Post-pandemic, the risk to public transport is that it might never be the same

A commuter wears a face mask while riding a subway train on 17 April 2020 in New York City. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, sitting in isolation in his Toronto apartment, Vincent Puhakka realized that the public transportation system he’s built his life around might never fully recover.

Like their counterparts across the world, Canada’s transit agencies are seeing precipitous declines in ridership and revenue — by some estimates, more than 70%. 

But the Toronto Transit Commission must continue providing robust service – while at the same time committing additional resources to deep-cleaning its vehicles – to ensure that essential workers can traverse Puhakka’s city.

On the other side of the country, in Vancouver, transit ridership has plummeted in a similarly spectacular fashion. On 14 April, Vancouver's TransLink pleaded with the national and provincial governments for a bailout so it can continue to provide service despite its devastated budget. Relief hasn’t been immediately forthcoming. 

“It hit home for me when we found out that the government would not provide emergency funding for Vancouver's transit,” says Puhakka, who is a member of the transit advocacy group TTCriders. “Honestly, it made me feel a little powerless. I still do”. 

Toronto’s public transportation system faces the same dire challenge, and Puhakka believes the national government will be equally uninterested in providing aid to the Toronto Transit Commission. That speaks to a larger flaw in how political elites see public transport, he says, which isn’t always perceived as an essential service like water or roads. 

Puhakka fears what the sluggish reaction to mass transit’s needs in Canada may foretell about public transportation’s future. 

“It's depressing to realize the mode of travel you've chosen, that you believe is the best way to get around, isn't valued at all by your government,” says Puhakka. “They certainly aren't shutting down highway maintenance”.

Transit agencies around the globe are confronting similarly intractable dilemmas, from the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART – which relies on fares for almost three quarters of its operating budget – to local transit operators in France, which rely more heavily on payroll taxes. No matter whether they get the bulk of their operating funds from the fare box or through local and state taxes, mass transit systems across the Western world are facing serious shortfalls.

As ridership and revenue streams plummet, the question now becomes whether  governments will heed calls for unprecedented infusions of cash to maintain public transportation during the crisis. And after the pandemic wanes, whether they can be convinced to continue funding beleaguered systems that will surely need help to return to normal levels of service.

It is far from certain that transit agencies will get what they need, leaving many experts concerned that public transportation may be crippled for years to come. 

Outside of the $25 billion in aid to transit operations in the United States CARES Act and  £400 million for bus companies in England, few developed nations have yet to provide a bailout for public transportation.

“We are in the middle of the conversation [in Western Europe],” says Sylvain Haon, senior director of strategy at the International Association of Public Transport in Brussels.

In Italy, transit agencies are asking for €600 million to cover initial losses and another €500 million for the rest of the year, says Haon. Paris’s regional transit system is seeking €1 billion in aid from the French government. Meanwhile, the Canadian Urban Transit Association says its members will need $400 million a month to keep services intact. 

Even the United States’s unusual display of transit generosity in the CARES Act won’t last long.

“The stimulus money will help them operate a barebones schedule, but it won’t let them get back to where they were,” says Megan Ryerson, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of City and Regional Planning. “Do I think they will eventually get the amount of money needed to return to pre-Covid levels? That seems unlikely given the extreme losses they’ve all had in the past month”. 

In the U.S., transit advocates on Capitol Hill say they were pleasantly surprised by how few barriers there were to the initial call for aid. Both the Senate Republican proposal and the House Democratic proposal offered similar amounts of funding for transit. 

The CARES Act represents the first time mass transit systems in the United States have received support for their operations from the federal government since the 1980s. Usually federal assistance is limited to capital projects.

“We didn't have to make a really strenuous case about it,” says Beth Osborne, director of the advocacy group Transportation for America. “It was a really different feeling going to Congress [this time]”.

Still, no one believes the money from the CARES Act will be enough. In Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority received $643 million, but the Authority estimates that its losses will surpass that by early summer. The Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City received $3.7 billion from the CARES Act, but the Transit Center projects America’s largest public transportation system will need as much as $8 billion more by year’s end. Overall, the research organisation thinks mass transit in the US will need between $26 billion and $38 billion to make it through 2020. 

It is far from clear how much more aid can be expected from the federal government. Conversations about a new round of stimulus have turned rancorous. Democrats are demanding funding for local and state governments, which are facing apocalyptic shortfalls, while Republicans accuse them of holding up a relief package they want to offer solely to small businesses.  

President Donald Trump’s penchant for using the crisis to punish his political enemies and help his partisan allies also makes some experts fear for transit agencies that are essential to urban areas, which are almost exclusively represented by Democrats. 

“With everything our president is doing, he is more against the big cities,” says Vukan Vuchic, professor emeritus of electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and a longtime observer of public transportation policy. “We do have that problem with transit also”.

Still, some are cautiously optimistic about using the crisis as a moment to reframe how we think about public transit and its funding. The transit consultant Jarrett Walker argues in CityLab that it’s time policymakers understand that “transit makes urban civilisation possible,” and then spend accordingly. 

Osborne, of Transportation for America, says that during the CARES Act negotiations lawmakers from both parties saw that preserving transit systems was necessary for ensuring that essential workers like nurses, grocery store clerks, and home health aides could get to their jobs safely. 

“A lot of the past arguments about transit never came up, the notion that buses should be jammed full of people to be justified was not an issue,” says Osborne. “Congress at first didn't think we needed to get to transit immediately. But they responded pretty quickly when we showed them the numbers. That was really different from anything I've experienced”.

Osborne wonders if the need for a federal bailout in the United States was especially acute because transit is so poorly funded in comparison with its international counterparts. Perhaps as the crisis drags on, other countries will start spending more on their systems too. 

But international transit advocates are anxious. 

“This is calling for some very stark choices,” says Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor of planning and geography at the University of Toronto. “Either we're going to get government subsidies very quickly to keep the services going, or there's going to be dramatic cuts”.

So far Canada’s stimulus has focused on individual and business relief. “Everyone has said they recognize that this is an issue, but no money has started flowing yet,” says Siemiatycki.

For Puhakka, the issue is existential. In the midst of the crisis, essential workers need to get to work. One of his friends works in the social housing sector and still rides the train to help her clients with their utility and health care needs. Service cuts would hamper her ability to work and rob already disadvantaged city residents of the help they need. 

Puhakka fears that in the long run, ridership will likely remain low even after the worst of the pandemic recedes. People may shy away from buses and subways and rely on cars and bikes instead, potentially crippling transit systems that rely heavily on farebox revenue. That means operations support from higher levels of government will need to continue into the medium-term future. 

If they do not, cities will have to live with weaker mass transit systems.

“If ridership declines, and then stays low, we're screwed,” says Puhakka. “But this is how a dense city is able to function. After the crisis there still isn’t going to be room for everyone to have a car".

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.