Out With Buses, In With Rideshare

Car and freight travel have reached pre-pandemic levels, but public transit and passenger rail are not expected to recover fully. Many employers are allowing remote work, and, for some, the model of going to the office daily may be over. It’s past time to rethink how to spend federal and state transportation dollars.

Despite people’s preferences for personal transportation, Congress has allocated stimulus $69 billion in three separate funding laws to public transit systems since the beginning of the pandemic; an additional $109 billion in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act; and $16 billion in fiscal year 2022 spending.

That’s a total of $194 billion for public transit, or more than $580 for every person in America. Yet even before the pandemic in 2019, only 5 percent of Americans regularly rode public transit, according to the Census Bureau, and far fewer ride public transit now. That means the federal government is spending more than $11,000 for every American who actually rides public transit regularly. In its latest budget request for fiscal year 2023, the Administration has requested an additional $23 billion for public transit.

This is partly due to the power of the AFL-CIO’s Transport Workers Union, which represents 150,000 transportation workers. According to OpenSecrets.org, the union contributed $1.8 million to political candidates in the 2020 election cycle, 89 percent to Democrats.

Americans’ preferred means of travel were shifting away from public transit before the pandemic, and these changes accelerated during the pandemic and afterwards. The highest level of ridership for the Washington Metro was in 2011, and it has been declining since then—steadily through 2019, and a sharp drop since then.

Public transit systems rely on millions of riders a day (New York City) or hundreds of thousands of riders a day (Washington, DC) to avoid losing large sums. These systems already depend on Federal and State subsidies, and, unless they return to dense ridership, subsidies will grow larger or the transit systems will go out larger of business.

Data for Washington, DC show that average Metro subway rides per day in 2022 were 125,000, down not only from 2019 pre-pandemic levels of 626,000, but also lower than the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021.

In New York City, subway ridership during the weekdays of the week of March 21 was about 3.2 million, 56 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Interesting, in a trend that can be seen elsewhere, ridership on weekends was about 1.75 million, 64 percent of pre-pandemic levels, showing that a higher share of people have returned to the subway for leisure than for work. Since fewer people used the subway on the weekends prior to the pandemic, weekend ridership remains well below weekday ridership.

Other major cities, such as Chicago and Los Angeles, are seeing similar trends.

In order to pass the latest round of fiscal year 2022 spending, Congress had to suspend the Rostenkowski Test, which mandates that if there are insufficient funds in the Highway Trust Fund, the amounts disbursed for mass transit must be reduced.

Americans prefer the flexibility and safety of cars rather than group travel, where they risk catching Covid. TomTom, which provides traffic information and navigation systems, estimates that traffic is higher midday than before the pandemic, and slightly lower during peak hours.

One rationale for subsidizing public transit, even though it operates at a loss, is that low-income and “essential” workers use it. However, the development of digital platforms has enabled new forms of shared transportation such as rideshare and van pools to operate at a lower cost than buses and subways.

These new forms of transportation are far more convenient than traditional public transit and would be preferred by low-income and “essential” workers, but do not count as public transportation for the purposes of the Department of Transportation funding.

For instance, if a nurse is getting off duty at midnight, she may well prefer to take an Uber home rather than to wait for a bus or subway, especially as crime has increased in many cities.

New apps can provide faster and lower-cost public transportation. Via, for example, has set up app-based “microtransit” systems in cities such as Arlington, Texas; Jersey City, New Jersey; Sacramento, California; and Gainesville, Georgia.

Via’s microtransit services take the form of shared vehicles that pick up individuals (more than one person per car) within a few blocks from their starting point and drop them off a few blocks from where they want to go. This “on-demand” shared ride transportation is similar to technology used by rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft, which provide individual rides. In Gainesville, Georgia, Via rides replaced the existing bus service and provided rides at a 59 percent lower cost per trip.

America natural values ​​its essential workers. That is why Congress is doing them a disservice by funding buses and subways that are coming less and less frequently rather than app-based services. The $11,000 spent per regular public transit rider could purchase quite a few Uber rides to the benefit of the travelers and the American public who subsidize public transit.

Should cities want to subsidize low-income individuals, they could use food stamps as a model. Some people are issued debit cards for groceries through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). similarly, they could be issued with Supplemental Travel Assistance Program (STAP) cards to access new app-based transportation technologies—at a significant savings to municipalities over providing large, empty buses on fixed routes.

Technology, travel, and personal preferences are changing. But Congress is shortchanging Americans by addressing transportation in the same way as in the 19th and 20th centuries. Federal and state governments should focus on allowing Americans to have that meets personal needs, not the needs of those who want to spend ever more funds on mass transit systems that fewer people use.

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