Covid-19: What if Transit Runs Out of Money?

The sudden decline in travel due to fear of Covid-19 is obviously affecting public transit.  Preliminary and unpublished numbers shared with me by two US West Coast agencies showed ridership losses of 30-50% from pre-crisis levels.  We’ll see plenty of published numbers soon. The sudden fall in gas prices at the same time could make the ridership impacts even worse.

This is a good time to remind ourselves, and our favorite journalists, that ridership is always volatile and heavily driven by factors outside an agency’s control.  There are many things transit agencies can work on to improve ridership, but (a) those things together amount to a minority of the total forces governing ridership and (b) ridership isn’t the sole metric of success for transit agencies, and sometimes not even a predominant one.

However, transit agencies can do things that will cause ridership to fall further and stay down longer:  They can cut service, as they will be tempted to do now.

It’s not hard to see the dangers:

  • Declining fare revenue, due to lower ridership.
  • Declining tax revenue, due to economic slowdown.[1]

So what should transit agencies do if they start to run out of money?  Cut service?  If so, how?

First, let’s distinguish between service and capacity.  If revenue falls, many urban transit agencies can trim rush hour capacity without affecting customer mobility very much.  If you’re running a commuter bus every 7 minutes at rush hour, cut that to 10 or 12 or whatever the loads support.  Because peak commuters mostly plan around the schedule, the impact on travel time is trivial, but you’ll save something.  Peak-only service is very expensive, so you can save a lot by trimming that.  What’s more, preliminary numbers I’ve seen show commute ridership falling much more steeply than all-day local ridership, which suggests that the peak should bear the brunt of any temporary service cuts.

By contrast, when you start cutting all-day and all-week service, by reducing frequencies, you start to dramatically reduce the usefulness of network, and this is the most efficient way to drive riders away.  You also trigger social justice impacts, because lower income riders tend to be all-day, evening, and weekend riders, not just peak riders.

Remember, the riders you drive away due to service cuts will stay gone until the service improves again, while those who are just working from home will come back post-crisis if the service is still there.  

Second, if money runs low, you have to question the schedules of your infrastructure projects.

Infrastructure projects are so complicated and involve so many possible points of failure that they require a concerted effort to maintain momentum. All the messaging around how inevitable the project is, and how certain the opening day is, can make it sound like nothing can be slowed down in response to a crisis.  Of course, some contracts do impose costs for slowing and stopping, and those have to be considered.

But if infrastructure work continues while service is being cut, you’re driving away current riders for the sake of future riders, and if the goal is ridership, that makes no sense.  It can also be a social justice problem.

Why do I have to point these things out?  Influential people often tend to be peak commuters, so they defend peak service but care less about all-day service.  They also tend to be invested in infrastructure, and don’t want to hear that those projects might have to slow down.  To many of them, all-day service can seems easy to cut by comparison, since that affects people who don’t comment as much.  But apart from trimming peak capacity, that’s the sure way to turn a temporary crisis into a more lasting one.




[1] These impacts will be cushioned if agencies have (a) a lot of pre-sold fares, such as employer programs and (b) tax sources that rely on less-volatile sources like property or income tax, as opposed to payroll or sales taxes.


11 Responses to Covid-19: What if Transit Runs Out of Money?

  1. Alon Levy March 10, 2020 at 4:59 pm #

    If anything, the fact that agencies are telling people to stagger their commutes, avoid big crowds, work from home, etc. means that it’s peak service that should be cut, no?

  2. Max Wyss March 11, 2020 at 1:58 pm #

    Peak service has the highest incremental cost, therefore, as stated, it should be the first thing to reduce. In the same time, there would be a chance to optimize operation (for example through-linking of lines (the incoming line 184 vehicle becomes the outgoing line 185)).

  3. El_slapper March 12, 2020 at 7:59 am #

    (France) Montpellier’s North & East is now under quarantine(Castelnau le Lez is barely 2 miles from my home…), but the TAM, the local agency, didn’t communicate any changes for now. They are just repeating the national communication about the Coronavirus.

    If they do, I’d love them to follow your instructions.

  4. Ross Peterson March 13, 2020 at 8:47 am #

    This is helpful and makes sense. I’m wondering if any of your readers can share an informed perspective on the role of public transit during a pandemic.

  5. Ross Peterson March 13, 2020 at 8:50 am #

    Sorry, I left off two important words. I meant to ask if any of your readers can provide an informed “public health” perspective on the role of public transit during a pandemic. I’m interested in hearing what others are doing to balance the need to prevent spread vs. the need to preserve access and mobility for people who don’t drive. Sorry for the poorly worded initial comment.

  6. Brent March 13, 2020 at 1:52 pm #

    Aren’t board periods typically 6 weeks or so long? If the surge in cases lasts roughly a month as seemed to be the case in China, and we are already into the first part of that, then wouldn’t cutting service be at best a measure hat lasts into the post-virus recovery period, and at worst a measure that only takes effect after the worst is over?

  7. Sarah Ross March 17, 2020 at 2:00 pm #

    Jarrett – very timely and helpful piece. Thank you.

  8. Rachel L. Zack March 17, 2020 at 4:28 pm #

    This was very helpful! I did see that Edmonton had to add back some buses in the evening peak to deal with crowding after they cut back schedules (link below). This was an attempt to combat crowding – a factor that also should be considered in a pandemic. I really feel for these agencies and all the tradeoffs they face in this crisis.

  9. Gag Halfrunt March 19, 2020 at 5:54 am #

    Transport for London is reducing frequencies and closing forty Underground stations. The Waterloo and City Line, which has only two stops, will be closed.

  10. Pete Brown March 22, 2020 at 3:13 pm #

    My local family owned bus company will be operating a Saturday timetable from tomorrow (23rd March) due to a drop in passenger numbers. So far the UK government hasn’t announced specific financial support for public transport but hopefully small companies like this one will benefit from other announced financial support such as a deferred VAT payment, business loans, property tax holiday, and 80% wage bill payments.