When transit and mobility options are inaccessible or don’t meet needs, people find ways to travel. For most of the world, this often takes the form of informal transit services. As a result of failed public investment in transportation, these flexible, low cost, and unregulated systems are often the main form of travel in developing countries. Although higher income countries have some forms of informal transport, it is often subsidized and more regulated microtransit. These more flexible options do not replace formal transportation networks, but they do provide a critical service to often overlooked communities.
While universal fare-free transit has been a hot topic of conversation in the last couple of years, some transit agencies have found a promising middle ground providing free transit programs to youth. Fare-free transit programs for youth, including programs directly targeting high school and college students, have been around for decades, but in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, more agencies see the initiative as a way to introduce young residents to their local system and recoup ridership that has fallen since 2020, while school districts see the programs as a way to address operational challenges that also have been exacerbated since the pandemic.
Safe, reliable, and frequent public transit matters. It matters for public health, it matters for our environment, and it matters for creating more equitable communities. Yet, transit agencies around the country are facing declining revenues and increasing uncertainty in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fare-free transit has made headlines recently as more agencies propose bold plans to cut costs for riders. The latest ambitious proposal comes from Washington, D.C., which will eliminate fares on all bus rides in the city starting July 1 while also expanding 24-hour service. This is especially beneficial for low-income riders, although transit advocates often worry that eliminating fare revenues could force agencies to cut service or prevent them from making necessary improvements. These concerns raise important questions. How are these programs being paid for, and what are the prospects that they will be sustainable?
Transit continues to face challenges from low ridership and workforce shortages. Several places are successfully tackling these obstacles while offering key insights into their strategies and opportunities.
The goal of investing substantially in public transportation infrastructure and complementary transit oriented development (TOD) is to create positive outcomes for communities, including reducing carbon emissions, increasing access to jobs, and reducing reliance on personal vehicles. Two new studies highlight additional impacts of these investments; transit infrastructure leading to increased levels of physical activity and TOD residents forgoing driving for non-commute trips.
One of the main reasons that heavy rail projects are more expensive to build in the U.S. is that we build too few projects, too infrequently, to optimize our engineering, review, and land acquisition policies.
Housing and transportation are the top two expenses for the average household in the U.S. Increased housing near high-quality transit can reduce transportation costs, but does not come without the risk of higher housing costs and potential displacement. Two studies released this year can help us understand the ways in which transit can be a net benefit, and some of the pitfalls to watch out for.
A unique public funding structure called Transportation Reinvestment Zones is a new strategy to increase funds available for public transportation and expanded housing near transit. TRZs work on the principle that improved amenities, access, and convenience will lead to increased property taxes, generating funds for transit and other public services.
Even before the pandemic sent a shockwave through transit systems, ridership across the U.S. was on a slow but steady downward trajectory. A new report from Transit Cooperative Research Program points to some of the leading causes and, more importantly, ways that thoughtful planning and transit investments could help reverse the trend in the next decade.