by Zach Drucker
In San Francisco and around the world, COVID-19 changed the way we travel and how we think about transportation. Shelter in place orders completely upended normal traffic patterns and transportation habits. And the impact—both positive and negative—from changes caused by COVID-19 became apparent almost immediately.
Learn more about the impact of COVID-19 on San Francisco’s transportation system by listening to sf.citi’s conversation with SFMTA Director of Transportation, Jeffrey Tumlin.
Modes of transportations we once felt safe taking no longer feel safe. At its core, public transportation is all about density—the antithesis of physical distancing. That extends to rideshare and taxis, where people enter an enclosed space frequented by different customers. Even shared bike and scooter services raise public health concerns around COVID-19, ultimately leaving cars as the preferred mode of transportation for most people.
More people driving to work would have disastrous effects on the Bay Area. Not only would it reverse the short gains we’ve experienced in improved air quality, but more private cars on the road would heavily impact congestion. In a recent study from Vanderbilt University, the Bay Area is projected to have the worst traffic in the nation when cities reopen, with an additional 42 minutes longer commute on average than before the pandemic. With that in mind, Bay Area transit agencies and urban planners have been racing to find solutions to reshape transit and adapt to the new normal before cities fully reopen.
Let’s take a look at where we are at today and what the journey (no pun intended) to reopen San Francisco’s transportation infrastructure might look like below.
DECLINING PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION RIDERSHIP IN SAN FRANCISCO
Worldwide, transit agencies took a major hit in daily ridership from the COVID-19-induced shutdowns. The Bay Area was no exception. At the beginning of April, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) shut down a majority of bus lines and closed the light-rail indefinitely. In early May, BART was operating with 93 percent fewer riders compared to the same time last year. This unexpected shock to the system left transit agencies throughout the country deep in the red.
Relief came quickly in the way of emergency funding from the federal government. The CARES Act allocated $25 billion to local transportation agencies to help cover operational losses. While San Francisco received $820 million of that relief aid, the funding provides only short-term assistance to public transportation struggling to attract riders.
To put it frankly, public transportation’s long-term outlook does not look great. According to CityLab, “transit ridership and employment have [historically] been intertwined.” With unemployment at a record high, transit is expected to experience a slow recovery. Transit agencies will be forced to explore new—and potentially long-term—revenue streams to stay afloat.
- Pilot Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) Tax. The decline in cars on the road decimated revenue collected from the state’s gas tax, a vital source of revenue to fund transportation and transit projects throughout California. This unexpected shock only added to the gas tax’s recent woes. With more fuel-efficient cars on the road, the gas tax had been falling short of its original projections even before the pandemic. In response, earlier this year, California legislators proposed legislation to pilot a VMT tax in hopes of replacing the gas tax. From the success of similar programs in Oregon and Washington, this per-mile tax could prove a timely and much-needed new revenue stream.
- Implement Congestion Pricing. Across the world, cities such as London, Stockholm, and Singapore demonstrated the success of congestion pricing programs. While bringing in funding for transit, the imposed fee on driving into designated zones also significantly reduced congestion (especially during peak hours), improved street safety, decreased motor vehicle emissions and air pollution, and added incentives for people to take other modes of transportation.At the beginning of 2021, New York City will become the first American city to impose congestion pricing. San Francisco and a few other cities have since announced plans to look into implementing their own congestion pricing programs. Headed by the San Francisco California Transportation Authority (SFCTA), their research has been in full swing since last summer. The SFCTA projects to have a final report and recommendation on congestion pricing by the end of this year to early next year. With the need for funding, this could help sway people on the fence and accelerate the adoption of congestion pricing in San Francisco
- Raise Fare Prices. Not a new idea and certainly, not a crowd-pleaser. This recently happened in San Francisco when the SFMTA Board voted to raise the price of individual rides from $2.50 to $2.90 and monthly passes without BART from $81 to $88 by 2021. Despite passing the SFMTA board with ease, the fare hike did not sit well with the public and the Board of Supervisors. One Supervisor is even looking at taking legal action against the SFMTA, citing the rate hike as “price gouging.” In its defense, the SFMTA pleads that the fare hikes are necessary to “keep up with inflation and price of payroll for Muni drivers and other workers.” In a time where it looks like it might be hard to attract riders to public transportation, a fare hike, though necessary, could prove costly in the short term.
PROTECTING RIDERS FROM COVID-19 ON SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
As the pandemic came into play, the immediate response of public transportation became all about survival and making sure essential workers were able to get to where they needed to be. Now as the transit agencies look to reopen to the masses, they face a whole new challenge: provide a safe mode of transportation in the age of COVID-19. Public transportation needs to regain the trust of riders, or else, the only people taking public transit are going to be those who have no other choice.
As cities prepare to reopen, public transit systems have started to experiment with different safety measures.
- Encourage Physical Distancing. Making riders adhere to physical distancing protocols on public transit is not an easy task. Transit officials in London placed physical distancing markers around transit stations and on train cars. In Paris, transit officials outright limited the number of seats available. It remains to be seen how well riders follow physical distancing guidelines in these enclosed spaces.
- Enforce Mandatory Masks. Mandatory masks on public transportation have become a common practice in many cities around the world. Low cost and low barrier, enforcing face coverings on riders might become the new normal in crowded places like public transportation. In the Bay Area, it is currently a misdemeanor not to wear a face-covering on public transit. Do not expect that to change anytime soon.
- Amplify Cleaning Protocols. The way and how often vehicles are cleaned has become a major topic of conversation. Transit agencies will need to devise a plan for daily cleanings. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) moved to close its 24-hour subway for four hours each day to disinfect the trains, equipment, and stations. The closure will also provide transit officials more time to test new, more efficient disinfecting technologies like electrostatics, ultraviolet lights, and microbial agents.
- Utilize New Technologies. As we search for greater safety measures, we could see an uptick in public transportation employing new technologies. In Beijing, officials started testing a system that requires riders to book the subway by appointment during peak hours. In Hong Kong, subways have been using a robot to clean COVID-19 affected areas. A little further down the road, contactless accessibility could become the norm. No more need to push a button to open a bus door or push through a subway turnstile. Difficult times have been known to lead to many technological innovations.
- Increase the Number of Trains and Buses. Either by adding more service or making the trains and buses longer, transit agencies could spread riders out and thin the crowds. On its face, this appears like the ideal solution. However, this method would impose even more financial constraints on transit agencies—not the most ideal solution for organizations already strapped for cash.
Once Bay Area transit officials finalize their safety guidelines, it will be paramount that they communicate the guidelines to their riders—not only to get buy-in from everyday riders, but to show people concerned about taking public transit that the safety guidelines make their vehicles safe to ride.
ENCOURAGING ALTERNATIVE MODES OF TRANSPORTATION IN SAN FRANCISCO
As in any crisis, comes opportunity. Shelter-in-place orders have helped realize the dreams of many transit advocates. Empty roads and freeways have created safer streets. Fewer vehicle emissions have led to improved air quality. The decline in driving the car has led to a surge in biking. Even as we have all experienced the benefits of fewer cars on the roads, the next step is for officials to get creative once cities reopen and keep encouraging people in the short-term to utilize these alternative modes of transportation.
- Slow Streets. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf rolled out the country’s first Slow Streets Program, closing 74 miles of Oakland streets for the benefit of pedestrians practicing physical distancing. By closing off neighborhood streets to through traffic, the program increases safety on the streets for disadvantaged communities that lack access to nearby parks and other open space. The program took off in cities around the country, including in San Francisco, where Mayor London Breed implemented her own Slow Streets Program. These types of programs present a significant step in creating more pedestrian-focused infrastructure.
- Bike Lane Improvements. Because biking reduces congestion and person-to-person contact, it is the ideal mode of transportation for the age of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, San Francisco was slowly becoming more reliable for cyclists. By adopting quick-build projects, the SFMTA started to speed up the implementation of much-needed pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements. Earlier this year, the SFMTA unveiled the first phase of the Better Market Street project, which made San Francisco’s main traffic artery car free. One of the easiest ways to get more people to ride bikes is simple: create a safe and more accessible network of bike paths.
During the pandemic, San Francisco, like much of the world, proved it can quickly retool infrastructure for car alternatives. Now the challenge lies in continuing to push for safer and more accessible streets.
THE ROLE OF EMPLOYERS IN SAN FRANCISCO
The Bay Area’s transportation system will be pushed to the limits when cities reopen. One of the key factors in reducing the strain travelers put on the region’s transportation infrastructure will rely heavily on the business community. How and when employees go back to the office could significantly impact the number of people on the roadways and riding public transit.
- Make Telecommuting Permanent. For companies that can afford to operate as a remote workforce, this might be the best way to move forward in the age of COVID-19. In San Francisco, companies responded to COVID-19 by swiftly and seamlessly—at least from the outside—moving all business operations online. As we close in on reopening San Francisco, many major employers have not promised to send their employees back to the office right away. Instead, speculation has swirled that they will delay sending their employees back to the office and reopen the office later in the year or even as late as 2021. In the short term, the widespread adoption of telecommuting could spur significant dividends in reducing congestion on the streets.
- Stagger Start Times. To reduce travel during rush hours, staggering the start times of employees could prove useful in easing the burden on our transit infrastructure. Additionally, this method would also reduce the number of people arriving and leaving the office at the same time, which helps in carrying out a healthy office plan. This will be a more useful policy for companies that cannot shift to a fully remote workforce.
- Rotate Weekday Schedules. Splitting the days when employees come into the office helps in reducing travelers on the road and the number of people in the office. Even a small reduction in traffic can result in huge time savings on the road according to the Brookings Institute. As companies rethink their telecommuting policies, implementing a rotating weekday schedule will certainly be among the options chosen toward easing back to normal office life.
For employers that have the capacity, it is important that they administer one or more of these policies or something similar. Many employers are not as fortunate and have to send their employees back to the office or place of work. These policies will benefit the entire community by reducing the number of people driving to work, taking public transportation, and heading into crowded city centers.
NEXT STEPS FOR SAN FRANCISCO’S TRANSPORTATION
The fundamental underpinning of the Bay Area’s economy, transportation will be more important than ever as the region reopens. For the Bay Area to successfully reopen, public transportation and transit infrastructure need to seamlessly return to normal operating capacity—by no means an easy task.
The way we travel will look drastically different than it did before. Government officials will need to accelerate new revenue streams, transit agencies will need to reimagine the future of shared spaces, communities will need to redesign their streets for more eco-friendly and flexible uses, and employers will need to review their telecommuting practices. Solving the transportation conundrum will not happen overnight. And like any of our City’s issues, this is an all hands-on deck situation.