Here’s how the pandemic has affected public transit demand across the US

Hopping on the NYC subway around peak commuting time used to be a surefire way to find yourself crammed elbow-to-elbow with other people for the duration of your trip. Nowadays, subway cars in New York are a much different experience.

Indeed, the coronavirus has flipped the script on virtually everything about day-to-day life, and public transit is no different. Traveling with strangers in a cramped, closed setting isn’t exactly a recipe for safety during a viral pandemic.

A new study from Ohio State University, though, has found some surprising fluctuations in public transit demand among various U.S. cities and areas during the pandemic.

While it’s true that public transit use has dropped considerably nationwide this year (a 73% decrease across the country), researchers say certain cities saw much bigger declines than others. 

Generally speaking, large east and west coast cities like Seattle, New York, and San Francisco experienced much more drastic drops in public transit demand than cities located in the middle of the country (the Midwest, South). 

As far as why that’s the case, the research team at OSU says it all comes down to the prevailing types of jobs in these areas. Coastal cities are hubs for technology-centric jobs in the computer science and IT fields, as well as other fast-paced industries like finance and entertainment. San Francisco’s “Silicon Valley” is perhaps the most obvious example of this trend. 

For employees working in these areas, it wasn’t all that hard to transition over to remote work once the reality of the pandemic set in. In other areas of the country, where jobs that require one’s physical presence are more common and widespread, many more workers have been forced to keep riding the rails in 2020.

“Many of the people who used public transit in large, coastal cities could work remotely from home after the pandemic,” comments lead study author Luyu Liu, a doctoral student in geography at OSU, in a release. “But in cities in the Midwest and the deep South, most public transit users have jobs where they still had to come in to work during the pandemic and didn’t have any other choice.”

To put it another way, workers employed by jobs deemed “essential” have had to continue using public transit despite the obvious health risks. And, there are more essential jobs in the middle of the country.

“These are the health care workers, people working service jobs, working in grocery stores, people who clean and maintain buildings,” explains study co-author Harvey Miller, professor of geography at OSU. “It is a dramatic social equity story about who has to move during the pandemic.”

Besides geographic location, race was identified as another big predictor of public transit use. The more African-Americans residing in an urban area, the less public transit demand declined this year. Notably, researchers also say that most Black public transit users this year have been women. For example, during the early days of the pandemic as much as 70% of African-American public transit users were female.

Also, areas that showed a high percentage of Google searches for the word “coronavirus” saw bigger drops in public transit use. Researchers theorize this means people living in these areas took the threat of the virus very seriously.

Once an essential consideration for any regular public transit rider, “rush hours” in the morning and late afternoon have essentially disappeared as well. 

“In some cities, there wasn’t even a morning or afternoon peak anymore – and weekdays and weekends started to resemble each other more in terms of demand,” professor Miller explains. “Many of these essential workers don’t have traditional 9 to 5 schedules. Their work needs to get done at all hours, seven days a week.”

For whatever reason, areas with big populations of residents over the age of 45 also saw higher public transit demand this year. Considering that older adults are at an elevated risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms, this finding in particular is troubling.

How were all of these conclusions reached? Researchers used information collected by the phone app called Transit, which displays data on public-transit rides and trip-planning in real-time. In all, data on 113 different transit systems spread across 63 metro areas and 28 states were included. That data accounted for ride information between February 15th and May 17th of this year.

In conclusion, the study’s authors believe their work makes a compelling case that our nation’s public transit systems are just as essential as the integral workers they support and transport. 

“The people who are using public transit are those who need to come to work even when everything else is locked down. They have no choice. We need to build our public transit systems to serve these people,” professor Miller concludes.

The full study can be found here, published in PLOS ONE.