Prior to March 2020, the public transit system in the United States primarily focused on traditional 9-to-5 commuters traveling into cities and business districts. While public transit use for these commuters has slowly been on the rise, it will never return to pre-pandemic levels. According to a 2022 Gallup poll of remote-capable employees, 53 percent expect a hybrid arrangement, and 24 percent expect to work exclusively remotely moving forward. As we look ahead to a new normal in ridership, public transportation leaders need to better understand who is using public transit in 2023 and beyond.
For many cities and surrounding suburbs, the pandemic made it apparent where transportation priorities need to shift. There is a group of riders who have always relied on public transit before, during, and after the height of the pandemic to not only commute to work, but to receive healthcare services, attend school, and run errands. These riders are often members of underserved groups, including people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and individuals in low-income neighborhoods, and those living in rural communities or tribal lands.
And while reasons for using public transportation varies, these core riders often fall into one of three categories:
Individuals who have jobs that are not remote-capable (i.e. healthcare, retail)
Individuals without reliable access to a vehicle
Individuals without a driver’s license (Teenagers are getting their driver’s licenses at far lower rates than previous generations – read full story)
“Public transit is an equalizer, a way to provide access to marginalized communities. The pandemic changed the way we were perceived, but also, just as importantly, the way we perceived our riders.” – Adam Brandolph, Pittsburgh Regional Transit
Let’s explore how transportation teams from across the country are working to better support these core riders.
Addressing the First and Last Mile Challenge
One of the barriers to public transit for many individuals is not being within a walkable distance from a necessary transit stop, also known as the first and last mile challenge.
Some cities have turned to micromobility solutions, such as electric scooters, bikes, and mopeds to help solve this issue. When adding micromobility into your public transit system, be sure to use existing data to strategically place docking stations to better address first and last mile challenges. Often these solutions are stand-alone programs that are not fully integrated into the larger transportation plan for a region.
Transportation departments are also utilizing rideshare services to help get riders to and from transit stops and their final destinations. King County (which services the Seattle region) has recently implemented an on-demand rideshare pilot program that will transport an individual to transit hubs or local services, such as community centers, grocery stores, the library, or doctor offices.
Secure WiFi Access
For individuals living in low-income households or in rural and tribal communities, unreliable access to the Internet, either due to cost or infrastructure, is another challenge faced daily. One way transportation leaders can support the new core rider is by providing free, secure WiFi access on public transportation (i.e. shuttles, trains) and at public transit stops (i.e. subway stations, bus stops).
Free WiFi allows riders to follow transit schedules, check their email, and access other essential online resources. Additionally, having Internet access along routes will improve safety for both passengers and drivers.
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)
With the decrease in typical 9-to-5 commuters, and the increase in public transit being used for essential trips and daily errands, it is becoming difficult to predict peak hours. Due to this shift, transportation departments need to be more agile and find ways to shorten wait times at transit stops. One solution that has been slow to adopt in the U.S. — Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).
According to the Federal Transit Administration, Bus Rapid Transit is a high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast and efficient service that may include dedicated lanes, busways, traffic signal priority, off-board fare collection, elevated platforms and enhanced stations. Some of the best examples currently deployed in the U.S. include the Healthline in Cleveland and the L.A. Metro G Line (Orange).
The newly proposed Bus Rapid Transit Act would allocate $12 billion annually over five years to help cities implement new BRT systems, including overhauls of current bus routes. This funding could help encourage more cities to implement their own BRT systems to improve service for core riders.
Addressing the first and last mile challenge, deploying WiFi, and implementing a BRT system are just a few ways in which transportation departments can work to support their core riders – underserved individuals who rely on public transit to access work, education, healthcare, and essential daily errands. When securing funding and planning projects for your transit systems, be sure to include improvements that make it easier than ever for core riders to access public transit safely and reliably.
“The pandemic really exposed the truth that there are people for whom public transit is a vitally important public service.” – Alex Karner, Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Austin