Five transit topics to watch in 2021

Jan. 4, 2021
With 2020 in the rear view, we discuss what topics could have the most impact on the industry in 2021.

A new year brings new hope, renewed focus and a time to reassess what is and isn’t working. While the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have not faded with the changing of the year, there is hope now that vaccine distribution has begun that an official end to the pandemic is approaching.

Here are five topics we will be watching closely over the next year.

1. Customer Experience Focus

As Mass Transit reported in its August issue, the new rider experience will be based on the perception of reduced risk. While several studies conducted during the past year support transit use as a low-risk activity during the pandemic, sharing that information with riders among various networks will require transparent communication.

Agencies around the country increased cleaning and sanitization efforts, as well as other safety practices, such as installing barriers between vehicle operators and riders and marking off seats within vehicles to support physical distancing of riders. Multiple agencies explained how their air filtration systems work and the continued adoption of app-based fare collection and trip planning helped make riding transit more contactless. Apps further enhanced many systems through the incorporation of vehicle occupancy data further removing the guess work from riders’ journeys.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) launched its Health & Safety Commitments Program that offered agencies not only a standard to strive for but a set of communication and branding tools to help share their efforts with riders.

2. Mobility On-Demand and Micromobility

This is the most specific topic on the list, but there is good reason: In December 2020, we published approximately 25 stories covering new on-demand transit options from the launch of L.A. Metro’s Metro Micro to services in Farmington and Farmington Hills, Mich., and Massachusetts-based services in Salem and the tri-town area of Franklin, Foxboro and Norfolk.

These services usually include a private sector partner, which helps spread potential risk of a new launch while expanding service to areas that may not be possible under current financially constrained operating conditions. A recent example of this can be found in Jersey City’s on-demand bus network, which launched during the pandemic, but has delivered strong ridership numbers and is credited with benefiting low income and diverse populations.

As agencies explore ways to deliver improved service without the heavy impact to budgets, we expect to see more partnerships develop for on-demand services and other micromobility options.

3. Move Toward Sustainability

The past year was one full of milestones for zero-emission buses. These include Toronto Transit Commission becoming the largest on the road electric bus fleet in North America; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey having the largest electric bus fleet on the East Coast; Antelope Valley Transit Authority hitting the four-million-mile mark with its zero-emission fleet and the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) debuting 10 new hydrogen fuel cell electric buses and, what it reports to be, the largest transit-operated hydrogen fueling station in the United States. On the charging front, Capital Metro in Austin, Texas, worked with several supply-side partners to be the first agency to demonstrate interoperability between chargers and buses from different manufacturers.

In Canada, the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC) established research groups on zero-emission buses and on smart, autonomous vehicles. CUTRIC also made an investment in a private firm to develop lower operation costs of bus charging systems.

The Canadian government has committed to procuring 5,000 zero-emission public transit and school buses and has earmarked C$1.5 billion (US$1.18 billion) in the Canada Infrastructure Bank’s Growth Plan to help deliver on that commitment.

In the U.S., state initiatives such as those in California and New York are mandating or pushing the move toward low or zero-emission transit buses. Additionally, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia have agreed to curb pollution from motor vehicles while investing in cleaner transportation options.

Pulling out to the federal level in the U.S., Jennifer Granholm, the incoming Biden-Harris Administration nominee for Secretary of Energy, served as governor of Michigan during the Great Recession and is credited with reenergizing the state’s economy by focusing on clean energy. During a speech shortly after she was named as the Secretary of Energy nominee, Granholm called clean energy “one of the most promising economic growth sectors in the world.”

Granholm has served as a board member of Proterra and it is not a stretch to expect to see her influence and dedication to non-fossil fuel energy sources expand to the transit market.

4. Supply Side Impact 

APTA conducted a survey of its business members in September 2020 to determine the impact of the pandemic on the private sector that serves the transit industry. The results were unsettling in the number of respondents (one-third) that had furloughed employees due to lost business because of the pandemic. The survey occurred prior to additional emergency funding being secured at the end of 2020, but with 86 percent of respondents reporting a loss in transit business, the ramifications on the supply side may continue to be felt.

Conditions may be set up for a round of merger and acquisition activity – there are several contributing factors that could tip events one way or another and this is only a possibility, not a forgone conclusion.

The transit industry needs a strong and engaged private sector if it is to fully recover. As the previous topics in this article noted, strong partnerships will be needed to innovate, drive technology advancements and deliver on rider-focused initiatives.  

5. Transit’s Seat at the Table

Which table? It will depend on timing, location and situation.

APTA’s Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE), which tracks U.S. transit ballot measures, shows transit at a 90.38 percent win rate for 2020, which is the highest win rate of the past five years. In a recap of November 2020’s transit ballot initiatives, Josh Cohen, executive director of CFTE, noted the successful measures addressed issues beyond mobility and spoke to voters about “equity, cleaner air and water, economic growth and support for frontline and essential workers.”

In the U.S., a one-year extension of the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act expires in September. In addition, the incoming Biden-Harris Administration ran on a platform that included transportation-friendly and transit-friendly initiatives.

Infrastructure is expected to be a hot topic in D.C. yet again in 2021. However, everything takes a backseat to ending the COVID-19 pandemic and there may be another push for more emergency aid. Public transit was provided $14 billion in emergency funding as part of the omnibus/COVID-19 relief bill that was signed into law in late December. This is $18 billion less than the $32 billion the industry had been pushing to be included, but a bicameral group of officials who laid out an original framework for the relief portion of the bill designed it to carry businesses through the first quarter of 2021. President-elect Biden also indicated an openness to discuss additional emergency aid.

In Canada, a more permanent solution to fund public transportation is on the table as part of the government’s “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” plan. The plan commits to provide “permanent public transit funding, in partnership with the provinces and territories.” The details of what that permanent solution may look like are taking shape.

A more pressing need for Canadian transit systems is the need for an extension of financial support from provinces. The federal government provided C$4.6 billion (US$3.6 billion) for transit operations through its Safe Restart agreement, but as the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) explains, funding in most provinces expires at the end of March. Should funding not be extended, CUTA says essential workers, students, seniors and people living with disabilities could be left with limited mobility options.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.