Dr. Eric Gonzales is featured in Digital Trends article "Public transit is on the brink of death. This is how we save it"
The numbers are staggering. In the wake of the pandemic, transit ridership is down up to 90% in some cities. Buses and trains chug along less than half empty, as regular riders stay home, or else travel by car.
Public transportation is hurtling toward a cliff, with dire consequences for society. If it is to survive the pandemic, experts say it will need to make crucial changes and put specific safeguards in place, not just to reduce the odds of an outbreak, but to restore the confidence of riders and get them back to feeling comfortable.
Ridership is down, and it may not come back
“I am not aware of anything in our lifetime that’s been anywhere near this,” says Dr. Eric Gonzales, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts.
“I think that the closest parallel,” he continues, “would be in a place that experienced war, which, fortunately for the United States, has not been something we’ve had to deal with in most of our lifetimes. We could look at what happened in Europe during World War II, but when the war is over, people know the war’s over.”
A war can end with the signing of a document; the coronavirus pandemic has no clear end in sight. Even if infection numbers drop, until a functional vaccine is readily available there will always be the potential for another outbreak. For many businesses, that means working from home will continue to be the norm, while many individuals will continue to avoid any enclosed public spaces.
As restaurants and other public venues prepare for a cautious reopening, desperate to prove that people can visit safely, transit faces a crisis of confidence. Polling shared with Digital Trends by YouGov indicates that 30% of riders won’t be comfortable taking public transportation again until social distancing measures are lifted entirely, while 25% say they won’t be comfortable while COVID-19 exists. That’s going to be a financial problem for transit agencies, Gonzales says, as a substantial chunk of transit funding comes from operations.
“It varies somewhat from system to system,” he explains, “but about a third of the operating funds for transit agencies are self-generated. That includes the fare revenues, that also includes advertising revenues. So you see advertisements at bus stops and things, that’s part of the transit agency revenue. Some agencies have real estate: If they have vendors in stations, then they’re making some revenue from that.”
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