The Plight of Transit in 2021

I used to post a Quarterly Transit report, but that stopped with the onset of the pandemic. There was little to report and it was bad news anyway. I confess to have been in mourning for the transit system I helped build during my Metro Transit career.

The transit system is now about half of what it was. It seems unlikely to return to its previous size anytime soon. Pre-Covid it served primarily commute trips, which tend to be predictable and repetitive, a much easier sell for transit than spontaneous trips for other purposes. Commute trips were concentrated in the rush hour and mostly destined for a downtown or the University of Minnesota. In those markets the automobile had the disadvantage of paid parking. Express buses had HOV lanes and bus-only shoulders to bypass hellish traffic congestion, a winning recipe for attracting office workers. We called them “choice riders”. They could drive, but made the choice to take transit instead. Most of them are gone now, and won’t return until the downtowns reopen.

Will the downtowns recover? Keeping workers on the job electronically has proven they can work remotely and most prefer to do so at least part-time. Rush hour commuter express buses lost 90 percent of their riders and have hardly rebounded at all. For that reason, 40 commuter routes have been suspended. Some will be revived, but it’s hard to imagine a full return. Office workers who have returned complain that they spend all day on Zoom calls with their colleagues who are still at home.

The transit system has reverted to what it was in the 1960s, basic transportation for the people we always called “transit dependents”. Many are the essential workers who can’t work from home. They must commute. It’s a bigger, better transit system now, with light rail, expanding bus rapid transit, better buses, hub and spoke transit centers and more suburban service. Robust online information and mobile apps with real-time data make transit much more user friendly. But the fact remains that choice ridership (sports venues and airport trips excepted) has largely disappeared.

As the office workers return, will Metro Transit be able to revive the needed service? Until the national labor shortage ends, the answer is no. A recent staff report says Metro Transit is 80 drivers short of what it needs to operate the current shrunken service. Recruiting bus drivers has always been difficult during times of low unemployment. Despite good pay and benefits, it’s no one’s first choice for a career.

Across the country, transit systems are reassessing their service strategies. They’ve all noticed that the local bus routes, the unglamorous former streetcar lines in the center cities, have retained a higher percent of their riders than the expresses or the rail lines. Supplemented by more BRT and LRT, I think the emphasis will be on higher frequencies in the traditional urban corridors, plus improving more suburban routes from hourly to half-hourly frequencies.

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.