America's public transit systems are hurting. Can they recover?

Until February 2020, Sylvia Gonzalez, a lifelong New York City resident, would take the subway daily: from home to school, then to work and back home. Now she’s nervous about the sheer thought of stepping onto a subway platform.

“I'd much rather risk traffic or being on a bike in the city than take the subway,” Gonzalez, who recently finished graduate school and now works in finance, told Yahoo News. “Honestly, it doesn’t feel safe down there, and it hasn’t for a while.”

Gonzalez isn’t alone in her reluctance to use public transit. Two years into a pandemic that saw train and bus ridership plummet to a fraction of pre-COVID levels — and amid new fears about violence on city subways — once frequent commuters have been slow to return. And that’s putting a strain on public transportation systems that remain an economic lifeline for those who depend on them.

Data from the American Public Transportation Association shows that nationwide ridership dropped to 25% of its previous volume at the onset of COVID-19, and it has since recovered to only about 60% of pre-pandemic levels. Transit agencies in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., are all fighting to bring riders back to public trains and buses.

The problem is even worse outside of cities. Across the country, suburban commuter rails reported a 79% drop in ridership from pre-pandemic levels as of September 2020, according to the federal Government Accountability Office. As of January of this year, commuter rail ridership remained only about half of the pre-pandemic rate.

A woman dressed for winter stands on a subway platform as a train pulls in.
A commuter in a Brooklyn subway station in December 2021. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

As some businesses embrace remote or hybrid work long-term, those ridership dips are starting to look more intractable. While some remote employees have returned to the office, many have not, at least not full time. Some experts say that without the return of commuters, many transit systems and rail lines will never reclaim their previous ridership.

Arguably, this is only the acceleration of a preexisting shift away from public transit. Transit ridership declined more than 14% nationwide between 2012 and 2018, data from the National Academies of Sciences shows.

“I think it is worrisome that when ridership in pre-pandemic times was declining, it seemed like regional policymakers didn’t have plans across the country for restoring it,” Jacob Wasserman, a research project manager at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, told Yahoo News.

Wasserman said the pre-pandemic decline in ridership, though more pronounced in some cities than in others, may have been a product of expanded access to cars. The growth of ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft may also have played a role, he said.

Reversing those trends has become an even greater challenge for transit agencies, with safety concerns convincing some riders to cut down on public transit or avoid it altogether. In addition to lingering fears about COVID-19 transmission, riders are worried about the perception of increased crime on public transit.

In New York City, for example, a 14% increase in crime on the subway — including a mass shooting at a station in Brooklyn on April 12 — has rattled riders.

“Pre-COVID, there was never many stories of incidents happening in the subway, so I enjoyed taking it,” said Michelle Marakasherry, a college student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, who has taken the subway since she moved to the city in 2019. “Post-COVID, there's an incident happening in the subway almost every week. Now I’m intricately planning where I stand and on edge most of the time. I find myself choosing to walk, as it seems like the safer choice sometimes."

People wear face coverings while departing a Los Angeles Metro Rail train.
People departing a Los Angeles Metro Rail train in December 2021. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Many experts fear that if public transportation systems never recover, they may enter a negative feedback loop in which lower ridership creates a perception of danger, leading to still lower ridership and declining fare box revenues that harm quality of service, which in turn further discourages riders.

“I think, long-term, if we don’t see major changes in transit ridership and road and land uses, we will have huge problems,” Tara Goddard, a transportation safety expert at Texas A&M University, told the Guardian in February. “We will see emissions as horrible as they are now, road safety numbers as bad as now, inequities and social problems as bad as they are now. If we aren’t committed to serious change, we will have a lot of problems.”

The United States’ largest public transit networks have all felt the sting.

After New York City subway ridership dropped 90% in the spring of 2020, it is still at less than 60% of pre-pandemic levels, or 3.1 million riders a day, according to New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority data. Ridership has declined at all but two of the city’s 472 subway stations.

In Washington, D.C., more than a year into the pandemic, Metro ridership dropped 85% and has only begun to steadily recover.

Los Angeles saw its ridership drop by 70% at the onset of COVID-19, and has since recovered to only about 50% of pre-pandemic levels.

“There’s a crisis facing the public transportation system in L.A.,” Genevieve Giuliano, a transportation expert at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, told the L.A. Times. “COVID made a bad situation worse.”

People move through the Broadway Junction subway station in Brooklyn as others wait in line to get a COVID-19 vaccination shot on May 12, 2021 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
People move through the Broadway Junction subway station in Brooklyn in May 2021 as others wait in line to get a COVID-19 vaccination shot. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Agencies funded by state or local tax revenue aren’t in as dire a situation, and as a result can take more time and be more inventive in how they approach post-pandemic recovery, Annie Hudson, director of mobility initiatives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Yahoo News. But agencies that are funded by fares — that is, those that depend on their ridership to generate funds — have a more urgent need to increase ridership.

“When thinking about recovery post-COVID, the ones that rely heavily on fare revenue are the ones thinking about recapturing that ridership, because they need that ridership to subsist,” Hudson said.

Some agencies are experimenting with new fare offerings as a way to appeal to customers, she said.

One offering that has met with initial success, Hudson said, is a nonconsecutive multiday pass, which allows riders to hop on public transit an unlimited number of times on multiple days of their choice. The strategy, which has been adopted by the Maryland Department of Transportation, is a prime example of transit agencies adapting to a work-from-home environment.

Other approaches include capping weekly fares for frequent riders and reworking payment systems to accept tap-and-go transactions, either from credit cards or from mobile payment apps. In New York City, that has taken the form of the OMNY fare system.

“A lot of these things were happening before the pandemic to make it easier for people to travel and the whole process more transparent,” Hudson said. “COVID gave some of these agencies the chance to make changes they were waiting on doing for a while.”

New York City police, one of them speaking into a walkie-talkie, walk next to a subway train.
New York City police investigate a subway incident on April 12 after an emergency brake was pulled. (Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Even with decreased ridership, public transit remains essential to millions of Americans who lack access to other modes of transportation or for whom owning a car doesn’t make financial sense, Wasserman said. According to the Washington, D.C-based Urban Institute, many bus and train routes to lower-income neighborhoods where people didn’t have an option of working from home showed steadier ridership than other areas during the pandemic.

The Washington Metro's general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, told the Washington Post that the D.C. Metro should make bus routing decisions based on improving service in lower-income communities.

“One important lesson of the pandemic this year is that essential workers ride the bus,” he told the paper. “Rather than continue to make small adjustments to decade-old bus routes, should we identify neighborhoods that are underserved and restructure routes? To what extent should we ensure bus service directly links underserved communities to job centers, even if such service may not be as productive as other services?”

Meanwhile, as public transportation ridership numbers went down, car-related deaths went up. In the first half of 2021, more than 20,000 people died in car crashes, the highest rate since 2006. Vehicle miles traveled have almost returned to 2019 levels.

Experts told the Guardian that lower car traffic could actually cause more road deaths by allowing cars to go faster.

“The roadway system in the U.S. is built for speed, so when the traffic disappeared when COVID hit, traffic fatalities went off the chart,” Benito Perez, policy director at Transportation for America, told the U.K.-based publication. “People are also spreading out their trips during the day, and more people are walking and biking on roads designed for cars. So you’re getting this constant conflict. It’s a recipe for fatal crashes.”

A bus drives on a freeway under an overhead roadway.
A Metro Silver Line bus in Los Angeles in July 2021. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Still, said Wasserman, the pandemic showed that public transit is an essential public good, even if it’s not always profitable.

“Even though ridership is down on public transit, it served an absolutely essential service [during the pandemic],” Wasserman said. “It got people to medical appointments, to work, to see their loved ones — at a time when there were a lot of things in doubt — and public transit provided that backbone.”

Chris Hippensteel, Amina Shreve and Hannah Ferrera are students at Syracuse University.