Uncovering JAPA

The Cost of Avoiding Public Transit During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has created the opportunity to understand the burden of limited access to public transportation in an urban place. In their article "Riders Who Avoided Public Transit During COVID-19," in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 87, No. 4), Matthew Palm, Jeff Allen, Bochu Liu, Yixue Zhang, Michael Widener, and Steven Farber demonstrate the challenges that arose for former transit riders in North America who avoided public transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic and apply their findings to policy recommendations.

Transit Access Shapes Mobility, Independence Challenges

The barriers to accessing transit options range from physical to economic, geographic, or temporal, among others. Without access to trains or buses, individuals may struggle to get to where they need to go on time. Palm et al.'s initial literature review found that transit levels the playing field between car-owning and carless households only in American communities with the highest transit access in terms of future income gains. Since most carless individuals live outside of these high transit communities, the burden on carless individuals and households remains high.

In their research, the authors quantified and described the specific challenges that arose for individuals from avoiding public transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic. While walkability is an asset to communities, and some respondents could supplant their transit trips with walking, active transportation could not replace access to public transportation. Some respondents in the survey mentioned that they had too much to carry, like groceries or a stroller, for it to be possible to walk to their destinations. Others lived too far to walk and did not have access to personal vehicles.

For certain groups of people, giving up public transportation presented a higher burden than for others. For women, giving up public transit made many feel less independent. Respondents cited safety concerns with walking or minimal access to the household vehicle in a one-vehicle household as barriers to independence. For many groups of people, including people with disabilities, giving up transit made it harder to get food and groceries.

Figure 2. Odds ratios from models' second stop results.

Figure 2. Odds ratios from models' second stop results.

Public Transit's Pandemic Impact Underscored

The researchers' findings have implications for public transportation policy throughout North America. For example, the researchers found that individuals in households with one car, not just carless households, were burned by lack of public transportation. The authors also acknowledged that many people have not had the option to forgo public transportation, and therefore could not be included in the study, but that their experiences would likely compound the body of evidence that supports the social and well-being value of investment in robust public transportation networks.

Active transportation and robust public transit should exist in unison. Rather than be bogged down by the weaknesses of public transit in the face of a pandemic, transit agencies must innovate in determining ways in which they can continue to offer critical services equitably in light of this crisis and beyond.

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About the author
Nina Rae Sayles is a joint master in urban planning and master of public health candidate at Harvard University.

February 10, 2022

By Nina Sayles