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THE ARGUMENT

Will public transit in Massachusetts ever recover the ridership lost in the pandemic?

Read two views and vote in our online poll.

YES

Amanda Linehan

Malden Ward 3 City Councilor; communications director, Metropolitan Area Planning Council

Amanda Linehan
Amanda Linehan© C. Fiorito/Compass Photographers

As the backbone of our regional economy, the MBTA can and will rebound from the upheaval of COVID-19. The traditional rush hour likely won’t ever resume. But as the health crisis recedes, there will again be large numbers of Boston-area residents who need to travel to their jobs, and many will choose public transit for the same reasons they have in the past – to escape the misery of traffic.

When commuters do return to trains and buses, they will do so in new and surprising ways, and we must plan creatively for the kind of transportation network we will need then.

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Just as restaurants and schools have pivoted to outdoor dining and virtual learning out of necessity, so too has our public transit system adapted to the reality of daily life amid COVID. Enhanced cleaning, adjusted schedules, and expanded service on higher-demand routes are just a few ways we’ve already enhanced rider safety and improved predictability. We must build on this progress by optimizing additional routes; and focusing on frequency, equity, and interconnectedness.

As more people seek flexible work options and businesses and homebuyers expand into urban centers beyond Metro Boston, we face an unparalleled opportunity to build a responsive public transit network that meets those changing dynamics. Reducing service and turning our backs on riders at a time like this could undo decades of investment in transit-adjacent housing, regional commercial districts, and Main streets.

Car and truck emissions are also one of the main drivers of pollution in Massachusetts, and COVID-19 has elevated the devastating health risks of living near congested roads. These impacts disproportionately affect communities of color, immigrants, and lower-income neighborhoods. It’s unconscionable to think we’d do anything but invest in public transportation moving forward.

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The worst-case scenario would be if we made decisions pushing people back into single-occupancy driving, increasing pollution and harming our climate and health.

Our transit network suffered disinvestment long before COVID-19, and this crisis has only illuminated the need for broad-based revenue-raising solutions. The pandemic presents us with a challenge, not a catastrophe for the future of transit. It’s up to us to invest in the future we want.


NO

Frank Conte

Wakefield resident, director of external relations for the Beacon Hill Institute for Public Policy Research; contributor to Princeton Research Associates

Frank Conte
Frank Conte

It was not long ago that some social observers declared the triumph of the city over the shallowness of suburban life. Cities, we were told, are the future: environmentally smart, technologically innovative, and filled with vitality sprung from young enlightened residents who thrived on a night life, artistic sensibility, and a mostly car-free ethos. Then, along came the pandemic, which is unsettling city planners and prompting millennials and boomers alike to consider relocating to boring suburbia.

Corporations have discovered what the founders of Uber and Lyft have long put into practice. Companies no longer need to underwrite fashionable, downtown offices with amenities and subsidized Charlie cards. Just as ridesharing drivers now supply the car; workers can supply the workspace. Corporate bean-counters can now shift the burden of operating costs to employees, who by working from home can furnish the desks, chairs, electricity, and heat.

Moreover, workers and managers are discovering that daily commutes harm productivity. Boston ranks terribly in drive-time-to-work metrics. The potential savings from working at home are enormous, complemented by a favorable work/life balance for the employee. Telecommuting is going to become a permanent trend. The desire to be near like-minded people will fade as people weigh health risks.

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This all spells disaster for public transit. It is unlikely the MBTA will ever recover its pre-pandemic ridership. In the face of COVID-19, public transit has been decimated. The trend is not improving — in response to low revenue, the MBTA is planning major budget cuts.

Growth in ridership follows a robust economy. And growth is not around the corner. According to a recent poll by Princeton Research Associates, 34 percent of respondents believe the state’s economy will only return to normal in 2022. Then there’s the oncoming big sort-out in real estate. Downtown commercial real estate is unlikely to regain its glamour. Even if companies require on-site work two or three days a week, will public transit regain its convenience? The chance to drive downtown and park in competitively priced garages will make the MBTA less appealing even when we transition from the age of the lockdown.

Zoom is the new third rail of public transit.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.