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.
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, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2020/04/27/will-we-still-be-riding-on-the-same-bus-post-corona/
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.