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Public transit across the U.S. is not nearly as crowded as it was before the pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If you're listening to this in your car, you probably already know that traffic congestion now looks a lot more like it did before COVID. Air travel, too, has bounced back from its pandemic lows, but transit ridership, not so much. Across the country, most trains and buses are not nearly as crowded as they used to be. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: As she steps off the elevated train and heads towards her bus stop, 29-year-old Bianca Cordova says she's noticed that the L and buses she rides almost daily are still nowhere near as crowded as they were before the pandemic.

BIANCA CORDOVA: For the most part, lately, I've seen it's a little bit lighter of people who are taking it.

SCHAPER: Cordova says she had been walking a lot more, but still needs the bus and train because she doesn't have many other options.

CORDOVA: For someone who doesn't have a car, I rely on the public transportation in any way that I can.

SCHAPER: For 27-year-old financial adviser Jawaan Avant, Chicago's L is also the way he gets around.

JAWAAN AVANT: The rail line - I'm most familiar with the rail line on the south side - living on the north side.

SCHAPER: And though he works from home, Jawaan says he still rides the L almost every day.

AVANT: Yeah, I do. I mean, to go to networking events downtown.

SCHAPER: But he notices that even though it's rush hour, there are often empty seats. The reason?

AVANT: Everything remote, pretty much. People don't have to go out to the office. People still scared. It's always new things coming up, I'm sure, like, monkeypox, COVID. So people are scared to kind of have human interaction, so...

SCHAPER: The fact that many office workers continue to work remotely, at least part of the time, is a big reason why transit ridership nationwide remains down substantially.

PAUL SKOUTELAS: We're averaging around 60% or so of pre-pandemic levels, so we're down about the 40%.

SCHAPER: That's Paul Skoutelas, president of the American Public Transportation Association. He says just like driving and flying, transit ridership plummeted in the first few months of the pandemic. And then began a slow climb back, which has since plateaued in recent months. And a recent report by S&P global rating indicates that transit ridership, especially on trains into downtown areas, will remain down for years, with only a 75% ridership recovery predicted by the end of 2025.

SKOUTELAS: It is a very challenging time. There's no getting around that.

SCHAPER: Skoutelas says federal COVID relief funding has kept transit agencies alive the last two years. But as that funding runs out and with fare revenue down, some transit agencies are heading towards a fiscal cliff.

SKOUTELAS: And certainly, you know, if things do not improve over the next two or three years, I think many systems will find themselves in a very difficult budgetary predicament.

SCHAPER: But he and others note that not all transit systems and modes are suffering equally. Bus systems, in particular, have recovered more riders much more quickly than rail systems that are designed to take 9-to-5 commuters to and from urban centers. David Bragdon of the research and advocacy foundation TransitCenter says weekend ridership is strongly recovering, too, as are routes serving essential workers and those for whom driving a car is not an option.

DAVID BRAGDON: Part of the solution is for transit agencies to re-orient themselves beyond the traditional 9-to-5 mindset.

SCHAPER: And to do that, P.S. Sriraj, director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois, Chicago, says transit agency officials need to be asking themselves some very difficult questions.

P S SRIRAJ: Does public transportation have to mean your conventional bus and train? Can it be anything other than that? Can there be more flexibility built into it? Can there be more private partnerships built into it? Can there be a revisioning of the public transportation agencies at all?

SCHAPER: Sriraj and other transit experts say public transportation remains an essential service for many Americans, but it now must reinvent itself for the post-pandemic world. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.