I had it all figured out. I had a new job that was just a stone’s throw from a train station, and to top it all off, the express bus from Enfield stopped right in front of it. I had two entire public transit options for getting to work. Heaven! Then the pandemic happened.
When I go out now, I take the car. If I’m traveling anywhere, I take the car. And sure, the commute is better because the roads are much less congested, but I miss being able to leave the car at home and ride to work.
The problem, of course, is that spending a lot of time in a small, enclosed space with lots of other people is putting oneself at much higher risk for exposure to the coronavirus. Bus drivers and transit workers are at even higher risk, which is why in May, CTTransit drivers protested to call attention to the lack of basic PPE and the need for hazard pay.
That’s why transit ridership has cratered all across the country, as well as here in Connecticut. Those that needed to take transit and had no other option rode anyway, but everybody else stayed away.
Now that the number of cases is dropping into safer territory and the state is slowly opening up again, the question of whether people will actually come back to transit is a big one.
The trouble is that once we associate something with being sick or with danger, it’s hard to unlink those things in our minds.
But the need for people to ride quality, reliable transit remains. If you don’t believe me, take a look around. See how much better our cities and roadways work when there are many, many fewer cars? During this pause, pollution levels around the globe have fallen dramatically, partly because of fewer automobile emissions. Fewer cars is a good thing!
So how can we convince people to come back to transit, or to try it out for the first time, after a global pandemic?
The good news is that a lot of transit users say they plan to return. A survey done as part of a larger study by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign found that 92% of transit users who had stopped riding during the pandemic said they planned on returning once things got back to normal.
But will they really? And what about potential new riders?
I have to admit, I’m going to be very nervous the first time I set foot on a bus or a train, especially if it’s full. I’m sure I’m not the only one, either. So what can government and transit agencies do to reassure people that it’s safe?
The Tri State Transportation Campaign report has a lot of excellent recommendations based on feedback from riders and experts, including mandatory masks, frequent cleaning, even more cleaning of high-touch and high-traffic areas, protection for drivers and transit staff, improving ventilation, and more frequent and faster service to reduce crowding.
All of these are great ideas, and it’s not a surprise that a few of them can help meet overall transit goals, like more frequent service. These should hopefully help people feel more comfortable riding again.
But I have an even better way to get people back on board transit: make it free.
Hear me out. Passenger fares often make up only a fraction of the budget of any transit agency — the rest comes from government subsidies. There is no transit agency that can make a profit, and nor should there be. That’s not why they exist!
Making transit free would boost ridership greatly, and it would be a boon to struggling families. Removing payment on buses also makes the trip a lot faster. These are all reasons why cities were experimenting with free transit before the pandemic hit.
But there’s a very practical reason to make transit free, too: passengers wouldn’t have to interact with drivers or ticket-takers, or touch a payment surface that’s already been touched by many others. Getting rid of fares would protect both passengers and drivers, and help prevent the spread of disease.
So yes, most riders will probably return, including myself. But making transit free would bring new people on board now and in the post-virus days to come, and that will be good for everyone.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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