Unprecedented Times: Public Transit Ridership Falls 90%

Public Health and functioning public transportation are deeply intertwined; and the survival of public transportation post pandemic is critical to the health of the populations they serve. 

Take Oakland or Emeryville for example; without access to BART, individual mobility is extremely limited for those without cars, or with only one car per family. BART allows for those people to travel to work, to travel to the grocery store or, to reach their physician’s offices. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, BART ridership has been down 85-90%, a never-before-seen drop in ridership according to Rebecca Saltzman, the Vice President of the BART Board of directors. This drop has had dramatic financial impacts on the BART operating budget as, according to Saltzman, BART ridership revenue makes up approximately 75% of the budget. This unprecedented drop indicates a risky future for the transit service. 

As a long time transit advocate, Saltzman and the BART board of directors have been focused on getting more people to walk and bike to existing BART stations. Recently, Saltzman has been working on implementing the “Safe Routes to BART” program using funding from the recently passed Measure RR, which provides $3.5 billion to upgrade BART infrastructure and safety measures. 

The ways in which people travel directly impact their overall health, both physically and mentally. According to the Transportation and Public Health annual review, among countries with similar levels of development, crash rates increase as per capita vehicle travel increases. This means that the more people drive, the more vehicle crashes occur. Currently, the United States has the highest per capita crash rates among our peer countries, meaning our citizens are at an increased risk of vehicle crashes. 

Not only can people be injured in car crashes, but vehicle pollution exposure is also hazardous to human health. Although reduced emission rates have been a political goal in the past decade, as emission rates decrease, overall motor vehicle travel has been increasing, potentially cancelling out the benefits of reduced emissions.

Climate change and environmental sustainability has been prioritized by BART as well. According to the BART Sustainability Action Plan, BART displaces 360,000+ metric tons of CO2 per year and the system eliminates ~2.6 times the emissions it produces. The average round trip on BART saves 1.4 gallons of gas and a whopping 27lbs of CO2 equivalent (lbsCO2e^4). 

Finally, research suggests that automobile travel is associated with a sedentary lifestyle, which increases risk of mortality. Trips on public transit often include walking or biking to reach transit hubs, meaning that physical activity increases as public transit use increases. 

Public transit trips are also mentally restorative. Taking BART or AC Transit reduces commute stress that may occur while stuck in traffic on the Bay Bridge. Improving walking, cycling, and public transit options has been shown to improve mental health as physical activity and positive interaction with community members increases. According to a study done in the UK, using public transportation among elderly residents reduces depressive symptoms, increases community volunteer work, and increases regular contact with children and other friends. Saying hello to your seat neighbor can actually improve your mental health!

Covid-19 has hit BART and other transport services hard; and the money dedicated to public transit from the CARES Act, plus any additional federal money that may be coming in from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, is essential to the survival of BART, says Saltzman. While BART does expect ridership to begin to increase as more Americans get vaccinated, she does not expect ridership to be at full capacity for several years to come, making federal funding essential. 

Saltzman revealed that in recent research, there has been no evidence that shows public transit to be a Covid-19 super spreader. Recent studies in Japan and Paris have both found that metro and bus systems are not super-spreader sites. In Japan, only 1 out of 61 identified clusters of Covid-19 occurred in the transportation sector; however, the cluster was traced back to a plane rather than a metro system. In France, none of the 150 super-spreader events that occurred in Paris could be traced back to the Paris Metro. While there is data that shows BART and other public transit systems are safe, Saltzman emphasized that riders need to feel safe in order to return to BART. 

In order to accomplish this, BART has recently put out a 15 point plan aimed at rider safety. The key features of this include an update to the air filtration system within BART trains. The new filters are able to catch even smaller particles than previous filters, and air is being circulated every 70 seconds. This is faster than most office buildings or even airplanes (fact check). 

Ultimately, Saltzman stressed that we need to get riders back on BART and other types of public transit. However, much of the work that needs to be done is out of BART’s hands, says Saltzman. There is a lot riding on the new administration’s ability to efficiently vaccinate the American population against Covid-19, and the future of public transportation is one of them.