An IBM report released earlier this month revealed some significant changes in consumer sentiment and public willingness to use certain mobility methods as a result of COVID-19. The study polled more than 25,000 adults during the month of April. Of the respondents that regularly used buses, subways, or trains: 20 percent said they no longer would utilize those options; an additional 28 percent said they would use public transportation less often. 17 percent of people surveyed said they will use their personal vehicle more; 25 percent of that 17 percent said it will be their exclusive method of transportation going forward.
Consumer perception of public transportation and the ways we move has shifted dramatically in just three short months. These results indicate that a significant number of U.S. consumers intend to drastically change the ways they travel in the aftermath of COVID-19. If these sentiments remain in place in the coming years, the decrease in public transportation ridership would mean decreased fee collections, which can lead to several options for cities to fund public transportation, including (1) an increase in ridership fees, (2) an increase in general tax revenue devoted to public transportation, or (3) a decrease in service offerings. All of these options are undesirable, especially in cities where private vehicle ownership is low, and many workers may have no option other than public transportation. The cities with the largest annual ridership numbers for subway or metro are New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, Boston, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Removing 20 percent of public transportation riders completely and decreasing the usage of nearly 30 percent more would be financially catastrophic for any city transit authority. In 2019, the New York MTA brought in nearly $17 Billion. The current decrease in ridership (down 74 percent) has already required the MTA to seek billions in aid from the federal government and led to a first-ever decrease in working hours to sanitize trains overnight. A sustained decrease of more than 30 percent of rides per year would require a systemic overhaul of the metro system or some other drastic measures.
While some respondents indicated they will use their personal vehicles more, it is clear that in cities where public transportation is most utilized, many people do not have access to a personal vehicle. This will place a difficult decision on many underserved and minority communities: return to using public transportation and face an elevated risk of potential infection, struggle to find a job closer to home to avoid transportation, or save for a personal vehicle to avoid public transportation. Owning a vehicle in major cities can be prohibitively expensive for low-income households, and affordable parking can be nearly impossible to find. As transit authorities raise prices to compensate for lost riders, more riders may depart as the cost of ridership becomes too high for their budget. This could lead to a death spiral for public transportation. These systems simply cannot sustain 90 percent ridership decreases.
The same IBM survey also found that the decision to buy a personal vehicle after COVID-19 was “greatly” influenced by a constraint on their personal finances for more than 33 percent of respondents. 25 percent said they would hold off on buying a vehicle for more than 6 months. So for many people who wish to stop using public transportation, there is no safe and affordable option immediately available. Some may point to rideshare services as a safer alternative to the cramped quarters of public transportation. But according to the survey, of the respondents who used rideshare apps and services already, more than 50 percent said they would use the services less, or stop entirely. Uber and Lyft are going to see an incredible drop off in ridership; Uber and Lyft both halted their carpooling services in March. Uber trips were already down 70 percent in some cities in March. These numbers are sure to increase, and the companies will recover financially due to the increase in demand for UberEats during this crisis. However, the surge in ridership seen in recent years will take many years to reach 2019 peaks.
Finally, the IBM survey also asked about working from home, a topic I wrote about at the end of March. Around 40 percent of respondents indicated they feel strongly that their employer should provide employees the option to opt-in to remote working from home going forward. 75 percent indicated they would like to continue working from home at least occasionally, and more than 50 percent indicated they would like working from home to be their primary work method. Perhaps companies will heed the desires of their employees. It is unlikely that many companies will offer the “work from home, forever” option that Twitter and Facebook have provided. But almost certainly we will see an increase in the ability of employees to work from home, now that their ability to do so has been demonstrated. Especially in cities like New York and San Francisco where the annual cost of office space is more than $13,000 per employee. If more tech companies follow Facebook’s lead and allow many employees to work remotely forever, we may even see housing prices start to decrease in some select areas and a further decrease in public transportation ridership in cities like San Francisco.
Mobility is going to change immensely once this crisis is over, whenever that may be. Public transportation must be overhauled in its current processes and operations if it hopes to regain public confidence and achieve ridership numbers anywhere near 2019 levels during the next decade.