Americans drove nearly 96 percent as many miles in May 2021 as in the same month in 2019, indicating a return to normalcy. Transit ridership, however, was only 42 percent of pre‐pandemic levels, which is making transit agencies desperate to justify their future existence and the subsidies they depend on to keep running.
The pandemic accelerated several trends that were already happening and that had contributed to declines in transit ridership in every year since 2014. First, even after getting vaccinated, more people are working at home at least two or three days a week. Second, those who commute to work are finding less congested roads, so driving is more attractive than it once was. Third, people are increasingly moving to areas where transit doesn’t work very well: Redfin data show that home prices in “car‐dependent” (I prefer “auto liberated”) areas are growing twice as fast and homes are selling in half the time as in transit‐accessible areas.
Transit agencies are responding to this by reducing fares. But transit is already so heavily subsidized — getting 78 percent of its funds from taxpayers in 2019 — that a small increase in subsidies is not enough to counter the trends against transit. People who have discovered the benefits of working at home two or three days a week are not suddenly going to go back to the office five days a week because transit fares are a little lower. MORE