Strengthening Mass Transit

SOURCE: The Virginian-Pilot June 30, 2022

As gas continues to hover just south of $5 a gallon, many motorists are modifying their travel habits to reduce consumption. Successfully doing so depends on a number of factors, but access to reliable, affordable mass transit options allows more people to leave their cars at home.

Most American cities lack the sort of integrated, multimodal transportation systems that are a hallmark of Europe, but sky-high fuel prices should propel a conversation in Hampton Roads about how to improve mass transportation options and adopt innovative transit solutions that can work here.

Polling by Yahoo/Maru released in May found that Americans had already made changes to their daily routine in response to the increased price of gasoline. Sixty-two percent said they had cut out some one-off trips for groceries or doctor visits; 41% said they stopped filling the tank to reduce the total cost; and 35% said they were utilizing mass transit more frequently.

That would represent a substantial change in ridership, which has slipped precipitously over the last century. Nowadays, mass transit users tend to utilize those services out of necessity rather than choice, according to a 2017 survey by the American Public Transportation Association. Most ride to work or to school, many are minorities and the percentage who are low-income is smaller than one might think.

Of course, those figures are from before the pandemic, which caused widespread disruption in work, school and, yes, mass transit. Ridership plummeted due to fear of contracting the virus in close quarters — on a bus or a train — and because fewer people were commuting to work and school.

Transit systems, including Hampton Roads Transit here, have struggled to regain those lost customers. HRT reported ridership of 821,195 in January 2020, which includes all modes of transit the agency supports, to 440,594 riders in May. That’s a steady increase over the months prior — the low-water mark of 331,125 came in January — but still only about half of the volume recorded before COVID.

An HRT ridership survey from 2019 (again, pre-pandemic) indicates many riders (82.5%) use the service to travel between cities, underscoring the need for regional cooperation, and a majority (52%) ride the bus five times a week or more.

At the time, they told researchers they wanted more reliability from the service, more frequent routes during rush hour and real-time transit information that would allow them to plan their travel. HRT has adopted those priorities as part of its strategic plan and has made steady improvement.

But HRT, like other transportation systems in the United States, still struggles to get riders of choice. People love their cars and continue to see their personal vehicles as the best way to get where they need to go, when they need to be there.

As a result, Virginia and the region continue to prioritize road construction over mass transit. That may shift somewhat thanks to a 2020 state law that provides dedicated annual funding for HRT, but the fact that such a law didn’t pass until two years ago shows its place in the pecking order.

Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, passed last year, HRT also received $52.7 million to offset pandemic-related revenue losses and to follow through with the system improvements that will make mass transit more attractive throughout the region.

High gas prices shouldn’t be the motivator for people to choose mass transit, but it does underscore the need to make those systems more effective for more people. That, in turn, will make Hampton Roads a better place to live and work, which benefits both the region and the commonwealth.