Policy Hackathon: Can public transit recover from Covid-19?

When the country was closed, the number of transit drivers collapsed. Now that things are back to normal, transit officers have an opportunity to redesign their systems to be more efficient and fairer.

To gauge the extent of the problem and come up with some policy responses, POLITICO brought together 12 of the most accomplished urban transport leaders, transport systems designers, government officials and thought leaders from across the country, one of whom was from Europe. For nearly two hours, they used Zoom to take stock of how the pandemic has changed due to the pandemic, discuss which of these changes will continue beyond this moment, and come up with ideas on how cities and communities will address our post-pandemic transportation needs can best meet.

As the conversation showed, this is not an easy puzzle. Even before the pandemic, less than 6 percent of Americans commuted to work in transit – a low-rate policy has long opposed but failed to remedy. Americans’ habit of driving alone has clogged cities with traffic and blamed traffic for more CO2 emissions than any other sector. Many policy makers believe that transit is essential for our cities to achieve a cleaner, healthier and fairer future.

Could Covid-19 allow public transportation to hit the reset button and recalibrate their mission and practices? Here’s what our policy hackers said.


W.When Americans were told to avoid crowded spaces, it meant buses and trains, subways and trams. Our political hackers set out what happened in the months that followed and some of the lessons policy makers learned from it.

Widespread service cuts

National, The number of transit drivers fell by 80 percentSo it’s no wonder that many agencies chose the service a long time ago. Some switched to a weekend schedule or stopped night shifts.

However, those attending the hackathon said these cuts would soon create new problems. Basic workers who had low-paying service jobs that Americans eventually recognized – but not paid for – were still forced to work in grocery stores, nursing homes, hospitals, and, yes, transit agencies.

These cuts “made it harder for key workers to work in the toughest year of many people’s lives,” said Steven Higashide of TransitCenter, a nonprofit foundation focused on improving transportation systems.

And it wasn’t just workers. Other important travel was also affected, including access to medical care.

“People still had dialysis,” said Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins of the Defense Council for Natural Resources. “Much of the impact on the way we shut down the services over the past year has been so real. People were literally coming outside and we didn’t have any buses waiting for them. “

Understanding that their job was no longer to boost passenger traffic, but rather to keep the fragile fabric of society from falling apart, some agencies set themselves the task of making sure that key workers get where they need to go.

“We have seen this heroic effort across the country to reallocate service to meet the needs and protect the health of key workers,” said Higashide. “In Houston, for example, there were many routes where the agency was offering more services than it did before the pandemic, to places like the Texas Medical Center and other places that had a lot of important travel.”

Veronica O. Davis, Houston city’s transportation director, noted that potholes and repairs were being filled and the city even moved forward with “aggressive advances due to the work of” mostly black and brown men “showing up to work during the pandemic “his plans to improve transit.

This meant that there were only bus lanes and dedicated lanes for rail were created, sometimes even car lanes were removed and access to bus stops was improved.

Some agencies struggled to allocate limited resources, while others were nimble and used real-time data to reevaluate and optimize service day in and day out. Some agencies have accelerated the adoption of technology that will allow them to better monitor system usage during the pandemic so that they can better respond to changing requirements later.

Equity suffered as a result

Alex Posorske of Ride New Orleans, a driver advocacy group, said the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) initially shut down service on a bus route that mostly served universities that had closed to Covid. It was an effort to be strategic in how they made cuts to ensure frequent service on lines that were still heavily used. But the change didn’t last.

“Two phone calls from some disgruntled voters to the local councilor and then one call to the CEO of the RTA and that bus got back on track,” said Posorske. He said he knew of health care workers whose buses were so full that social distancing was impossible. “Meanwhile, that other bus that two people seem really, really liked, was still running at two passengers an hour.”

People emigrated

The pandemic caused a multitude of movements. Parents whose small children were suddenly at home and whose schools and playgrounds were closed and whose play dates were outside the limits moved in with their grandparents. Workers who were suddenly unemployed moved in search of lower rents. People escaping the cities, especially when the coronavirus pierced New York in the early days of the pandemic, and some employees used remote work and school to live wherever they wanted.

“Second-tier cities are successful in attracting people from the big cities, and that’s something new,” said Mohamed Mezghani of the International Association of Public Transport. “It’s not just about people moving to the periphery of cities, but also about people moving outside of the big cities.”

Part of it was just the continuation of a trend that had already occurred, and in the cases of New York and San Francisco, much-needed pressures relieved the overheated real estate market. But in other subway areas, remote real estate boomed as city dwellers broke out of cramped apartments and indulged in a suburban backyard once everything they loved about city life was closed.

Whether drawn out of necessity or voluntarily, these steps have put many out of the reach of transit – something that could become more problematic as the world reopens when these moves are long-lasting.

The rush hour disappeared

The political hackers determined that the pandemic may have permanently changed commuting behavior and that this has long-term effects on local public transport.

“We’re never going to let everyone go back to the 9-to-5 commute like they did before,” said transit advisor Jarrett Walker.

The pandemic has proven that many people are just as productive or working more from home as they are in an office – no more commuting and fewer fruitless meetings. This opened the floodgates to a trend that was already underway: increased remote working.

Our transport systems are designed for rush hour. This is why highways are so wide and transit drives the most frequently. However, during the pandemic, the main travel flattened as many people working from home ran errands in the middle of the day. Even as the drivers slowly return to transit, the hackathon participants realized we were seeing one Afternoon travel boom but very little morning frenzy. If employees continue to work from home at least a few days a week after the pandemic, or come to meetings as needed but not stay all day, rush hour can remain flat.

“This opens up a tremendous opportunity,” said Walker. “The ability to provide better service at all times is not only important to encourage less dependency on cars and lower CO2 emissions, but basically also a strategy for equity and racial justice, as people with lower incomes, especially colored people To do this, commuters are just much less likely to be out and about during rush hour and are much more likely to be out and about all of the time. “

Hub-and-spoke systems are out of date

Most of the transit was built on the hub-and-spoke model to bring people from the suburbs to the city center to work or shop. This has not worked well for decades as suburban office parks, decentralized business districts and urban sprawl have continued to lure or push residents to places where population density and land use patterns are unsuitable for local transport.

However, the transport agencies have mostly collected information on commuting, not other types of journeys. Hence, they did not have the tools to design systems differently. Walker found that trips to work make up only 20 percent of transit trips.

“The drive to work data is the basis for so many of our decisions, and then we shut everyone else out,” said Zabe Bent, design director for the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “Community colleges and technical schools are goals. Why are most of them inaccessible by transit? “

Bent also noted that travel to work isn’t in isolation – people take their kids to school or stop at the grocery store after work. “If they can’t actually do the entire trip, including all of their intermittent stops in a different mode – if they have to take a car to one of these – they’re only going to take the car for the whole day,” she said.

Transportation for America’s Beth Osborne said the “unique focus” of transit agencies from Covid should be on improving access to all travel other than work.

“A 30 to 45 minute work trip is perfectly acceptable and a 30 minute work trip is considered very desirable,” said Osborne. “But 30 minutes of shopping is a public policy problem.”


W.When local governments and transit systems ask voters to pay higher taxes to improve transit, voters overwhelmingly agree. At the federal level, however, POLITICO’s political hackers said the government had not been nearly as successful in creating a unified vision for transport. This can be seen in the fact that since 1993 the federal government has not even tried to ask people to pay more for transportation.

“One thing that has caused this pandemic is that it has torn so many seams that we have a tremendous opportunity to truly fight for the hearts and minds of the American public,” said Beverly Scott, four-time CEO for Public Transportation and Public Transportation Infrastructure consultant.

Our hackathon participants had some ideas on where to start in the battle for hearts and minds. Here are five takeaways from the discussion.

1. It is time to end the transit red-lining.

Talks about justice have taken center stage following the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. Katharine Kelleman, of the Allegheny County Port Authority, which serves the Pittsburgh area, said that as the transit agencies begin their recovery, they should reconsider “service decisions of the previous century” and grapple with ways they may have contributed to redlining and other deleterious factors Guidelines.

“You know, Covid didn’t break these things,” said Kelleman. “Covid showed us what was broken.”

Hackathon attendees largely opposed the idea that there was a compromise between serving the passage-dependent drivers who are already their core constituency and trying to attract new constituencies by luring people out of their cars. Most said agencies should continue to focus on their core competency – people with no access to cars, who rely on transit, key workers who travel off-peak, and not just into central business districts.

“Transit is one of the few places where we are expected to neglect the consumer who uses our service 30 to 35 times a week and chase after someone who may use it five times a week,” said Kelleman.

TransitCenter’s Higashide suggested, “One of the most reliable ways to build a driver base is to improve transit service in places where there is already a driver base and where the driver base is already strong. Now that means we’re really focusing on color communities and focusing on the places where people haven’t stopped using transit. “

Overall, participants rejected the idea that they should choose one group over another.

“That was a conversation we had when we all agreed to severely underfund the transit,” said Osborne.

2. Focus on bus traffic again.

While rail travel – often the mode that attracts the coveted “choice rider” – was generally built to bring downtown commuters to work, many of the hackathon contestants emphasized that the bus was the workhorse, and in some cases even that “Hero” of the transit network.

Walker noted that the flexibility of buses – the ability to easily change routes – is often turned against them, with rail being seen as a better engine for economic development because of its persistence.

“And now everyone in the technology world who is driving the microtransit forward comes from. [saying] The solid transit is so rigid, ”said Walker. “The sweet spot we find ourselves in with bus traffic … this is the only thing that is both efficient and scalable.”

He now said bus-oriented development begins where he lives in Portland, Oregon and other locations, and “lines bus routes with four-story residential buildings.”

Hackathoners advocated this way of aligning residential development with transit development so that transit serves the population centers and residents can get to where they need to go without driving a car.

3. Unravel jurisdictions.

The hackathon participants unanimously criticized the fragmented authorities that regulate the city’s roads and transport services, disempower the city guides and make even small changes prohibitively cumbersome.

When a city has 10,000 bus stops, “each of them needs a permit, a permit that I don’t give,” Scott said.

Bent noted that some hurdles “went away during the pandemic because we realized we need to take some serious steps and we need to do more of them.”

How? Our hackathon runners, who mostly represent cities, not states, advocated direct city funding rather than channeling all federal funds through state transportation ministries, which focus on highways rather than transit, cycling and walking. Competitive federal funding programs, with which cities and transit agencies can apply for funds directly, are enormously popular, but formula funding is provided by states.

Keith Benjamin, transportation director for Charleston, S.C., said the contradicting and overlapping maze of authorities made his job particularly complicated. Some larger cities “own all of their roads, tie up their transportation budgets, have no government regulations to hinder their decisions,” he said. “We’re fourth nationwide in terms of the number of streets owned by the state DOT. That means I need permission from my county office to put up a stop sign.”

Osborne noted that highway agencies always need to be involved in improving transit as “most of the transit journeys on the roads” are “beyond the control of the transit agencies”.

Mezghani pointed to integrated mobility agencies appearing in some European cities and in Dubai, combining all modes of transport and achieving better transit acceptance.

“It’s not just about money,” said Mezghani. “I mean, money will of course help, but it’s a governance problem.”

4. Make driving worse.

Some residents complain about “social engineering” when cities purposely want to make solo driving less attractive. However, those attending the hackathon found that public order had long done the opposite, subsidizing gasoline and parking spaces, stopping encouraging transit use, and reserving a large amount of public space for private car traffic and storage – essentially around the to construct today’s dependency on cars.

“If we let drivers go where they want, they can park wherever they want, and they can use their cars whenever they want, then we cannot increase public transport market share,” Mezghani said.

Part of the problem with private cars is that they make buses less efficient and make them travel slower. Inefficiency often leads to inequality, and as low-income people are priced out of downtown areas, the people who live near convenient transit access are the ones for whom that access is a convenience rather than a necessity.

We live “in a world of scarcity, in a world of austerity in our public transport system,” said Yonah Freemark of the Urban Institute. “As a society, we have decided to really invest too little in the quality of the transit services we offer. That is why we got into this situation where there is a perception that only poor people use transit. “

“But the reality is, if you look at some of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, transit usage rates are actually highest among those with the highest incomes,” Freemark continued. “And that’s because in those places the transit services are of better quality.”

President Joe Biden’s drive to electrify vehicles will advance our climate goals, but “a clean traffic jam is still a traffic jam,” said Mezghani. Quality transit addresses climate, congestion, land use equity and social inclusion at the same time by prioritizing public space for the most efficient modes of transport.

5. Revise data systems.

In order for the transport system to achieve its goals, it needs good data. But our panellists agreed that governments measure the wrong things and measure them badly.

“We tend to say your system is healthy as long as your driver numbers are going up,” said Bent. “We have to be more nuanced. We need to look at travel times and how competitive they are for driving. We need to make sure there is accessibility between modes. We need to ensure that on-time performance is working – across the network, not just the core system. “

Rather than measuring congestion by how much time traffic is contributing to car journeys, proponents have put pressure on policy makers to measure people’s access to destinations across modes. You also want the CO2 emissions to be part of the evaluation of projects. When evaluating motorway projects, the measurement data should take into account the “induced demand” or the amount of additional driving that will result from expanding the capacity of a road.

“Including induced demand on our highways would result in a very different type of investment in each state in the Union,” said Osborne.

Better metrics will also lead to more equity, Bent said. It is important to “have a framework based on actual information” rather than just hearing the loudest voices, which “will always be the most privileged voices”.


P.OLITICO’s political hackers did not agree on all points, but they all conveyed a sense of urgency in recalibrating public transport goals and practices for the post-pandemic period. With all of the damage Covid has done to urban transportation systems, it was also an opportunity for them to learn more about the use of transit, rethink the mission, and reallocate resources.

Short-term, Steven Higashide said he feared persistently low driver numbers could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if transit agencies hoard government Covid aid money in anticipation of a slow recovery. Instead, it is a pivotal moment for transit officials to show what they have learned and what their systems can do as economic recovery looms.

“We need service on the road,” said Higashide. “We need improvements now to drive the recovery and to compete for everyone.”

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