December 23, 2020 12:55PM

Transit Gets $14 Billion in Relief

The transit industry will get $14 billion of the $900 billion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress on Tuesday. That’s less than half of what transit agencies wanted but enough to tide them over for five months or so by which time (the agencies hope) the next Congress will have a chance to pass another and even bigger relief bill. The $14 billion is on top of the $13 billion that Congress gave to transit as a part of its normal annual funding bill.

For those who care, the TransitCenter has posted a spreadsheet showing its estimate of how the $14 billion in relief funds will be distributed among the nation’s major urban areas. The New York urban area will get $5.5 billion of which $3.9 billion goes to New York, $1.4 billion goes to New Jersey, and $0.2 billion to Connecticut.

Los Angeles gets nearly a billion, San Francisco‐​Oakland $800 million, and Chicago and Seattle around half a billion. Curiously, what regions get isn’t closely related to how many transit riders they carry: Seattle apparently will get 16 percent more than Chicago even though Chicago transit carries more than twice as many riders as Seattle’s.

It’s even stranger that urban transit, which doesn’t even carry 1 percent of passenger travel in the United States and whose fare revenues represented less than 0.08 percent of the economy in 2019, gets more than 1.5 percent of the money that is supposed to help the entire economy. This is testimony to transit’s successful effort to portray itself as essential to urban living even though, outside of New York, it is actually pretty irrelevant. It is also testimony to the fact that transit, like someone whose job has been outmoded by automation and who refuses to learn new skills, is pathetically depended on public relief in order to survive.

“Do we need to save transit?” asked Cambridge Systematics transit consultant Herbert Higginbotham in a presentation earlier this month to the Transportation Research Forum in Washington DC. He pointed out that telecommuting was likely to remain high, eating into transit ridership, long after the pandemic was over.

Before the pandemic, he said, transit agencies were “prioritiz[ing] choice riders,” that is, people who ride transit even though they have a choice of driving a car. Light‐​rail and bus‐​rapid transit lines were specifically designed to attract such riders. With increased telecommuting, however, that market is likely to dry up.

As a result, Higginbotham suggested, many transit agencies after the pandemic will “prioritize” what he calls “equity” riders (otherwise known as transit‐​dependent riders), meaning low‐​income people without cars. The problem is that there aren’t that many transit‐​dependent people left. As the American Community Survey documents, only about 4 percent of workers (6.7 million people) live in households without cars, and only 40 percent of them (2.6 million people) take transit to work. That’s only about a third of transit’s pre‐​pandemic market (which is why transit has recently focused on choice riders). It may not be a coincidence that September and October transit ridership was barely more than a third of pre‐​pandemic numbers.

The pre‐​pandemic transit model, Higginbotham admitted, “was in danger of failure at worst, and stagnancy at best.” He cheerfully concluded (as any transit consultant must do) by arguing that the pandemic “gives us an opportunity to reimagine transit and mobility to be more flexible, equitable, and sustainable.” Will transit “accept the challenge?” he asks. The answer is probably no: Why bother to learn new skills when you can get paid even if you don’t produce anything of value?

In my imagination, a transportation system that is flexible, equitable, and sustainable is built around automobiles, not mass transportation. For now, transit is on relief, but if we don’t really need it anymore, why keep it?