Why would transit agencies even make these considerable expenditures at a time when they're carrying so few passengers? With everything else in our society and economy shut down right now, why don't transit providers just do the same in order to conserve resources?
Transit consultant Jarrett Walker explains why that isn't possible:
Why are agencies behaving this way? Because they are not businesses. And if there’s one thing we must learn from this moment, it’s that we have to stop talking about transit as though ridership is its only purpose, and its primary measure of success.
Right now, essential services have to keep going. It's not just the hospital, the grocery store, and basic utilities. It’s the entire supply chain that keeps those places stocked, running, and secure. Almost all of these jobs are low-wage. The people using transit now are working in hospitals that are saving lives. They are creating, shipping and selling urgently needed supplies. They are keeping grocery stores functioning, so we can eat.
In transit conversations we often talk about meeting the needs of people who depend on transit. This makes transit sound like something we’re doing for them. But in fact, those people are providing services that we all depend on, so by serving those lower income riders, we’re all serving ourselves.
The goal of transit, right now, is neither competing for riders nor providing a social service for those in need. It is helping prevent the collapse of civilization.
What’s more, transit has always been doing that. Those “essential service” workers, who are overwhelmingly low-income, have always been there, moving around quietly in our transit systems, keeping our cities functioning. Too often, we have patronized them by calling them needy or dependent when in fact everything would collapse if they couldn’t get to work.Interestingly, the theme of today’s Google’s “Doodle of the Day” was dedicated to public transportation workers. They are at the front line of the battle against Coronavirus, providing the essential service of getting other essential workers to hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies, warehouses, and other essential businesses. They are also dying as they provide this essential service.
As I've said before: public transportation, as its name implies, is a public good, like police and fire protection, parks, and libraries. While we ideally want its services to be used as much as possible, its primary purpose (contrary to what its libertarian critics might claim) is not to continually increase ridership or maximize farebox recovery. Its purpose is to provide mobility to the people who need it, including (and especially) in times of crisis.
"In big cities, transit is an essential service, like police and water, without which nothing else is possible, Walker concludes. "Maybe that’s how we should measure its results."