Transit is a dependent and independent variable

The federal American Rescue Plan will allow transit agencies to fill their budget holes for the short-term to keep running service as the country starts the recovery from the pandemic. But transit advocates shouldn’t declare victory yet; the long-term funding problem isn’t solved and restoring service isn’t as simple as it sounds. 

The pace of returning service varies across transit agencies in part because agencies have been running different levels of their pre-COVID service throughout the pandemic. Different levels are likely due to the percent of pre-COVID service at peak, pandemic ridership, funding, and employee availability. 

  • The MBTA announced that they are budgeting for full bus and rapid transit service in FY22 (which starts July 1) and working to restore some service sooner. They are currently operating 86% of service.
  • The San Francisco MTA said the federal funding buys time, but it’s essential to find new sources of ongoing operating funds to move beyond 85% service restoration by January 2022. Service is currently at 70%.
  • LA Metro has been running 80% of pre-COVID service and promised full bus service restoration by September 2021.
  • King County Metro in Seattle is running about 85% of service now and their 2021-22 adopted budget funds a return to pre-COVID service levels by the end of 2022. They are planning a significant increase in September 2021.

A key logistical challenge to restoring service will be hiring and training operators. Before COVID many transit agencies were struggling to hire bus operators, there are normal attrition rates of operators even without the additional stress of working through a pandemic, and likely most agencies slowed or stopped their training programs for financial and safety reasons. 

Having the funds to run service is not the same as knowing what service to run. Transit service is both a dependent and independent variable in travel patterns. Frequent service is needed to get people to come back to transit, but agencies don’t know yet how travel patterns have changed independent of their service levels. This means that, even with service restored, the service distribution is likely going to have to change over the next few years as our communities recover from COVID.  

It is also important to remember that many transit agencies set lower crowding standards and shifted their service to respond to ridership. So getting back to 100% of pre-COVID service doesn’t mean all pre-COVID service, unless that additional service on routes serving essential workers is cut back. For the MBTA, as an example, this might mean that they should aim for over 100% of pre-COVID bus service and remain at less than 100% on ferry and commuter rail.    

Service changes are hard, but necessary to align service with demand. So let’s all commit right now that we know there will need to be service changes over the next few years and that agencies and communities can work through them collaboratively.  

These changes are also likely going to align in some cases with agencies running out of the third allotment of federal funding. Especially if fare revenue doesn’t completely recover, agencies are going to need new sustainable and progressive sources of funding. Without new funding there will likely have to be service cuts; even with new sources of funding service changes will likely mean some reductions in service where demand hasn’t returned.

We should pivot from the discussion of restoring pre-COVID service to envisioning what data, processes, and trust we will need to get sustainable funding sources and to rebuild more equitable transit networks.

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