken-down tracks, and ridership kept falling.
In the early 1980s, American cities turned this trend around by reviving existing transit systems. Richard Ravitch, the real-estate developer turned MTA chairman, persuaded Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature to fund a full-scale rebuilding of the MTA’s physical assets, including new, graffiti-free train cars and refurbished tracks and stations. A decade later, starting in 1990, transit police chief William Bratton ensured that New York’s subways were not just dependable but safe: the preventive policing that he pioneered reduced murders in the transit system from 26 in 1990 to single digits within three years. By 1997, just one or two murders were occurring in the subways yearly.
Other cities followed New York’s path. In the 1980s, Boston’s MBTA extended the Red Line to serve more outlying commuting areas in Cambridge; Philadelphia’s SEPTA joined its two main central railroad lines via a new central-city tunnel, forging one commuter-rail network; Chicago’s CTA extended a rail line through northwest commuting neighborhoods to O’Hare airport. Mostly, though, just as in New York, these cities’ older transit systems benefited from new trains and track repairs that made service more reliable and frequent.
Increased public safety and public prosperity got more people using transit. As broader crime measures fell nationwide, starting in the early 1990s, people felt more comfortable crowding into trains and buses with strangers. A booming economy and mid-1990s welfare reform also pulled and pushed low-income people without cars into the workforce. By the turn of the millennium, even car-centric cities such as L.A., Houston, and Detroit were embracing rail transit, with L.A. opening its subway in the early 1990s, Houston its light-rail system in 2004, and Detroit its downtown streetcar line in 2017. Cities also turned attention to the most neglected form of mass transportation—buses—with cities from San Jose to Houston better serving working-class commuters and even attracting new riders onto more frequent service.
These investments in infrastructure and safety paid dividends. The greatest gains came in dense New York. By 1994, Gotham subway use finally began to recover from decades of decline, consistently exceeding 1 billion trips a year. By 2015, ridership was closer to 1.8 billion trips a year—nearly double the generational low. The rebuilt subways, along with similarly renewed commuter-rail and bus systems, enabled the city’s growth without choking New Yorkers with traffic. By 2015, 3.9 million people came to Manhattan daily to work, see a doctor, see a play, or shop—a record. Only 910,000 of them came via private motor vehicle, lower than the 1.2 million arriving that way daily in the late 1970s. Almost all the rest took mass transit—53 percent more than the number from four decades earlier.
Nationwide, too, improved transit attracted riders in safer cities with more jobs. After hitting a low in 1993, falling below 7.5 billion annual trips, national transit ridership started a steady upswing, peaking at about 10.5 billion in 2015. True, America remains a car country. Even at the 2015 national peak of transit usage, fewer than 7.8 million workers regularly used public transportation to get to work, census data show—just 5.3 percent of commuters, the large plurality of them in or near New York.
Still, the transit success of recent years was real, as was its positive impact on cities. As transit use increased, so did urban populations. By 2015, New York boasted a record population, with between 8.5 and 8.8 million residents, exceeding the 1980 number by more than 21 percent. San Francisco’s 850,000 residents exceeded its 1980 postwar nadir by more than 25 percent; in Washington, D.C., the similar-size population exceeded that city’s 2000 modern low point by 14 percent. Developers advertised new city condos as being on a train route. Car-centric cities used transit as a tool to build up dense downtowns. “I live right across the street from a MARTA station,” says Bakari Height, cofounder of the MARTA Army all-volunteer transit-advocacy group in Atlanta. “I bought that condo back in 2015, after college,” for its easy access, he says. Even struggling cities, such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit, arrested steep population declines, largely by attracting affluent newcomers to modestly reviving downtowns. People walking or biking to work enjoyed the density that transit enabled; transit-rich cities aren’t covered in barren parking lots.
Between 2015 and 2018, though, transit use nationwide stagnated, as riders flocked to below-cost for-hire car rides, heavily subsidized by loss-making Big Tech firms Uber and Lyft. As transportation scientist Bruce Schaller wrote in 2018, even a small migration from transit to single-occupancy cars can be “unsustainable for big cities,” which “thrive because of their dense concentrations of business, leisure and creative activity. Growing auto use works against the key ingredient of density.” In 2019, with cities more assertively governing for-hire cars, and with Uber and Lyft investors tired of subsidizing losses, transit use inched up again.
Covid-19 shutdowns obliterated ridership overnight. At the end of January 2020, American transit systems carried nearly 200 million passengers weekly. By the first week in April, with office work and leisure activity mostly shut down, transit carried barely 39 million people—19 percent of normal. By contrast, the number of miles people traveled in motor vehicles never fell below 64.3 percent of normal. With the virus rampant, most Americans needed no encouragement to stay off public transport. Yet 39 million transit trips aren’t nothing. Parsing who, where, and how people were taking transit in 2020 reveals much about who needs America’s public transportation most—and whom transit must lure back.
Ridership didn’t fall evenly. The differences were starkest in New York. During early April 2020, subway ridership cratered to 7 percent of normal. Commuter-rail riders—on the MTA’s Metro-North system to Westchester and Connecticut and on its Long Island Rail Road system to the eastern suburbs—were nearly nonexistent; at one point, Metro-North patronage was just 2 percent of normal. Many of New York’s middle-class and affluent subway and commuter-rail riders could work from home, and did.
By contrast, the MTA’s bus use never fell below 16 percent of normal. During the darkest days of late March and early April 2020, the MTA’s buses transported more than 400,000 people daily to and from work at hospitals, grocery stores, nursing homes, pharmacies, and security-guard jobs. For the first time, bus use exceeded subway ridership. Louis Ortiz, a Bronx native and a bus operator for nine years, returned to his Manhattan route on April 17, 2020, after Covid hospitalized him for a week. “It was kind of surreal,” he remembers. “There was no one out there. I’m driving down the West Side Highway, you could bowl a ball down there.” Manhattan wasn’t entirely empty: his customers, “primarily hospital workers . . . would thank me for getting them to work.”
Similar patterns appeared nationally. Transit systems that served middle-class or affluent commuters were deserted; those serving more lower-income workers—especially bus routes—retained higher numbers of users. San Francisco’s Muni Railway, which runs streetcars and light rail as well as buses in the city, fell to just 18 percent of normal ridership in early April 2020, according to American Public Transportation Association (APTA) data. BART, meantime, saw use fall 93 percent. Yet not far away, AC Transit, the transit authority that serves Alameda, home to Oakland, never saw use fall below 42 percent of normal. Oakland bus-takers had to get to their in-person service jobs; San Francisco tech workers could work from home.
Counterintuitively, transit use remained highest where car culture was strongest. Few people think of the Santa Clara Valley, home to San Jose and Silicon Valley, as transit-dependent. In 2019, fewer than 48,000 of its nearly 1 million commuters took public transportation to work. Yet during that first week of April 2020, the county’s transit ridership, mostly on buses, never fell below 29 percent. In Texas, an entire state built around cars, fewer than 2.8 percent of commuters in Harris County, home to Houston, commuted via public transit in the year before Covid-19. In April 2020, however, Houston retained 42 percent of its transit riders. Detroit practically invented the car—but due to the city’s poverty, even pre-Covid, 6.8 percent of commuters took transit to work, above the national average. Detroit maintained 21.1 percent of its bus users during the worst of the pandemic.
Three years later, this disparity largely persists. Nationwide, transit use has recovered to about three-quarters of pre-Covid normal, according to APTA data. Car-centric Houston and Santa Clara have met this average. In Cincinnati, where service workers depend on the bus, ridership actually exceeds pre-Covid levels, with some routes nearly doubling their pre-Covid patronage. In response, Cincinnati has launched 24-hour service and increased bus frequency. But in New York, the MTA is still short about one-third of its riders. Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington—all are missing more than 40 percent of pre-pandemic transit users, with bus use recovering faster than subway or commuter-rail ridership.
One reason for the lack of transit recovery is obvious. As hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and other places that hire lower-income employees have reopened from Covid restrictions, bus riders have returned to normal routines. But middle-class and affluent office workers, when not staying away from the office entirely, are largely commuting two or three days weekly. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of those working remotely most of the time tripled, according to the census, from 9 million people to 27.6 million people. (Data for 2022 aren’t yet available.) On New York’s Metro-North commuter system, for example, on the first Wednesday and Thursday of March 2023, ridership was 64 percent of the pre-Covid normal; on Friday, the figure dropped to 55 percent. On weekends, ridership often approaches pre-Covid levels, as people again take leisure trips. In San Francisco, BART is one of the nation’s worst performers, with barely one-third of pre-Covid ridership on weekdays; but even on BART, weekend use is closer to 60 percent of normal.
“Work from home [is] obviously a large factor,” says Will Tung, a Philadelphia firefighter who volunteers at a local urban-planning advocacy group, 5th Square. The regional rail system, he says, has “not rebounded”—with 49 percent of users back as of January 2023, compared with 57 percent on buses, subways, and trolleys. Across the country, in Santa Clara, a big reason that bus ridership hasn’t bounced back fully is “still some people working from home,” says Monica Mallon, a communications professional and transit advocate. It’s not necessarily fewer individual people taking transit but rather, she says, “people taking transit less often, maybe someone working at home, but still taking transit a few times a week.”
Worsening public safety is also keeping people away. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of homicides in America soared by almost a third, the highest one-year increase in history. Major cities, including New York, Chicago, and Washington, suffered hundreds of additional murders. Safety deteriorated even more dramatically, percentage-wise, on transit. Between 2008 and 2019, the average number of annual homicides in American transit systems was 14; it never exceeded 22 in any one year. In 2020, though, the number of transit murders reached 31, more than twice the average over the previous decade; in 2021, it stayed elevated, at 24. Violent felonies in transit were 45 percent above the pre-Covid average. New York, with one or two transit murders a year against a ridership of nearly 2 billion, had previously been a national emblem of safe, reliable, urban transit. But with 25 transit killings between March 2020 and January 2023, it became a national symbol of transit danger.
Transit advocates often (correctly) point out that the rise in transportation crime isn’t unique; fatal carjackings, too, have risen, but people haven’t stopped driving cars. This ignores the fact that in an environment of growing anxiety, people are reluctant to enclose themselves in railcars filled with strangers, including some more likely than the general public to be drug-addicted or suffering from untreated psychosis, or both.
And disorder has intensified. From San Francisco to Philadelphia, transit riders must contend with open-air drug use and discarded, often dangerous, drug paraphernalia. They also must tolerate ubiquitous smoking on platforms and trains. On public safety, says Tung, “SEPTA is symptomatic of the larger problems we have in Philadelphia.” Along with the “massive opioid crisis,” he notes, “it’s gotten to the point where almost every time you go down there, there’s someone smoking.” In February 2023, a new mother who describes herself as a “socialist” tweeted that “I would like to be able to ride the [Philadelphia] subway with my four-month-old baby and not be in a car with people smoking.” She received a torrent of abuse, including from one respondent castigating her for implicitly “asking for . . . more policing on public transit” and told her to, “uhh, just use a private car if you don’t want to deal with the public part of public transportation.” With advocates like this, public transit doesn’t need enemies. “Making sure that we’re improving that rider experience from a safety standpoint, a cleanliness standpoint,” is key, Bob Powers, BART’s general manager, told a TransitCenter research-group webinar in March 2023. But up against San Francisco’s broad anti-policing sentiment, BART must use tactics such as encouraging passengers to intervene when they witness harassment—a campaign that may actually deter lapsed riders.
A long-term decline in public transit will be disastrous for cities. “The most important [issue] for downtowns [is] not remote work, but the severely weakened positions of our mass transit systems,” says David Milder, president of DANTH, a downtown revitalization specialist. As property-services firm JLL reported in early 2023, American workers are far behind their European and Asian counterparts in returning to offices. In Asia, offices boast occupancy between 80 percent and 110 percent of pre-pandemic normal; in Europe, occupancy is between 70 percent and 90 percent. In New York, occupancy rarely exceeds 50 percent; in San Francisco and Philadelphia, it’s closer to 40 percent. Ensuring the safety and dependability of American transit will be key to closing this gap.
Unfortunately, the transit situation in American cities could soon get worse. During the pandemic, Congress approved three federal rescue packages for the nation’s transit systems, totaling nearly $70 billion. These cash injections have allowed transportation agencies to run full service, or close to it, avoiding service reductions. The rescue funds end in 2024, leaving agencies—many not well-managed pre-pandemic—with yawning deficits. In 2019, agencies covered about one-third of operational costs from passenger fares, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Without a quick surge in riders, they’ll soon be short, on average, at least 8 percent of their pre-Covid funding. (The rest of their operating funding mostly comes from state and local governments.) “So many of them are now getting by on [federal money] that soon will be used up, and have no viable plans to correct their financing,” says Milder. Larger systems like New York’s will be missing up to 20 percent of funding.
Transit agencies are reluctant to hike fares, with so many passengers, right now, being disproportionately poorer. As Thea Selby, a longtime transit advocate in San Francisco, observes, with the “minuscule amount of money” coming in from fares, the fare hikes necessary to raise significant revenue would be prohibitive to encouraging higher ridership. “That is not the right way to go.”
Absent an external force, then, by mid-2024, agencies will begin slashing service, unleashing the same vicious circle that occurred during the 1920s.
What can the governors and mayors who ultimately oversee transit systems do, besides the obvious—crack down on crime and antisocial behavior to restore an environment of order? And what should Congress do?
Andy Byford, the U.K.-born transit professional who ran New York’s subways and buses between 2018 and 2020, has a straightforward prescription: “a clean, safe, secure, and customer-focused environment, if you are to attract people back and retain them, and attract new ridership.” Many advocates soundly suggest that transit systems should first protect and enhance what’s already working: bus service for lower-income workers. The answer isn’t free buses—a trendy progressive cause—but more reliable, more frequent, and faster service. In polling riders, notes Philadelphia’s Tung, it always comes back to “reliability. . . . They want the bus to come on time.” Of course, more service requires more buses and drivers, and that costs money. But cities can provide one aspect of faster service relatively cheaply, compared with building rail: dedicated bus lanes. State legislation to allow on-board camera enforcement of bus-only lanes, taking photographs of errant cars, would even create more revenue for bus service. As Beth Osborne of the Transportation for America policy group notes, redesigning wide roads to make it safer for people to cross the street to get to a bus stop could also attract riders. As MARTA Army’s Height reports, riders consistently say that even bus shelters to protect riders from rain and sun and benches at bus stops make commutes more pleasant.
Long-distressed Detroit shows the peril of neglecting bus service post-Covid. The city is an exception to the robust recovery in bus use since Covid’s early days; less than half of riders have returned. The reason: service has declined precipitously. A big problem, says Megan Owens, of Detroit’s Transportation Riders United advocacy group, is “no-show buses.” When buses run infrequently, a missed bus can mean the difference between an hourly employee being on time or late for work.
A shortage of drivers is to blame. “Detroit has been trying for two years to figure out how to hire enough drivers,” Owens says, but the city pays drivers just $15 an hour, and potential hires can earn twice as much driving a commercial vehicle, with better working conditions. Detroit bus drivers held a strike in October 2020 after a rash of violent attacks on them. “If the funding were available,” says Owens, “I think it’s more important to put it into making the buses reliable and frequent” than to have free buses.
Congress could help bus commuters get to their jobs, perhaps by supporting half-fare programs for poorer riders, who disproportionately rely on this mode of transit. New York and San Francisco already offer half-fare programs. As federal transit aid winds down, Congress could consider funding a portion of these programs, as they appeal to both parties’ philosophies: for Republicans, connecting lower-income people to work; and for Democrats, helping some of their most distressed urban voters become mobile.
Governors and mayors must also figure out how to get lapsed transit riders to return and how to attract new middle-class and affluent customers—if not to go to work five days a week, then for other purposes. “BART’s ridership was so much tied to office occupancy in downtown San Francisco,” says Powers. “Transit has got to be complementary now to remote work.” The good news is that in the short term, better transit doesn’t require billions of dollars for new train stations and lines. “We did the hard part,” says Tung, referring to Philadelphia’s previous investments in heavy-rail infrastructure. Getting people on these expensive, and underused, systems requires adaptability, though, which bureaucratic transit agencies aren’t known for.
In New York, Lisa Daglian, head of the MTA’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Council, wants more fare flexibility. In 2022, the MTA launched a “fare-capping program,” under which a subway or bus customer, after paying for 12 rides in one week with the same credit card or transit-tap card, gets additional rides free for the week. The idea is to get people to use subways and buses beyond trips to and from work; more crowded trains and buses, in turn, boost public safety, and those taking transit for leisure trips may bring friends or family along, generating greater fare revenue. But people can start their fare-capping week only on Mondays; not everyone begins his workweek on Monday. A monthly version, too, might make sense.
Most inflexible, and not just in New York, is the long-held perception that commuter rail is an amenity service reserved largely for wealthier suburbanites, with round-trip tickets easily hitting $20 or more, and that subways and buses are utilitarian services for city dwellers, with a round-trip ticket in most cities closer to $5. This perception holds, though commuter-rail lines generally make multiple stops within cities and could serve in-city trips; further, many suburbanites aren’t rich, and many city residents aren’t poor. The MTA offers a $5 CityTicket on commuter rail for in-city service, but, Daglian notes, the agency makes the ticket hard to buy and use, with the ticket expiring on the day purchased, for example. In general, “the complexity of the multiple fares” on commuter rail—peak or off-peak, one route versus another—is “confusing and frustrating.” A tap-to-pay fare system on commuter-rail lines, which would also save the MTA money on conductors, would let the agency tally up how much money a commuter has spent on subways, buses, and commuter rail in each month, and retroactively charge commuters the lowest possible fare.
Relatedly, transit agencies should modernize their schedules to current uses: fewer five-day-a-week, white-collar commuters at peak hours, and more people taking transit for leisure trips and errands. “Commuter rails were designed to carry people from suburbs to downtown workplaces. That doesn’t mean that’s the way they’re going to be going forward. You can even out the service throughout the day,” says Arthur L. Guzzetti, vice president of policy and mobility at APTA. In Philadelphia, concurs Tung, “SEPTA has been slow . . . to adapt our regional rail system to serve beyond the nine-to-five white-collar commuter. Sometimes the [frequency] can be as long as two hours” between commuter trains. “You can’t plan your day around that.”
In Boston, says Jarred Johnson, of advocacy group TransitMatters, “the T needs to focus far less on commuting” because “we might not ever get back to office workers being back five days a week. We saw very quickly after Covid [that] traffic volumes on highways [got] back pretty much to normal. . . . Clearly, people are still going places. What does that mean, to better serve nighttime [riders], better serve recreation destinations?” On frequency, he notes, “a number of people would take a train during midday, outside of the traditional rush hour, but they’re not going to wait 20 to 30 minutes.” As Osborne puts it, “Anyone who is a working mom knows what it means to get your kids ready and get to day care . . . [or] school on time and then get to work. Transit is not designed to tackle these trips.”
Though some improvements, such as fare flexibility, can be done cheaply, more frequent service is obviously expensive, and transit systems are already cash-strapped. As Byford says, the main systems—Boston, Chicago, L.A., New York—face similar challenges. “You’ve got very high fixed costs. You’ve got to keep maintaining the signaling systems,” for example. “You must identify and deliver sustainable efficiencies in the short term.”
America’s transit costs run the gamut from Detroit, which can barely pay its bus drivers, to New York, which spends more per mile on subways, buses, and commuter rail than almost anywhere else in the developed world. Congress’s Covid transit funding asked nothing from transit agencies in achieving long-term efficiencies. By contrast, Byford explains, in London, where he ran the transit system from 2020 to 2022, “one of the conditions was we had to review the existing pension scheme,” and London’s unionized transit workers have held strikes in protest. Transit officials must work with unions to “deliver sustainable efficiencies,” says Byford. But such a stance requires backing from elected officials.
Finally, with much of America’s rail-transit infrastructure underused, Congress, for now, must rethink its decades-old practice of lavishing monies on transit agencies for new infrastructure, rather than try to maintain basic service. The federal government, with its financing, “says to build stuff,” Osborne observes. Until ridership returns to something resembling normal, Congress should provide targeted operating aid, but only in return for measurable cost improvements.
In the long term, Byford is the eternal optimist: we can’t stop building. Even in a crisis, he argues, transit supporters “must make the case for further [major] improvements to the transit system.” In London, he points out, in just ten months of operation, the brand-new Elizabeth train line has “carried 100 million riders, and most of that is not displaced ridership. . . . That is income.” Britain built it, and people came. In America, by contrast, people still aren’t back on what’s already built.
Top Photo: Three years after Covid lockdowns devastated the system, New York’s MTA is still missing about a third of its pre-pandemic riders. (FRANCES ROBERTS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)