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Public transit faces "existential" challenge after the pandemic

Cities urgently need to convince residents that it's safe to ride public transit if they want to recover from the coronavirus-induced double whammy of dwindling ridership and higher fixed costs.

Why it matters: Urban transit systems are cleaner than ever, yet they suffer from public perceptions that the filth-o-meter is still in the danger zone — and that traveling in enclosed spaces (other than one's own car) is inherently parlous.

  • "The challenge is existential," Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan nonprofit, tells Axios. "Unfortunately it's less an issue of increasing ridership as it is keeping them from disappearing."

The big picture: While the CARES Act included some federal dollars for urban transportation, experts say it wasn't enough and will run out imminently, sending, for instance, the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to the brink as early as January.

  • Puentes says that commuter rails that exist to bring white-collar workers into an urban core have seen ridership plummet as much as 97%, while the overall figure for rail systems is more like 90%.
  • Municipal buses, which tend to carry essential workers and low-income people who don't have alternatives, have seen less of a drop — perhaps two-thirds.

Car ownership has grown more popular during the pandemic, even in unlikely places like Manhattan (where $400 a month is considered a "cheap price" for an indoor garage space).

  • At Zipcar, which says that each of its cars obviates the need for 13 others on the urban grid, president Tracey Zhen tells Axios that trip types have changed during the pandemic: "Before, it was people going away for the weekend. Now more of our members are using it for essential trips" like grocery runs.

Between the lines: City officials need to do a better job dispelling the myth that commuters are taking their lives into their hands on public transit, Henry Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio and HUD Secretary (under Bill Clinton), said at a panel discussion this week.

  • "As long as people are wearing masks and behaving safe — washing their hands, social distancing — it is safe to ride on mass transit," said Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit economic development group that serves the NYC tristate area.
  • Roughly 27% of the college-educated workers in New York City reside outside the five boroughs, and if they won't return to trains and buses, the city could be in big trouble, Wright said.
  • "The science tells us that [riding mass transit] is safe behavior, but until people feel and believe that, we've still got an uphill battle in front of us," Wright said.

What's happening: Public relations campaigns to coax people back are just beginning. For instance, the Washington, D.C. Metro has introduced individually wrapped face masks that riders can grab at stations.

The bottom line: "The wringing of hands about the future of cities is premature," Cisneros said, noting that the nation's 100 largest metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) are home to 66% of our population, while the nation's 384 MSAs account for 85%. "We are a metro nation," he declared.

Go deeper: 15-minute cities are making a comeback

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