Nearly 350 years ago, as his third “Law of Motion,” Sir Isaac Newton pointed out that, for every action, there is a reaction. But this principle is not restricted to physics. It is part of human nature. As we evolved as a species, then a society and then an economy, this principle has become more and more necessary. With the last four decades’ changes in the distribution of wealth, transit ridership should have increased. Instead, it has declined dramatically. The reaction to this decline has taken three basic forms: (a) an increase in private contracting (see https://transalt.com/article/defending-contractors-part-6-contracting-fixed-route-transit/ ) , (b) the spread of the “independent contractor” model, and (c) the emergence of brokers (see https://transalt.com/article/defending-contractors-part-1-lead-agencies-and-brokers/, https://transalt.com/article/defending-contractors-part-2-the-history-of-contracting-and-brokerage/ and https://transalt.com/article/defending-contractors-part-3-the-whistleblowers-song/).
These dynamics were common in the days even before COVID-19 struck — a decline affected by different dynamics in different modes:
Some of this ridership returned via corruption by AMTRAK (see https://transalt.com/article/covid-19-shenanigans-and-liability-part-2-making-money-by-compromising-health/). Likewise, corruption by the airline industry — much of it initiated years before COVID — helped restore its ridership and profitability (see https://transalt.com/article/expanding-the-mode-split-dividing-line-part-1-exponential-airline-industry-corruption/). Otherwise, some of this mode split was squandered – as taxis were deployed to deliver food and medicine in the heart of the first wave of COVID-19. Other choices reflected ridership preferences – like the use of TNCs instead of taxies that, in most cases, contained Plexiglas shields separating the driver’s compartment from the passenger compartment (or in this mode, the front seat from the back seat). Some of these choices were influenced by the cell-phone-hypnotized culture of younger riders.
Then, of course, came COVID. COVID almost destroyed the charter and tour portions of the motorcoach sector — although intercity/scheduled service is returning to near-normal levels, and tour service is slowly recovering. Social distancing combined with our failure (until COVID began to wane) to require mandatory mask usage mode split significant numbers of passengers from large, densely-packed vehicles (like buses, coaches and passenger rail cars) to smaller vehicles where passengers were largely isolated. But COVID had layers of additional impacts:
For public transportation purposes, far more important than COVID itself was the shift from commuters to remote workers — although the decrease in commuters to drivers was not a one-to-one ratio. Regardless, working remotely actually proved viable for a significant subset of the population. To the dismay of public transportation, working remotely is certain to be a viable permanent arrangement for a still-significant subset of former commuters.
Through all this, combined with inflation continuing to outstrip wage increases, public transportation will never recover to be what it once was. Even before COVID, transit ridership was failing so badly that at least one City (Kansas City) eliminated fares altogether because it cost almost as much, if not more, to collect and process them than the percentage of operating costs they covered. (Shortly after, Las Vegas eliminated weekend service, and eliminated fares for double-decker buses. And Portland came perilously close to eliminating fares.) In fact, the nation’s top-grossing transit system (in New York City) managed to cover 35 percent of its operating costs from fares. The recovery of others – pre-COVID San Francisco (with a separate transit system, A.C. Transit, serving the suburbs) was covering only 13 percent. Los Angeles was covering only nine percent. (See https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/upshot/transit-battered-by-coronavirus.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage.) This dynamic raises a troubling question for public transportation: As this trend continues, and particularly if transit evolves to the point where it must be provided for free, how much longer will taxpayers support it?
Regarding solutions other than actually improving transit service quality and efficiency — which we have proven woefully unable to do — a few Band-aids will work at the edges (like the elimination of weekend and owl service. Otherwise, once the frequency and coverage of service declines to a certain point, it becomes increasingly less attractive, and further reductions in service will translate into even lower fare recovery ratios: Each successive trip will cost the taxpayers more and more money. A cargo ship full of of Band-aids will fix nothing.
Fast Reverse to the Past
We would be naïve to not expect serious reactions to events and trends of such magnitude. Nor should we be surprised if and when we ever learn how we squandered the opportunity to minimize these impacts. (Much of this squandering was covered in previous National Bus Trader articles — as, for example, when in the heart of the first wave of COVID, New York City assigned most of its remaining taxicabs (about 11,000) to the delivery of food, medicine and packages — tasks which the City’s arsenal of unused trucks could have performed (see https://transalt.com/article/responding-to-adversity-by-abandoning-support/). We could have banished TNC’s from the landscape. Or we could have engaged in actual planning efforts like route/schedule design and stop selection. Instead, we turned these tasks over to robots (i.e., software). With such failures, three troubling responses have emerged:
1. The increase in private contracting.
2. The increase in independent contractors
3. The increase in brokers
In Part 2 of this series, I will overview these responses. I will discuss private contracting and brokerage in considerable detail. And I will describe the extraordinary corruption and waste associated with the worst applications of them.