Commuting Will Not Be the Same as It Was before COVID

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has brought many changes to this country and the world at large.  One change is having an effect on major metropolitan areas such as New York (including New Jersey), Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago: a potentially momentous change in commuting habits.  Until the virus hit, millions of commuters would get on a train early in the morning and head to their offices five days a week, only to return home by the same route late in the afternoon or sometime in the evening.

Now, after long lockouts, many white-collar workers still have more flexible working arrangements: some employees are going into the office less often than five days a week, and some are working “remotely” from home all the time.  Has commuting changed forever?  That appears likely: it seems highly probable that at least some former commuters will go into the office less often than in the past, and not all will run every day to catch the 8:02.

Earlier this year, I wrote extensively about changes in commuting for Railway Age, on their Web site, www.railwayage.com, in a 3-part series headlined Commuting Post-COVID.  Some former commuters will return to the old routine, but others will make the trip less frequently, or at different times.  Transit agencies such as NJ Transit must be prepared for change, if they are going to survive and serve their riders well into the future.

That will require innovative thinking and action.  Boston’s MBTA has essentially gotten rid of its old “peak-hour” schedule and replaced it with more-frequent trains during the midday on weekdays.  Metrolink in Los Angeles has a new fare that features discounted rides for one or two trips per week. NJ Transit’s FlexPass is similar.

Technology is changing, and riders’ needs are changing, too.  Former “commuter railroads” must now become full-time railroads, offering frequent service throughout the day, when people now want it.  The world is changing, and includes our metropolitan area in New Jersey and New York.  We advocates have been thinking about what sort of changes are coming and how to respond effectively to those changes.  We have been urging NJ Transit and other providers to do the same, and we also urge you to think about your future travel needs and how NJ Transit and other agencies can best fulfill them.

Note: As the Railgram goes to press, NJ Transit has announced new rail schedules effective November 14 with expanded service both during and outside peak hours. We have some thoughts on those changes; look for them soon on another post on this site.

Coalition Calls for Federal Aid for Transit

At our October meeting, the Coalition passed a resolution calling on Congress to continue the recent practice of providing federal operating assistance for transit providers. Transit agencies have received aid from the Department of Transportation in the form of grants for capital projects over the years, but few federal dollars have customarily been available for operations.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus changed that by severely altering ridership patterns on transit. There have been far fewer 5-day-a-week commuters heading toward New York City every morning on NJ Transit, although ridership is now increasing. At other times, especially on weekends, ridership is near pre-COVID levels on the trains. Still, the recent downturn in ridership has left a large hole in the fare-box revenue that every transit provider needs to pay the bills and keep the trains, buses, and light rail going.

Since the virus hit, Congress has approved operating grants for transit, but they are considered part of the COVID-19 relief legislation. In other words, they are designed to be temporary, during the pandemic emergency.

The Coalition resolution cites the particular situations that NJ Transit and New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) are facing, but essentially every transit provider is feeling the crunch. The resolution also stresses the importance of transit in providing essential transportation for persons who depend on it, as well as a convenient available alternative for motorists.