Mobility is one of our most important needs, one we often take for granted until it is threatened or lost. The COVID-19 pandemic presents such a threat. The potential of exposure to the coronavirus on public transit contributed to government and employer mandates to work from home, especially in big cities, where transit was the main mode of commuting. In March 2020, transit ridership crashed nationwide.
As lockdowns lifted, transit ridership was slow to rebound because scientific evidence indicated a need to avoid crowded spaces. Many employers have maintained work- from-home policies as a result. For instance, the Washington, D.C. Metro transit system carried 626,000 passengers per day before the pandemic. By the beginning of September 2020, it carried a mere 77,000 passengers.
If this situation continues, transit agencies will likely face a funding crisis. If municipal, state, and federal governments respond with bailouts, agencies may stave off disaster, but important questions remain as to whether the money will be spent wisely.
Even as life begins to return to “normal” thanks to the COVID vaccines and effective treatments, commuting patterns nevertheless have changed forever as a result of so many employers changing their working conditions to allow employees to work from home.
Intracity travel may change as well. Employees who are in the office may go to fewer meetings outside the workplace, and may still be wary of mass transit. In that respect, cities may want to encourage innovative solutions, such as bike or scooter sharing. Federal law should not get in the way of such solutions.
Ridesharing is more difficult, given the presence of a stranger in the car, but is still preferable to transit. That means that regulations that make ridesharing more expensive, however well-intended, are a bad idea in such circumstances. For instance, California’s AB5 law, which classifies rideshare drivers—who work as independent contractors—as employees, has resulted in freelancers across a wide array of occupations being unable to work from home.
That statute suggests that the mass transit model adopted by many American cities may no longer be sustainable. Therefore, policies that encourage the adoption of mass transit by other cities, often for environmental reasons, are inappropriate for this changed environment.
The ramifications for highway transportation remain to be seen. If and when they resume commuting, Americans will feel safer commuting to work in their cars rather than using mass transit. Such a modal shift could lead to much greater congestion, and its attendant problems, if sufficient people were to return to the office that way. There are signs that may already be happening. Therefore, policies aimed at alleviating congestion by encouraging a shift to transit may prove ineffective.
For the preceding reasons, municipal, state, and federal authorities need to consider other options. A telework tax, for example, will likely prove disastrous, driving employers out of a city for good while creating a moral hazard by encouraging employers to avoid paying it by requiring in-office attendance.
That suggests that federal transportation policy—at least in so far as it relates to commuting and transit use—requires a thorough and comprehensive review.