While each of these organizations has its own focus, all seem to agree that major changes in travel habits have occurred and also that how, or if, things will get back to “normal” is far from assured:
Changing Travel Patterns: On February 20, 2022 the San Jose Mercury reminded us of how the popularity of stay-at-home work was cutting into transit ridership. The article focused on COVID’s effects on transit travel which were, and continue to be, devastating. However, something else is going on. It’s more than just changes in commuting. Many types of trips, including auto trips, have been affected by factors other than the pandemic. Zoom meetings are easier and less time-consuming than traveling to public hearings, club get-togethers, advocacy group meetings, business meetings, seminars, workshops and adult education classes. Watching one’s favorite movie at home often beats going to the cinema. And there’s a growing tendency to acquire desired products including well-prepared meals on line rather than driving miles in search of the right retailer. It appears that technology and changes in lifestyle are affecting travel, even as the effects of COVID wane.
Read more here
Coping with Change: On February 17, 2022 SPUR hosted a panel discussion about transit properties and how they were responding to reduced ridership. Panelists included Supervisor Cindy Chavez representing VTA and Caltrain, Board Chair Rebecca Saltzman representing BART and Board Chair Gwyneth Borden representing the SFMTA. All were well aware of both the reduced transit ridership and impending transit funding shortages. As a group they tended to rule out fare increases, service cuts and other cost reductions. Most of the discussion therefore focused on how to obtain additional. Included in the discussion were State and federal subsidies, new local and/or regional funding, cost-effective ways of increasing ridership, and partnering with private industry.
Getting Back to “Normal”: Earlier this month, the Bay Council released a survey (see below) of how Bay Area voters regard today’s transit and its future. Surprisingly, 73% of those surveyed thought that in so far as transit use was concerned, ridership would soon get back to pre-COVID levels and only 26% thought that the COVID changes would be permanent.
What do people really want? Will they ever regain the tolerance for crowding on trains and buses that used to be the norm? Will inching along in highway gridlock ever again become as acceptable as it was pre-COVID? Whether or not things return to how they were will involve at least the following often contradictive variables: demographic changes, inflow of new businesses attracted by available downtown office space, quality and safety of bus, rail and ferry boat travel, increased employee/employer experience with workplace flexibility, the ability to live farther than from one’s “workplace”, and finally the municipal need to protect and encourage its small businesses, as well as other activities vital to urban life such as eating out, sports, entertainment and tourism. Getting today’s travel enigma sorted out will require a creative balancing of all of the above factors and more.
Following are results from the Bay Council’s Survey:
Bay Area Council Poll: COVID Impact on Transit Ridership Only Temporary
The number of Bay Area voters who say they feel safe now returning to “normal” almost tripled from last year to 30%. According to Bay Area Council poll results released Thursday (April 7), another third (32%) of voters said normal will come within the year, nearly a quarter (24%) said it will be at least a year or as long as three, and 12% said we will never return to normal, a doubling from the previous year. Whether or not voters agree on when we’ll return to normal, they are returning to workplaces. The poll found a big drop in the number of people who are working from home full-time, from 44% last year to 25% this year. And 37% say they are going to a workplace regularly, up from zero last year, while 21% expect to return regularly sometime in the next six months.
Meanwhile, regional transit operators can be heartened by poll findings that show 73% of voters think COVID’s withering impact on ridership will only be temporary. The findings come the same week BART reached its highest ridership since the pandemic began.