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Will We Still Be Riding on the Same Bus Post Corona?

There could be long run consequences for public transit ridership after this crisis is over.

Currently, there are a large number of economists telling epidemiologists how to do their job better. I am not one of them, as my GRE scores were too low to qualify. I am part of the larger tribe of economists who are interested in the social science dimensions of the crisis, especially the long run ones. These, by definition, will take a long time to study. The one on my mind currently is what will happen to public transport ridership, even after we have a vaccine and/or large scale immunity. Currently, almost no-one is going anywhere. If we look at what is happening in San Francisco (thanks Apple!), we see that public transit ridership is down by 80%. Driving and walking are down by 50 and 70% respectively, but seem to be recovering a bit.

If we look at Zurich, which got hit by Corona earlier, we see that driving and walking are rebounding, but public transit ridership is not recovering – down by 65% over pre crisis levels.

So let’s back up. There is a large (really fun to read!) urban economics literature, which studies how cities form. Urban shapes and the associated transportation networks vary greatly across the world. But what we see in the US is that in many urban areas, places of employment are clustered and people commute to them. The average one way commute time according to the Census Bureau is roughly 30 minutes. That is one hour a day. 5 hours a week, which is more than 200 hours a year. So we spend a lot of time on trains, buses and automobiles getting to and from work. The externalities from transport are well documented. In California, 40% of CO2 emissions come from the transport sector. For the entire US, that share is 30%. A significant share of local pollutants and most notably toxics come from the transport sector as well.

Cars are by far the worst offenders here. Pre corona, it was not hard to notice that Americans drive themselves around in vehicles, with mostly one person in them, that are inefficiently huge and heavy – all on a deteriorating highway and road system. The externalities imposed on other citizens by using your car are well documented. Congestion eats up other people’s time, heavy and large cars are more likely to kill or seriously injure others in on road accidents, increased oil consumption increases dependence on oil producing nations, particulate matter makes you sick locally, greenhouse gases make most everyone worse off and the list continues.

So what are the alternatives? Getting on a bike in most urban areas in the US is simply a frightening experience (at least for this European, who grew up riding his bike everywhere, because [frankly] my parents made me). And the distances between homes and places of employment are too large for most people that are not named Meredith to ride on a daily basis. Hence we are left with buses and light rail. You can pack a lot of people into a train, which takes a lot of cars off the road. Buses in cities do the same and take up much less space on congested roads.

But as an avid rider of the Bay Area’s Rapid Transit (BART) system, I note that you are really close to a lot of people. During rush hour on a warm day, you are so close to others that you can smell what they had for lunch. Train seats to this germophobe are one of the scariest objects I can think of. My son, at the tender age of two, licked a BART seat. I am still in therapy because of it (he is fine). My personal experience from spending significant time on transit systems in Germany, France, Japan and here suggests that this is the same in most places.

Public transit ridership during the crisis has collapsed, mostly because of shelter in place policies. People are not going to work, restaurants and to visit their families. But once these policies are lifted, will people return to these modes of transport en masse?

My suspicion is that people like me, who are somewhat close to indifferent between public transportation and driving their comfy car – and can afford to do either – will probably shuttle themselves and large bottles of hand sanitizer to and from work. My other suspicion is that many people who had not thought much about the public health implications of being really close to strangers for 200+ hours a year, and can afford to switch to private modes of transportation, will also do so.

This has several implications, which will be important to quantify (which is fancy speak for “measure how big of a deal this is”):

  • Who will have stopped riding? We can approximate answers to this from transit cards and employee subsidy programs. Light rail systems could field surveys similar to what they did in the past to see if there are significant changes.
  • Who will continue to ride and why? I am worried that people with lower incomes, who simply cannot afford to buy or lease a car, will be the ones who will continue to choose this mode of transportation – even if they would prefer not to.
  • What are the consequences on traffic patterns – in terms of increased congestion and accidents from people switching into cars? We know how to do this, but this will be hard to nail down precisely, because the economy was booming prior to the coronavirus and will be in midst of an epic recession right after – plus inertia on working from home.
  • What are the consequences on greenhouse gas emissions and the emissions of local pollutants from increased car usage?
  • How do people change their location decisions relative to their place of employment? Will people move closer to work in order to decrease their commute times? How will this affect home values?
  • What does this do to public transportation system finances? These are massive fixed costs investments financed with bonds over decades. If ridership collapses, will these systems default on their bonds? Will governments fill the financial gap?

There is a lot to worry about here. Especially since the expansion of public transportation infrastructure continues to be a major component of controlling greenhouse gas emissions, which will cause significant damage on the planet and its many inhabitants in the long run. It will be a significant challenge to get people to ride on buses and trains again. Or maybe it’s time to think about whether all of us need to get to work physically everyday or whether for many jobs working from home for a bigger share of our week is an option.

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Suggested citation: Auffhammer, Maximilian. “Will We Still Be Riding on the Same Bus Post Corona?” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, April 27, 2020,


Maximilian Auffhammer View All

Maximilian Auffhammer is the George Pardee Professor of International Sustainable Development at the University of California Berkeley. His fields of expertise are environmental and energy economics, with a specific focus on the impacts and regulation of climate change and air pollution.

18 thoughts on “Will We Still Be Riding on the Same Bus Post Corona? Leave a comment

  1. I see the key premise of this blog post to be: “what will happen to public transport ridership, even after we have a vaccine and/or large scale immunity?” Given his scenario of there being a vaccine (by which I think we can assume he means one of high safety and effectiveness) or large scale immunity, I would guess most people will gravitate back to their old mobility patterns. A few “on the fence” may switch to private vehicles, of course, but I would give a low probability to a major change in mobility choices, for a given level of “commuting demand”.

    On the other hand (being a two-handed economist, as the joke goes) I do think there could be a big change in the underlying decision regarding the need for commuting at all. A lot of what has hindered working remotely has been management concerns about making sure people are doing their jobs. I can see in my own company that a skeptical CEO is now seeing we can get a lot done without coming to an office. And he sees a possible cost savings in reducing office square footage. I am not inferring his thinking, he has told us this in monthly company-wide webinars. If this becomes widespread there could be a major change in commuting demand, the need for retail office space, the viability of your favorite lunch spot near work, housing location decisions, vehicle fuel demand, etc. And, as a result, carbon emissions.

    • Yes, when more than a third of the workforce is now working from home with little loss in effectiveness, companies can see what they can save. We may see shrunken office spaces that essentially become meeting rooms. We may be seeing the end of high commercial space rents in the Bay Area. The real estate industry could be turned on its head.

  2. ….and by the way CO2 person. if there are costs to building BART like infrastructure, there are also costs to building EVs. Wake up.

    • Exactly the reason the cost of CO2 reduction must be know for any project claiming CO2 reduction. If public transit is a cost efficient way of reducing CO2 production then build it. If EV’s are not, then don’t build. The point is to know the cost for every method of CO2 reduction and start with those methods that are most cost effective.
      To repeat- Claimed CO2 reduction strategies are meaningless without a cost per tonne of CO2 reduced.

  3. All the arguments about CO2 reduction costs per person are meaningless without a cost per person of global warming. Economics, or economists, are half a pseudo-science, blind to the other half. I onnce saw a quip that the only people who believe that resources are infinite are economists or fools. They may be one and the same.

    • You make a good point, However if a project claims CO2 reduction and its costs are over $100 per tonne then it does not have a realistic chance of significantly reducing CO2 and therefore should not make this claim. For example,, the California high speed rail authority claimed CO2 reduction. However even using their own highly optimistic figures in 2008, CO2 reduction would have cost thousands of dollars per tonne of CO2 reduced. Therefore the project should not have made the claim of CO2 reduction.

  4. Besides the actual ‘commute’ time, public transit often involves a ‘wait time’. I do not know what the per person-mile emissions are for private car vs BART vs buses. [I recall ‘hearing’ many years ago that if BART ridership was at 100% it would take a few hundred years to ‘save’ the energy used in building the BART system of tracks and tunnels etc]. And the Altamont ‘express’ carries about 200-300 people 2-3 times a day. What is the $ and emission cost per person mile.

    Even BC [before corona] I would often see Caltrains ’empty’ at all hours except rush-hour, SamTrans busses capacity to take 50 but with 2-6 passengers. Public transit is ‘good’ only in dense urban areas – most of Europe cities, and perhaps NY, Chicago, SF LA etc — everywhere else the distances are to much and raideship likely low.

    Small EVs, with dedicated SEPARATED by BARRIERS, is a likely solution. These EVs may be own by people OR rented on a per-use basis [sort of like some of the rides at Disneyland].

    Look for SIMPLE solutions. With fewest equations.

    BC C AC

    • There is an intermediate solution of dispatchable vans, especially outside of commute hours when riders are generally taking much shorter, local trips.

  5. I know I won’t ride BART until non-essential workers have ready access to N95 masks without impacting the supply to essential workers. That may be one inflection point in the revival of the California economy. I also wonder if it might make sense to set up something more like a reservation system for riding trains to and from work, to ensure that transit demand stays under some acceptable level (as opposed to just encouraging people to stay home, and assuming that the coming depression will dampen demand enough to achieve such effects “naturally”). In any case, a transit model based on high capacity factors seems unlikely for some time, meaning either higher subsidies/taxes to support public transit, or letting the systems fail. I hope the outcome will be the former, not the latter. I speculate that we may see a cultural shift to a pronounced aversion toward “crowding” of any sort that could last many years; but cities have other amenities, and an excess supply of ingenuity, with which to improve their prospects in the face of what would otherwise be an existential challenge to modern urbanity.

  6. “the expansion of public transportation infrastructure continues to be a major component of controlling greenhouse gas emissions”
    I have seen no evidence that most public transport is either a major or a cost effective way of controlling greenhouse gas emissions. Any claims of greenhouse gas reduction are meaningless without a cost per tonne of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas reduced. In the US we produce about 20 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person per year. Politically and economically it is hard to imagine the US paying more than $2,000 per person per year to reduce CO2 production. This results in a top price of $100 per tonne reduction, ($2,000/20 tonnes per person per year.) Any figures I have seen for new public transit rail expansion are so high, (for example high speed rail is in the thousands of dollars per tonne of CO2 reduction) as to be actually detrimental to CO2 reduction as this takes away resources from more cost effective strategies.
    To repeat: Any claims or green house gas reduction must include a cost of CO2 equivalent reduction per per person per year to have any meaning.

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