New transit priorities for a post-COVID world - Metropolitan Planning Council

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New transit priorities for a post-COVID world

We need to strategically plan for our long-term transit future, expecting that social distancing will eventually come to an end. Here are three key perspectives for how we can move forwards.

Bloomberg via Crain's Chicago Business

This op-ed first appeared in Crain's Chicago Business on June 4, 2020.

Transit has been the backbone of transportation for the Chicago region for 125 years. But COVID-19 has upended our world, with massive impacts on transportation and mobility. While everyone who can is working from home and limiting travel to essential trips, many fewer people are riding.

However, transit's value to society is measured by much more than ridership numbers. We are seeing with full clarity how many essential workers rely on transit—and how the rest of us depend on them to keep food on the grocery shelves, hospitals clean and running, and essential retail available. Transit keeps society functioning.

Once the stay-at-home order ends, movement will resume; however, it will be gradual. In the short term, transit will be limited to less than one-third of capacity on rail cars and buses to enable social distancing.

During this transition, it is critical to make sure there are enough buses and trains running on key routes, most of which are in black and brown communities, to ensure that vehicles are not overcrowded. The CTA has rightly maintained nearly full service during the stay-at-home order to ensure sufficient service for the many essential workers it serves.

At the same time, we must plan for the future. Prior to COVID-19, CTA, Pace and Metra were carrying nearly 2 million passengers per weekday. The limited capacity of our highways remains unchanged—there is only so much space available for transportation. And climate change is still bearing down on us. Until there is a reliable treatment or vaccine, many who have the choice may continue to work from home or use other forms of transportation. But we also need to strategically plan for the long term, expecting that social distancing will eventually come to an end. Here are three key perspectives for how we can move forward:

1. We need to build back a system that prioritizes the needs of riders who rely on transit.

We must first support those who play a critical role in our society, many of whom are black and brown riders with low- to moderate-wage jobs. Our transit system will need to evolve, which may result in different routes, schedules or vehicles.

We should carry forward positive changes that have emerged from COVID-19 response such as rear-door boarding of buses to protect operators, which can evolve into all-door boarding to speed up bus operations long-term.

Is now the time to think about Metra in a new way? Instead of focusing on a likely diminished suburb-to-downtown commute, could it function like regional rail serving trips in both directions throughout the day and on the weekends? We need to reinvent transit for the post-COVID world.

2. We need to aggressively build trust as we rebuild our transit system.

A significant part of the transit evolution will be providing comprehensive, accurate and real-time information to riders. When people can depend on reliable information, they can make the best decisions on how they get around daily, balancing economic and health priorities.

Transit is a huge contributor to our economy, as shown in our "Transit Means Business" report, and we will need it to keep our dense region functioning as we rebuild economically. We must ensure our core transit system is retained as we rebuild for the long term and especially when medical advances allow ridership to increase again.

3. We will need to develop new funding and operational structures.

Transit funding is currently based largely on ridership, a model assuming full trains and buses.

The Chicago region's legislatively required farebox recovery ratio of 50 percent means half of operating costs must be paid by fares. Funding in the Chicago region also comes from sales tax revenues, which fluctuate with the economy.

If either ridership or sales tax revenue drops—and both have—this can result in service cuts. If we view transit as a backbone of a functioning economy that not only provides essential transportation, but also makes significant contributions to environmental sustainability and public health, then we need to seriously examine restructuring how it's funded and operated.

Yes, money's tight everywhere, but there are few investments that generate as many societal benefits as transit.



Keywords

Transportation

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