February 5, 2021

The State of Public Transit 2021

Matt Fleck
We analyzed millions of data points and conducted a survey of nearly one hundred transit agencies to capture the state of public transit during the COVID-19 pandemic. See the results in our 42-page report.

2020 will go down as one of the most turbulent years in public transit’s history. Ridership plummeted, budgets suffered, and yet, public transit showed itself to be more resilient than ever before.

In an effort to capture the State of Public Transit in the midst of a global pandemic, Swiftly analyzed millions of data points and conducted a survey of nearly one hundred transit agencies across regions, departments, and roles to understand the breadth of their COVID-19 response and to uncover areas of opportunity going forward.

Here’s what we found:

1. Transit professionals want to build back better.

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In 2020, transit agencies navigated ever-changing circumstances around safety protocols, budget, and on-time performance. Moving forward, they plan to modernize their agencies in fundamental ways, building on the lessons they learned under fire.

Transit agencies have already begun to enhance communication and streamline processes around collaboration. Despite their hard work, however, transit professionals gave their COVID-19 response a C+ on average.

As the dust settles and we move into the final stage of the pandemic, transit professionals are eager to revamp their approach to transit and use the post-pandemic world as a fresh start.

2. On-time performance is now a safety metric.

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Reliability has always been central to transit operations, but during a pandemic, its importance extends well beyond just the passenger experience. In the time of COVID-19, poor on-time performance directly contributes to bunching and gapping, creating uneven passenger loads, and in turn jeopardizing how well passengers can socially distance from each other.

Our data confirms this: 80% of transit professionals said better on-time performance reduced crowding on their vehicles. Reliability has been highly variable since the beginning of the pandemic — early departures are more than twice as common as the same time last year — and agencies are discovering new ways to maintain reliable service with variable traffic conditions and unpredictable ridership.

3. Agility and flexibility are key.

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Transit professionals changed schedules twice as often in 2020 compared to typical years, in an effort to comply with changing protocols and shifting traffic conditions. And while agencies generally found help from the transit tools they use, they also listed their scheduling software, passenger notification apps, and CAD/AVL systems as major hindrances during their COVID response.

We expect to see transit professionals invest in tools and processes that make it easy to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Even as vaccine distribution ramps up and the pandemic winds down, transit professionals will be operating in a very different world in the future compared to before COVID-19, and staying agile will remain crucial to providing satisfactory transit service.

4. Transit professionals are doing more with less.

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Eighty-one percent of transit professionals listed budget as their top concern heading into 2021, and 22% percent had insufficient budget for their COVID-19 response in 2020.

As transit professionals face another several months of pandemic response (or longer), they’re doing more than ever and with fewer resources. Legacy transit tools have largely proved unable to adapt rapidly during the pandemic, and nearly a third of respondents plan to upgrade these tools in the near future. As agencies are forced to do more with lower budgets in coming years, they’ll continue to find more effective alternatives as a result.

5. Bringing riders back means instilling public confidence.

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Ninety-two percent of agencies provide some sort of real-time vehicle predictions for their riders, but 60% of respondents say they would like a better system for alerting riders of service changes. Keeping riders up to date of changing circumstances will be important in recapturing public confidence as the pandemic drags on.

Ninety-six percent of transit professionals reported ridership declines in 2020, and 68% saw ridership plummet by more than 50%. Bringing riders back will involve establishing trust with the communities that they serve — not just that agencies can transport riders safely, but also that riders will find public transportation to be reliable enough to incorporate into new routines and commutes.

Travel pattern changes during the pandemic will likely be long-lasting, and transit networks will need to adapt accordingly. Agencies must begin to think about how fixed-route networks will look in a world where peak service is less important. Better integrating fixed-route transit with on-demand and micro-mobility options will be a key part of the solution.

Want to see the full State of Public Transit 2021 report? Get the full report here, and don’t forget to sign up for the live webinar!

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