While New York City subway ridership has fallen to similar levels, it has grown faster and is now down about 60%. And buses, which primarily serve essential workers who have to commute, recorded 50% of its usual ridership during most of the pandemic. MTA executives have warned that ridership may not rebound until 2023 – and even then, it may never reach 2019 levels again.
Declining rail ridership creates a “paradox” for transit officials, who must contend with subsidizing a system that people may use less but still rely on for service, said Mohamed Mezghani, Secretary General of the International Association of Public Transport.
“I wouldn’t say it will reach the levels that we knew in the past, but we can’t say that people will stop using it,” he said. “They will certainly use it less because the homework will stay – not full-time, but part-time.”
Transportation agencies have managed to avoid drastic service cuts after receiving billions in aid from federal stimulus packages. But new sources of revenue may be needed to help strengthen rail in the long run.
The conundrum could rejuvenate the debate over creating dedicated subsidy streams for commuter train lines, some of which were already struggling to balance their books. This could mean things like value capture, where developers who build nearby transit systems must pay annual taxes for their maintenance. Transit officials in cities like New York also see vast potential for congestion pricing – which charges drivers a European-style toll to travel to busy city centers – to help fund their systems.
Other experts said the federal government may need to start playing a more proactive role in contributing to the operating budgets of transit agencies, instead of just funding large construction projects. Stimulus plans spurred that conversation by contributing to the bottom line of transit agencies when fare revenues all but evaporated during the pandemic.
“The Covid financing that was proposed in this first [federal package] really changed the discussion the way advocates have advocated, ”said Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins, former director of strategic initiatives at the Federal Department of Transportation under the Obama administration. “It just doesn’t make sense to build a system and not pay for the people who will actually make sure you get to where you need it.”
Many see greater potential for this change under President Joe Biden, who was a frequent user of Amtrak’s regional rail in the northeast before taking office. Biden’s massive infrastructure package, which is currently being negotiated with Congress, provides $ 85 billion to support transit agencies and $ 80 billion for Amtrak. New York state lawmakers are pushing Congress to permanently cover a portion of the MTA’s operating costs.
The pandemic has also forced transport agencies to rethink the services they provide to better adapt to 21st century driving habits. An extension of service during peak hours to go beyond early morning and evening travel may be needed to capture new flexibilities in working hours, said Gidigbi Jenkins, who also serves on the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. WMATA board members are also grappling with changing pricing structures as fewer people buy monthly passes.
“It’s going to force a different conversation on service levels,” said Gidigbi Jenkins. “Covid has shed light on the things we have overlooked in many ways. We did not resize the hours of service with actual system usage.
These conversations also take place in New York City, where 35 percent of Long Island Rail Road ridership took place during the morning and evening rush hours. Rush hour now starts much earlier due to essential worker schedules, with 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. becoming the new rush hours.
“This [shift] helps us spread the ridership over a 24 hour day, and that maybe changes our rolling stock needs and the size of the trains and the way we support the ridership of the future, ”said Phil Eng, President and Chief Executive Officer of the LIRR.
Eng said the agency is also considering adding more local services to better support “reverse peaks”.
“As companies rethink where their main hubs will be located and consider whether or not to stay in Manhattan, we will look to serve this reverse route and serve anyone who needs to travel between the islands,” he said.
Some transit companies also place more importance on how people use the system outside of work.
Before the pandemic, New York City struggled with a steady growth in commuter ridership. But in recent weeks, weekend ridership has overtaken weekday ridership, highlighting a desire to use the commuter train for baseball games or dinner, Eng said.
“The days when the Long Island Rail Road passenger was only five days a week – get on the train in the morning to Manhattan and at the end of the day go home – that has changed,” he said. -he declares.
In Austin, Texas, transit officials are looking to capitalize on this trend.