When public-transportation agencies across the country saw a once-in-a-century drop in passengers as the coronavirus swept the nation, longtime transit doomsayers saw an opportunity. The pandemic, many prognosticators have suggested, foretells a permanent shift to more remote work and away from urban life. This sentiment undercut support for a transit bailout, which Congress has slow-walked during the second half of 2020.
For decades, public transportation in America has been a story of disinvestment and deferred maintenance, even in boom times. While driving has grown consistently across the U.S., transit ridership has flagged in recent years, giving evidence to critics that transit is unviable, and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Public officials feel free to slight public transportation in bizarre ways, as the Trump administration did this fall by refusing pandemic-safety grants to transit agencies in areas that it deemed “anarchist jurisdictions,” including the transit-dependent and Democratic-led cities of New York City, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.
But predictions that Zoom will make public transit obsolete ignore cities’ long history of resiliency and the many advantages of living and working in them. In post-pandemic America, restoring transit will be as essential as restoring power lines, water mains, and roads after a natural or economic disaster. Transit investment can be a strategic public-works program—call it a WPA for the MTA—offering a chance to bolster the economy, create jobs, and reverse historical inequities. Expanding transit can help accommodate sustainable metropolitan growth, decrease sprawl, and address climate change and the racial injustice the nation faced long before the pandemic.