Bad news for transit keeps rolling in. Transit ridership declined in 34 of the 40 largest metropolitan areas over the past three years. New York’s subway woes continue, Washington Metro struggles with funding and maintenance and, even in Los Angeles with its massive rail system buildout supported by $120 billion in tax increases over 40 years, ridership is declining.
Explanations for declining ridership include low gasoline prices, economic growth, increasing car ownership, immigrants’ fear of using transit, homeless loitering, and safety and security concerns.
While ridership routinely fluctuates in response to economic upturns and downturns and other trends, this decline seems more profound. Increased communication (e-commerce, telecommuting, distance learning) and new technologies and business models (bikeshare, carshare, app-based ride-hailing) suggest a more pronounced challenge for public transportation. This decline seems likely to accelerate once vehicle automation takes hold. More automation means the cost of mobility services by private companies – not just Uber, Lyft and Via, but likely GM, Ford and many others – will fall.
Can public transit survive?
Yes – but an entirely fresh approach is needed. Ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft have the potential to be a boon to transit, but only if we reimagine transit as mobility. To encourage ridership, the silos between transit, taxis, on-demand app-based services, and bikesharing need to be removed. Transit must be integrated, or at least coordinated, with other expanding mobility services.
What would such a hybrid system look like?
- It would include traditional trunk line transit for major corridors where limited curb space and large passenger flows favor larger vehicles.
- These high-volume services would be supplemented with on-demand automated ridesharing in suburbs and small cities – subsidized for low-income riders and perhaps those making connections to transit hubs.
- These other services would also provide first/last mile accessto rail and major bus routes, feeding the efficient trunk lines.
- It means a single integrated app for information and payments.
- A public entity such as the transit operator would play a major role in oversight and governance, ensuring safety, equity and integration of services.
- Mechanisms would be needed to assure low-income riders are served. The mix of vehicle types and technologies and the party/parties responsible for ownership and operation could vary from one area to another.
In this new transportation world, traditional transit would need to refocus on what it is good at – serving dense traffic corridors and dense cities. It would remain the most economically efficient means of moving large numbers of travelers, but it needs to reimagine strategies for less dense suburban areas where its current costs and service are far inferior to those of new private on-demand services.
This refashioning of mobility is radical in many ways.
It requires public funding – which now subsidizes 80 percent of all transit costs – to be restructured. It may involve extracting resources from those users and land owners that most benefit, charging full costs in some cases, providing subsidies directly to low-income travelers regardless whether the service is provided by government or business. Or in places where transit use is high, it may be priced low and subsidized through progressive general revenue sources.
It will require collaboration and cooperation between public and private companies. If transit integrates effectively with services like Uber and Lyft, the result could be an increase in public transportation from current 2-3 percent of trips to 20-30 percent or more. And, it would generate new jobs, many of them high quality, to manage and staff these new mobility service companies.
This is the future. Today’s transit operators can be part of the solution, or they can wither under the onslaught of technology and competition.
This commentary first appeared in Metro Magazine and is published with permission by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. This commentary is based on, “Three Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared, and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future,” by Daniel Sperling, published February 2018 (Island Press)