back to news May 14, 2020

Declines in public transit demand show essential workers’ reliance on COTA and similar services

CABS bus that reads "Go Bucks!"

Starting in March, life during COVID-19 came to a standstill. There were no dinners with friends and family, no movie theater visits, no concerts and no sporting events. Except for essential workers, few physically commuted to work. Streets were empty, gyms were closed and everyone was stuck inside.

Yet for Harvey Miller, the Bob and Mary Reusche Chair in Geographic Information Science in the Department of Geography and director of the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis (CURA), the stillness pervading Columbus presented an unprecedented moment to understand how a city moves and what happens when it stops.  

“Mobility is essential to economics, to society, to humanity,” Miller said. “This decline in mobility is really unprecedented in human history, and it can tell us a lot about human dynamics, about urban dynamics. ...This is a very profound natural experiment.”

To help capture the implications of the coronavirus on transportation and mobility, Miller and geography PhD student Luyu Liu are conducting an analysis of transit demand on public transportation systems across the United States. Using data from a popular public transit app, Liu and Miller are looking at how public transit demand declined at different rates around the country. They’re also examining how far those declines went before hitting a “floor” of essential travelers — people who rely on public transportation for essential travel, often to front-line jobs.

Their preliminary results reveal that declines in transit demand depend on multiple factors. Places like California that are more car-dependent see a larger decline in transit demand than more public transit-dependent regions like the Northeast. Another significant factor is the job mix of a city and whether workers can telecommute.

Graph showing decline in COTA transit demand since February
The above graph displays the decline in COTA bus demand since February 15, 2020. Liu says across the U.S., demand started to decrease significantly around March 6.

In Columbus, Liu and Miller found about a 60% decrease in transit demand, meaning 40% of Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) users are potentially essential workers who rely on the service as a necessary form of transportation. That figure places Columbus in the middle of COVID-19 related transit demand declines across the country.

“These are people who are traveling to do essential jobs for whom public transit is essential,” Miller said. “This vividly illustrates something about public transit: It is not a business. It is a critical service for urban civilization. If we want our grocery stores stocked, if we want things cleaned, if we want our police officers policing the streets and if we want our people working in government, we need good public transit.”

Liu said analyzing the demographics of those still using public transportation can also illuminate which groups are at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus. Cities with larger African American, Hispanic or female populations are more likely to see smaller transit demand declines.

“This is the very terrifying reality we’re facing right now, that women and people of color actually end up facing more of the risk,” Liu said.

COVID-19 has illuminated a challenge facing public transportation and broader conceptions of sustainability. Urban sustainability needs density, mass transit, walking and biking, but that can run counter to managing a pandemic since people need to spread out, Miller said.

Potential options for balancing those two interests are going fare-free to prevent bus operators from having to handle riders’ money as well as limiting the number of people allowed on buses to enable proper social distancing. However, that would mean public transit systems like COTA would need to adapt to additional revenue decreases despite already tight budgets across the board.

Miller and Liu headshots
Harvey Miller, left, and Luyu Liu, right, worked together to analyze transit demand data across the U.S.

“We have to figure out how to live densely and move sustainably, but in a way that we can balance our resilience to pandemics.” Miller said. “There are ways of doing this, not that it will be easy.”

Still, Miller hopes the silver lining in all of this will be people discovering they enjoy walking and biking around a city not crowded with cars, encouraging them to imagine how cities could be different if they adopted a multimodal transportation system.

“We’re not talking about getting rid of cars, just putting them into their proper place within cities,” Miller said. “When we talk about sustainable urban mobility, we’re talking about a system where people rely on walking for short distances, biking for medium distance, public transit for longer distances, and cars filling in the niches.”

Looking into the future, beyond COVID-19, Miller hopes Columbus can learn from this crisis so that going forward, communities can respond more gracefully to similar shocks such as other pandemics, climate shocks and extreme storms.

“There are more coming in the future, including, as [former Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld once said, ‘unknown unknowns,’” Miller said. “We want to make sure that Columbus, the nation and the world are more resilient to these shocks. A lot of this comes down to knowing what happens to our cities and our economies when a shock like this happens so we can plan for a less shocking future.”