Bay Area providers have optimized access by transit while running less service: the average city resident can now reach about 10,000 more potential jobs in 45 minutes on transit than they could pre-pandemic.
The TransitCenter Equity Dashboard tracks how people can connect to services and amenities by public transit in seven U.S. cities. Understanding current inequities in access to opportunity is essential to redesign transit systems that provide the best outcomes for people with the greatest need.
We’ve recently updated the dashboard with data points from March and August 2022, which show how schedule changes at transit agencies in response to historic worker shortfalls and “new normal” ridership patterns affected riders’ access to jobs, healthcare, grocery stores and more. Part one of our 2022 summary is here.
Part two, below, looks at at the “new normal” service patterns emerging at three agencies – New York’s MTA, Philadelphia’s SEPTA, and SFMTA – and explores whether these agencies are closing access gaps, or lapsing back into longstanding inequities.
Note: these access measures are based on scheduled service and represent the service that the transit agency planned to provide. Deviations from planned service – like traffic delays, trip cancellations, or derailments – are not represented in this data.
Part II: Is “normal” good enough?
NYC – This year, transit providers in the New York City region reached a milestone: running more service than before the pandemic. The average New Yorker could get to 36,000 more potential jobs by a 45-minute morning trip in August 2022 compared to February 2020. MTA leadership deserves credit for averting an operator shortfall and for recognizing that the region just doesn’t work without frequent transit service.
But transit supply continues to emphasize travel in Manhattan and during peak hours, where ridership demand has rebounded less. As of August 2022, Manhattan residents could reach nearly 2.5 million potential jobs in 45 minutes, four times more than other New York City residents (land use and proximity to job centers also contribute to the difference). The average New York City resident could reach 10% more potential jobs in the morning peak than in the evening.
This Manhattan-centric status quo doubles down on longstanding inequities. White people, who disproportionately live in or near Manhattan, have the best transit access to potential jobs of any group but are the least likely to ride. The average Black New York City resident can reach about half as many jobs by transit as the average white person. The region’s rail system quickly connects far-flung neighborhoods to midtown Manhattan, but its benefits are lost on those who can’t afford its high prices: a New Yorker with a $5 budget for fares can reach half the jobs as someone without a budget.
Philadelphia – Service levels at SEPTA in Philadelphia also reached a “new normal” this year, stabilizing at 85 to 90% of the pre-pandemic mark. Access to transit now is similar to before COVID: in February 2020 and August 2022, the average Philadelphian could reach about 305,000 potential jobs by transit in 45 minutes.
Black residents of Philadelphia have the most access by transit, and white residents have the least. This is appropriate because Philadelphia has retained a high percentage of Black residents in the urban core, unlike in many cities where Black residents have been displaced to further flung areas with worse transit access. Black Philadelphians also ride transit much more than white Philadelphians.
But in other ways, Philadelphia’s regional transportation system privileges the well-off. As of August 2022, the average resident of the MSA with a $4 daily budget for fares who travels on weekday mornings could reach 17% less potential jobs by transit than if they didn’t have a budget. Someone traveling on a weeknight on a budget had access to 37% fewer jobs than if they didn’t have those constraints.
Drivers could access 1.5 million potential jobs in 45 minutes, fifteen times more than transit riders’ access. Comparing access measures from February 2020 and August 2022 shows that the “new normal” hasn’t made a dent in these inequities.
San Francisco-Oakland – The Bay Area has had an incomplete transit recovery from early pandemic service cuts. By August 2022, the average city resident (of Oakland or San Francisco) had access to 75% more transit service compared to a low point in April 2020, but still 15% less access than they had, pre-pandemic.
Bay Area providers have optimized access by transit while running less service: the average city resident can now reach about 10,000 more potential jobs in 45 minutes on transit than they could pre-pandemic. SFMTA has used its Muni Equity Strategy to guide its recent service changes, preserving trips through and access from its equity neighborhoods. Compared to February 2020, the average Black person could reach about 25,000 more jobs in 45 minutes by transit by August 2022. Their access gain was bigger than other racial groups.
But transit in the Bay Area is imperfect. White people are the least likely group to ride transit but have the best access to destinations by transit by far (land use and residential patterns contribute to this disparity). The regional transit system is infamously fragmented (it has 27 independent transit providers), and traveling across the region can get expensive. Affordable transit trips (costing $5 or less) offer access to 40% fewer potential jobs than all transit service.
As transit agencies recover from the tumult of the past few years, they should seize opportunities to transform their systems, rather than settling back into inequitable service patterns. Now is the time for transit leaders to chart a new course for transit access – not return to stale old habits.
SEPTA, NYCT, and many other agencies are in the midst of bus network redesigns, which, if done well, can dramatically improve transit access by matching service to off peak, non-downtown travel needs. Agencies should commit to revenue-positive redesigns that expand bus service, rather than redistributing it, in order to improve frequency across the network throughout the day, and create stronger connections to community destinations.
The MTA plans to transfer some subway service from Mondays and Fridays to weekends starting in June 2023, to adapt to post-COVID ridership trends. This redistribution will serve riders better than current schedules, but riders would be better served by expanding subway service overall.
Regional networks can be a shared rather than exclusive asset if they are operated with better frequency around the clock and affordable ticket options. TransitCenter research finds that in NYC, pricing Metro North and Long Island Railroad trips like a subway ride within city limits would dramatically improve affordable accessibility for outer borough residents. Earlier this month, Governor Kathy Hochul’s “New New York Panel” called for the MTA to take a step toward this model, instituting $5 fares at all times for commuter trips within the city; the transit agency should implement this as quickly as possible. SEPTA should commit to its own proposal for a more frequent, lower-fare regional rail network. California lawmakers are deliberating legislation to mandate a regional approach to fares and schedules in the Bay Area, to ease friction of navigating the disjointed region by transit, after years of advocacy by groups including Seamless Bay Area.
All of these improvements will cost money, at a moment where transit agencies are facing down big budget shortfalls. So it’s worth remembering two lessons the pandemic reinforced about transit: it’s essential to our communities, and it needs more stable, progressive funding than depending on farebox revenue. Transit agencies already need to secure new revenue sources to plug holes in the budget that ridership no longer fills. Why not use this opportunity to reimagine what type of transit service that money should buy?