How is coronavirus reshaping public transportation ridership? Can we expect to see some long-lasting shifts in the industry?
KA: In the short term, public transportation is at great risk: funding will be cut and ridership will be down. Some transportation systems will likely fail. But in the medium and longer term, communities and governments can rethink public transportation and build more resilient and effective systems.
EE: For riders who have a choice to drive or telecommute, they are unlikely to come back to the system in any large numbers as long as the virus persists and remains untreatable and without a vaccine. Worse, social distancing makes transit highly inefficient, given the tight quarters in rail cars or buses. And it might be impossible in some cases.
How could this affect California's climate goals?
KA: It would not be shocking to see a sharp rise in vehicle miles traveled as people return to work and shun public transit. But, again, with some vision and planning, communities can increase active transportation options, help promote zero emission vehicles, and integrate different approaches to mobility that reduce the need for cars. As usual, it is up to us: more cars, traffic, GHG emissions, or some vision, planning, investment, and change.
EE: Generally, a decline in transit ridership is damaging to California's climate goals. Transportation emissions comprise almost half the state's carbon footprint when factoring in oil refinery emissions, so part of the solution is reducing the amount of driving miles per capita (along with deployment of zero-emission vehicles). So if transit riders now drive more, that will greatly hurt our climate progress. However, if those riders instead end up telecommuting more from home, and they don't take a lot of extra driving trips during the day for errands, we could actually net out positively on emissions overall from reduced driving.
Are there any promising eco-alternatives while public transit ridership remains low?
KA: Clearly, many people and companies are embracing work from home. This development seems like it may last, reducing not just VMT but air travel as well. E-bikes and other transportation options are starting to increase significantly, at least in good weather. We need to think through what constitutes a resilient community - one that improves public health in a viral age but also reduces air emissions and the impacts of climate change. Can we get the state's 18 Metropolitan Planning Organizations to at least model very different approaches? It seems like a good time to do so.
EE: Telecommuting is the big eco-alternative to transit ridership, and going forward it may be the default option for employees and their employers post-COVID. But for people who need to commute, we're seeing an uptick in e-scooters and e-bikes, which require social distancing by definition and are a form of zero-emission travel. Cities can encourage this use by dedicating more streets exclusively to non-automobile travel (the "slow streets" movement that we're seeing in places like Oakland and San Francisco). There may also be long-term promise in smaller zero-emission shuttles, perhaps even of the autonomous variety.