The Public Transportation Blind Spot

Updated: May 7

As COVID-19 makes its way through virtually every corner of the United States, it exposes critical weaknesses in our healthcare system and our responses to worldwide disasters, but most importantly it shows just how far behind we have left some of our most vulnerable populations. Social isolation leaves older adults, people with disabilities, students, entire young families and many more who rely on public transportation with the question of how to safely get around. 


While most of us are going fewer places these days, transportation is still a fundamental part of our lives, from making it to essential jobs, to the grocery store, to access free lunches for children, to coronavirus testing facilities and pharmacies. With any of these necessary trips made on a public bus comes an increased risk of infection. 



Even as many public service organizations temporarily close, public buses maintain their routes, though use has dropped as much as 80% in cities across the country. With this drop comes massive budget shortfalls. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority projects it will lose as much as $52 million a month due to COVID-19-related decreases in ridership, waived bus fares for seniors and low income riders, and the economic downturn. Even in pre-pandemic times, public transportation systems are heavily subsidized, with only a fraction of expenses covered by rider fares. With no end in sight to the pandemic, this trend of hemorrhaging money will likely get worse before it gets better. 


Though public transportation is currently in a fairly bleak spot, infrastructure has long been insufficient when it comes to serving particularly needy populations. Transportation deserts--areas over 30 minutes away from any method of mobility--have existed for decades, even in major cities such as San Francisco and Philadelphia. Even where adequate access to transportation does exist, infrastructure frequently remains outdated and ill-suited to the climate. Unsheltered bus stops, for example, become a hazard when winter hits, and buses with outdated payment technology become an unviable option for many. The COVID-19 pandemic has simply pointed out increasingly glaring ways we are not only not meeting the needs of those who rely on public transportation, but not encouraging greater ridership either. Public transportation has long been seen as a greater means of sustainability than taking using a personal vehicle, but with outdated systems and technology, long and complicated bus routes, and inadequate infrastructure, public transportation may not necessarily be more sustainable or even feasible for that matter. 



One of the big hurdles transportation systems need to overcome in order to increase service and use is a lack of good data. Because public transit systems across the country are public, private and public-private partnerships, data on ridership and efficiency is not universally collected and disseminated. Initiatives working well for some cities across the country may never see the light of day in others due to data blind spots and discrepancies in funding. Data is a crucial way to understand exactly where underserved riders are, how technology needs to be updated to meet demand, and how sustainability goals can be met. Projects such as the Open Mobility Foundation are working to bridge this data gap and better integrate public-private partnerships across the country, while understanding the needs and demands of public transportation, from buses to subways to electric scooters. 


Another important step toward making public transportation usable for vulnerable populations and an attractive means of sustainable transportation involves changes to policy. Such policy responses from national, state and local governments need to prioritize changes to infrastructure. This means updated bus stops and park-and-ride locations, highly accessible public buses, and routes that meet the needs of all riders. While the greatest downfall of public transportation is most likely the lack of funding itself, investing properly in data-driven projects that will benefit riders across the system will always be the best way forward. 


COVID-19 was quick to point out the flaws in our public transportation systems, but also the great need for them to continue and be sustainable. What public transit looks like in a post-pandemic world is uncertain, but it is highly necessary to keep such systems updated and accessible for those who need them. 


Catherine is an avid supporter of environmentalism and sustainability at home and worldwide. She earned her bachelor's in political science and journalism and loves to explore how social issues are shaped by law and politics. When she's not blogging for the Tangency Foundation, Catherine works in communications and public relations at a national law firm. You can find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Stolz.

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