Is Covid-19 a Threat to Public Transit? Only in the US

Jake Blumgart has a must-read in CityMonitor pointing out that in most wealthy countries, Covid-19 has raised few doubts about the future of public transit, nor have there been significant threats to funding.

City Monitor spoke with experts in Canada, East Asia, western Europe and Australia about the impacts of the pandemic on public transportation. None feared that systems in their nations would be deprived of the funds needed to continue providing decent service – and most even believed they would keep expanding. … In the US, by contrast, systems have been preparing doomsday scenarios, and advocates fear for the future.

We are seeing this with our own clients outside North America:  Even with demand cratering, authorities continue to fund good service.

There’s one technical reason for this in some cases.  In most wealthy countries outside North America, transit agencies are not free-standing local governments dependent on their own funding streams.  Instead, any needed subsidy flows to public transit directly from the central government budget.[1]  This means that public transit funding is debated alongside other expenses in a central budget, so the service level depends on what the nation or state/province values as a society, rather than what a transit agency can afford.

But there’s no question that apathy about public transit, and in some cases hostility, is higher in the US.  In my work I hear three kinds of negativity:

  • Cultural hostility to cities, which implies indifference to meeting their needs.
  • Disinterest in funding things that are useful to lower-income or disadvantaged groups, or groups that are culturally “other” in some way.
  • Especially aggressive marketing of new technologies as replacements of most public transit.  (Many new technologies are compatible with high-ridership public transit, but some are not, and many are overpromoted in ways that encourage opposition to transit funding.)

All three of these are understandably worse in the United States than in most other wealthy countries.

In any case, if you’re in the US, remember: there is no objective reality behind the idea that Covid-19 is a reason to care less about transit. It’s just a US thing, and we could choose to make it different.





[1] By central government I mean whichever level of government is sovereign: In most countries this is the national government, but in loose confederations like Canada and Australia, it’s the state or province.

5 Responses to Is Covid-19 a Threat to Public Transit? Only in the US

  1. Max Wyss January 22, 2021 at 10:42 pm #

    I wonder to which extent focusing on “commuter” operation makes things worse.

    A sound base service with add-ons for peak can reduce costs easier without too much service cuts, because the first to be reduced would be the add-ons for peak (which are the most expensive services anyway).

  2. Max Wyss January 22, 2021 at 10:49 pm #

    A Tarifverbund (or even better Verkehrsverbund) would provide much more financial stability, because it is a bigger area involved, and not just one operator (aka agency). A Verbund can not be “run” like an individual private business, and has by definition financing models which go beyond the annual budget debates. And, it involves the surrounding municipalities as well.

  3. Max Wyss January 22, 2021 at 10:57 pm #

    Some gadgetbahn-level technologies (especially, if they have silicon valley background) are promoted with the explicit intention to damage transit funding.

  4. Sean Gillis January 25, 2021 at 12:42 pm #

    “But advocates in sprawling countries like China, Canada and Australia are similarly confident their systems can emerge from the crisis intact – even if they aren’t sure just how yet.” From the City Metric article.

    Sprawling Canada is of course what everyone thinks of – wide-open prairies, Arctic tundra, massive boreal forests – but the southern part of the country where most people lives is similar in density to the corresponding American side of the border. Granted, that’s not super dense, but the Canadian average isn’t really important to urban transit. Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa all have more than enough density in their cores and inner suburbs to support rapid transit and lots of good surface transit. Smaller cities like Hamilton and Quebec also have many transit-supportive areas, and to a lesser extent so do Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg (prairie cities with larger footprints).

    Coming out of COVID, I think there are some big opportunities to rethink how peak-focused many transit routes/ lines are in Canada . These tend to be expensive to operate per-trip and per rider, so perhaps a good time to shift resources or even trim a bit.

  5. PAul January 26, 2021 at 8:47 pm #

    When transit/public transport is run as a government agency and funding comes from the regular budget, it becomes essentially a fiscal stimulus. Here in Australia we were able to keep frequency running right through lockdowns which meant a) transport workers didn’t lose their income, b) the reduced number of passengers were able to socially distance on the vehicles, c) there was a simple way for government to put money into the depressed economy safely, and d) there was no operational impact and it is easy to take the load again as people go back to doing things in person.