Last week in Washington, DC, the board of the Metropolitan Area Transit Authority did something almost unheard of: It offered riders more service for less money.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, as plunging ridership brought on financial woes, the agency reduced the area’s subway and bus service. Now it has promised to ramp up buses and trains on weekdays, weekends, and late at night, with some bus lines operating even more often than they did before the pandemic. Riders, meanwhile, will pay a flat $2 fee on weekends instead of a fare based on how far they travel, they won’t have to shell out for bus transfers, and they’ll get a break on weekly bus passes. The plan will “better meet the needs of existing riders, reflect new travel patterns and lifestyle changes, as well as attract returning and new customers,” the Metro head said.
Those new travel patterns remain unclear. But officials in Washington and elsewhere are mulling the roles that buses, subways, and trains will play in cities transformed by a year-long public health crisis. They want to win riders back—and they’re willing to try a few out-of-the-box strategies to do it.
Agencies in Boston, Cleveland, Las Vegas, the San Francisco Bay Area, and New Orleans are offering reduced fares or free rides, temporarily, to lure people back onto transit. Others are considering abolishing fares altogether. Los Angeles is exploring a 23-month pilot that would give students and low-income residents free rides. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority scrapped fares in March 2020 and doesn’t plan to bring them back. “The return on investment for empathy, compassion, for social equity, far outweighs the return on investment for concrete and asphalt,” Robbie Makinen, the agency’s CEO, told Stateline last week.
Others are taking aim at an even more sacred cow: rush hour service.
Historically, briefcase-toting, laptop-schlepping commuters have been transit’s primary target audience. So public transit was designed to accommodate their needs. Commuter trains, traveling between suburbs and downtown business districts, ran more frequently during rush hour. Agencies purchased more buses and subway cars to handle rush hour crowds, and sometimes paid drivers extra just to pop in for a few hours during peak travel times. They created park-and-ride services, to help people who drove part of the way to work but didn’t want to deal with traffic in dense cities.
Now the future of rush hour is complicated. Big employers like Apple, Amazon, and American Express have said they’ll continue to allow workers to telecommute a few days a week, even after most are vaccinated and offices have reopened. On average, that will mean smaller peak-hour crowds. Meanwhile, planners have noted increased interest in off-peak service since the mid-aughts, and have begun to redesign service to make it more useful to people doing shift work, running errands after school, or traveling to social occasions.
Agencies are using the murky period of pandemic recovery to usher in schedule changes. In Los Angeles, officials for Metra, the local commuter rail, said this month they would test new schedules that “step away” from the pre-pandemic, rush hour norm, “in favor of a more balanced approach” that spaces trains more evenly throughout the day. In Boston, officials in April went ahead with pre-pandemic plans and began running more frequent commuter trains outside the schedules of the 9-to-5ers. It’s part of a bigger vision to transform the system into a more equitable regional rail network that serves more than the traditional office worker. Off-peak riders are more likely to be immigrants, women, people of color, and lower income. The pandemic, as the local advocacy group TransitMatters has observed, may have given the local agency the “political space” to make long-planned changes. There are fewer people now to complain that operators took away their specific train.
In Cleveland, the Regional Transit Authority this week rolled out a redesign that spreads service more evenly throughout the region, and runs buses more frequently down its most trafficked corridors. The new plan nixed a direct bus service from a park-and-ride lot to downtown, instead incorporating it into the larger system to serve more people in more neighborhoods. The changes are designed to attract and serve different types of riders. “Our concern is, are we serving the community?” says Joel Freilich, the agency’s deputy general manager for operations.
“I expect that, barring another pandemic, ridership will be coming back, but it will be coming back in a different shape,” says Jarrett Walker, a public transit consultant whose firm helped design the new Cleveland system. In the end, the changes that agencies make now could save money, by allowing them to buy fewer vehicles and space drivers more evenly through the day. More important, it could help them serve the riders that need transit most. The choice to embrace off-peak travelers is part of a larger debate about what public transit schedules should look like, and who transit should serve—whether, as Walker puts it, transit should be seen as “a self-supporting thing” or “an essential utility” that deserves enough funding to get people where they need to go.
Changes are afoot. “Agencies have learned that they need to be more nimble, and historically agencies do not find it that easy,” says Paul Skoutelas, the president and chief executive of the American Public Transportation Association, an industry group. Like lots of other people, transit officials have used the pandemic to get more introspective.
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