March 30, 2020 - From the March, 2020 issue

Public Health’s Impact on Future Transit Behavior & Urban Boulevards

Transit ridership continues to decline precipitously across the US as calls for ‘social distancing’ intensify amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Given the aforementioned, TPR spoke with MoveLA Executive Director, Denny Zane, and Director of Policy and Communications, Gloria Ohland, to assess their informed views of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on public transportation moving forward. Both express their confidence in LA Metro and highlight the necessity for a level of transit service that meets the needs of those worst hit by the current health and economic challenges


Denny Zane

“With demographics a primary driver, and with transit riders primarily low-income (often service workers) likely to be the worst hit by the economic fallout, the question becomes how many people/riders is that …and what level of public transit services will they need to survive afterwards.””—Denny Zane

In light of daily communications from LA Metro CEO Phil Washington on the agency’s emergency response to COVID-19 - How well is Metro addressing the “new normal”?

Gloria Ohland: People are going to be very cautious about getting back on transit; only those who are dependent on it will be riding it.  So, it's great that Metro hasn’t reduced service by very much to date. They also, to address health concerns, have been diligent in cleaning and putting hand sanitizer on buses, trains and stations.

It’s worth noting, in the midst of this health crisis, that a recent survey of healthcare workers found that the number one cause of their absenteeism was a lack of dependable transit. We therefore have to acknowledge that there are a lot of health care workers who need to take transit during this period; and, we need them to come to work.

 Denny Zane: The new normal is very hard to predict. The first thing to expect is that people in general will be cautious about getting back together in gatherings, even when they hear the coast is clear.  It'll take a while before everybody is confident about that. I think Metro’s candor and transparency will enable it to gain people's confidence more readily, so ridership will start to spring back.

Transit entities all over the country have had a dramatic loss of ridership in the last decade. There's was a New York Times article about ridership decline all over the country that just really remarkable. 

I can't talk about Portland, Denver, Philadelphia, Chicago, or Atlanta, but in Los Angeles County the primary explanation for the ridership decline has been largely missed by the punditry. Low-income people—who are a very, very large part of Metro’s ridership base—especially its buses – have been driven out of Metro’s service area by higher rents.

We may very well see that it’s the same population that will be the most hurt by COVID-19 economically and for whom economic recovery may be most challenging. The question of whether the most likely transit riders stay in LA and can get back on the bus or train again is an open question. 

When, two years ago, Metro commenced its NextGen Bus Study – a comprehensive redesign of its bus system, it’s highly unlikely that Board and senior staff anticipated having to account for a global pandemic impacting either ridership or the mandate to social distance . If today Metro were to begin such a  planning study, would the fundamental assumptions driving it be any different?

Denny Zane: Next Gen’s planning surely must contend with the demographics of the county after COVID-19—which may or may not cause a significant shift in the region’s demographics. Clearly, public transit planning needs to account for an initial reluctance by the public to gather and utilize public transit; but, I believe people will gradually overcome such fear.  

With demographics a primary driver, and with transit riders primarily low-income (often service workers) likely to be the worst hit by the economic fallout, the question becomes how many people/riders is that …and what level of public transit services will they need to survive afterwards.

Many will obviously still need transit service, perhaps because they can't afford other forms of transportation. Thus, any research and planning must find whether we will be losing a lot of families either by the illness or by being forced economically out of the increasingly expensive region.

To follow up on your answer above, the argument you've made, Denny,  since Metro’s NextGen Bus Study commenced is:  that public transit ridership is down regionally mostly because the low-income population of Los Angeles has been, and is being, forced out because of housing unaffordability. Question: Is the pandemic and public enforcement of social distancing—and the resulting reliance on online behavior—causing you to reassess what in the future will be driving LA Metro’s transit ridership?

Denny Zane: I don't think it's clear that much online activity replaces the work that is normally being done by people engaged in the service economy. It's certainly clear that online activities a play bigger role in white-collar occupations, but I’m not sure that we will see the service economy population affected in that way.

Rents will still matter to the high propensity transit user, but what will be in question during and after the pandemic is access to employment. The problem is going to exist to some degree in every community around the nation, so it may be that there's no place to go that's better and staying here is what will still be the best option.

MoveLA recently had to cancel its March 25th Boulevards of Opportunity symposium – to be held at SCAG.  Your agenda was designed to highlight opportunities for integrating bus rapid transit, underutilized commercial corridors, urban greening, bike lanes, sidewalks, and affordable housing development along the county’s existing commercial corridors. Do you still assume, when our economy begins its recovery, that if there’s a dramatic drop in demand for brick-and-mortar retail and office work space as a result of this COVID-19 pandemic, that our urban commercial corridors will remain robust, transit activity zones? 

Denny Zane: There's a lot of value in addressing this question, but in terms of the policy objectives and programmatic objectives that are raised,  if anything, the pandemic should elevate the importance of the discussion about how we repurpose commercial land along corridors and in downtown especially to create sites for affordable housing.

There remains a healthy civic conversation about the best use of underused land (i.e., what is the appropriate density), given we still have an affordable housing shortage. The boulevards are a big opportunity for rapidly expanding our housing stock closer to transit.   I believe the focus by some on upzoning R1 is really misdirected. 

I do think, going forward, some activities going online will make more sense. People will get more familiar with Zoom and Skype, but I also believe there are limitations to the efficacy of that form of meeting. When you get a larger number of people—many of whom are policymakers—in a conversation together, there will be no substitute for face-to-face meetings if you want the conversation to be effective.

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“Provocative” Question: Are today’s transit planners and activists truly capable of fundamentally rethinking their assumptions, in light of the reality of today’s public health crisis? This current pandemic, scientists warn us, is not a once-in-a-season occasion.

Gloria Ohland: Yes. We are rapidly becoming different, and it's hard for older people, like all three of us, to adapt to that. There are some interactions that can't be done online- that will continue to involve people standing next to one another and talking. Clearly,  COVID-19 will compel us to think through how we can move ahead differently. For example, the Zoom conference calls I've been on lately have worked really well. There are other ways for us to do business without having to drive or take transit. 

Denny Zane: The question posed is whether the COVID-19 reality is a permanent reality, i.e. are we always going to have to worry about infecting each other? The answer is probably no, this too will pass, as other pandemics have. We will adapt, there will be treatments and vaccines developed—not in the immediate future, but in the near term—and people will return to feeling a need to congregate. We congregate not simply because we want to talk, we congregate because we enjoy it. That is going to always be our character, I believe.

 Scientists have warned for decades of the potentially catastrophic impacts of global pandemics and if the need to account for and incorporate into our public policies and infrastructure both public health practices and emergency preparedness. How might the addition of public health into the framework of our conversations around urban mobility affect what we build and operate? 

Denny Zane: In public facilities, it will certainly heighten the importance of cleaning. It will heighten the importance of preparation at the state and federal level—the idea that we are so short on masks, ventilators and testing kits is certainly something we should fully expect to change.  

But, I don't think a permanent public health overlay that says keep 6 feet apart or that it’s dangerous for us to be on a train together is going to happen.

Gloria Ohland: I just wonder if people ever spent so much time traveling such great distances, or spent so much building transportation infrastructure, destroying the planet as much as we have for this need to meet in person, as opposed to meeting online. It’s a very interesting, transitional time. We will make these changes slowly, rationally, and carefully, but I do think this is the dawning of something. 

Denny Zane: I want to caution you both here. Remember when Uber and Lyft were first hitting the market not very long ago, there were all kinds of folks talking about how the new “sharing economy” was going to transform everything for the good. We were going to share our cars, our bikes, so on and so forth. 

What really happened is it became a sort of brokered activity that was a more efficient version of the taxi company. People aren't really sharing their cars on Uber and Lyft at all. The platforms that enabled the sharing enabled a handful of people to monopolize the economic benefit of that activity; it didn't enhance sharing, but it did concentrate taxi companies. 

Gloria Ohland:  When we did the Live/Ride/Share conference in 2014 it was the dawning of shared-use—of car-sharing, Lyft and Uber, AirBnB—and, I felt like I’d gone back to my 1970s hippie roots. I did believe shared-use would be the solution to too many cars on the road. Denny was dragged very reluctantly into this. He was interested, but kept raising questions about the impact of Lyft and Uber drivers on traffic, air pollution and GHGs, and on taxi drivers, and he was right about so many things.

The Planning Report/Metro Investment Report has covered public transportation and mobility planning, smart city initiatives and investment for over 30 years. Rarely has public health expertise been included in the aforementioned interviews and excerpts. Going forward, to what extent will public health be viewed as an essential consideration for how public and private transit planners conceive of a next-generation transportation network?

Denny Zane: But, you're supposing what that means is that we will all be permanently afraid of being in the same room together.  What hopefully will be different is the level of preparation. It doesn't necessarily mean that we will be averse to congregating.

 To conclude: MoveLA has pivoted in the last couple of years to focusing on the linkage of housing and transportation in recognition that the priorities of the region, the state have pivoted in that direction. Is it appropriate now to add public health as an equivalent priority when addressing public mobility? What are the lessons you’ve learned from linking housing and transit that can inform how transit planners integrate public health into planning and practice?

Denny Zane: I don't know, most of our transportation is still done individually in cars, or individually on bikes, or even walking. The places where we congregate are in the public transport world, and that, in fact, is mostly the low-income service worker population—who likely still won't be able to afford individual forms of mobility after this. We'll still need to have these public-transport-type options, and will need to pay greater attention to ensuring a safe experience. That’s the most likely outcome, rather than a dramatic transformation where we don't need people to be mobile anymore—because that won’t be an option for so many because of the nature of their work

Gloria Ohland: Everything used to be separate; there was a transportation agency, a housing agency, a health agency. Now, the whole movement is towards integrating everything—health, housing, transportation, communication—and agencies are starting to work together more. This health crisis is bringing everybody together around all these issues.

Denny Zane: You’re both exaggerating the significance of this, and its impacts, on the fundamentals of transportation. Just as so many of my friends exaggerated the significance of Uber and Lyft and their effect on traffic as well. In fact, Uber and Lyft make traffic worse, not better

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.