Public Transit Use in the United States in the Era of COVID-19: Transit Riders’ Travel Behavior in the COVID-19 Impact and Recovery Period

COVID-19 has upended travel across the world, disrupting commute patterns, mode choices, and public transit systems. In the United States, changes to transit service and reductions in passenger volume due to COVID-19 are lasting longer than originally anticipated. In this paper the authors examine the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on individual travel behavior across the United States. They analyze mobility data from a sample drawn from a nationwide smartphone-based panel curated by a private firm, Embee Mobile, in combination with a survey that they administered to that sample in August 2020. Their analysis provides insight into travel patterns and the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on transit riders.The authors investigated three questions. First, how do transit riders differ socio-demographically from non-riders? Second, how has the travel behavior of transit riders changed due to the pandemic in comparison to non-riders, controlling for other factors? And third, how has this travel behavior varied across different types of transit riders? The travel patterns of transit riders were more significantly disrupted by the pandemic than the travel of non-riders, as measured by the average weekly number of trips and distance traveled before and after the onset of the pandemic. This was calculated using GPS traces from panel member smartphones. The survey of the panel revealed that of transit riders, 75% reported taking transit less since the pandemic, likely due to a combination of being affected by transit service changes, concerns about infection risk on transit, and trip reductions due to shelter-in-place rules. Less than 10 percent of transit riders in the sample reported that they were comfortable using transit despite COVID-19 infection risk, and were not affected by transit service reductions. Transit riders were also more likely to have changed their travel behavior in other ways, including reporting an increase in walking. However, lower-income transit riders were different from higher-income riders in that they had a significantly smaller reduction in the number of trips and distance traveled, suggesting that these lower-income households had less discretion over the amount of travel they carried out during the pandemic. These results have significant implications for understanding the way welfare has been affected for transportation-disadvantaged populations during the course of the pandemic, and insight into the recovery of U.S. transit systems. The evidence from this unique dataset helps us understand the future effects of the pandemic on transit riders in the United States, either in further recovery from the pandemic with the anticipated effects of mass vaccination, or in response to additional waves of COVID-19 and other pandemics.


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  • Accession Number: 01779116
  • Record Type: Publication
  • Files: TRIS
  • Created Date: Aug 16 2021 4:24PM