Financial Sustainability

As we think about the worst case scenario over the coming year, it is not unrealistic to consider three key factors:

1. Tax receipts to federal, state and local government will be substantially lower. Higher unemployment means lower income taxes. Extended stay at home orders and closed stores/restaurants mean lower sales tax receipts. Less driving to work due to remote work opportunities means lower gas tax receipts. At the federal, state and local government level that means double digit declines in revenues.

2. With approximately 65% of transit customers commuting to/from work — and with high unemployment, remote work and many entertainment destinations closed — farebox receipts will continue to perform substantially lower than current expectations.

3. As social distancing requirements limit capacity on trains/buses/ferries, higher levels of service and operating costs will be required — all while bringing in lower levels of customer based revenues.

If each of those scenarios wind up true for much of the next year, the implications on transit systems are precarious at best. The MTA in NYC announced that they are losing $200M a week. Other communities are experiencing similarly harrowing numbers.

What can a transit system do today to mitigate such substantial risks a year from now if the above scenario were to be true?

1. Ensure service levels match reasonable social distancing requirements. Running substantial levels of service at pennies on the dollar in cost recovery is simply not sustainable — hoping that higher levels of government will support the shortfall when they will likely lack the revenues to provide support. Begin smart service today.

2. Use CARES Act funding today as though it must last your agency for three years — because it might be necessary in a worst case scenario.

3. Demonstrate community value in ways that go far beyond ridership. Innovative transit agencies like CapMetro in Austin are delivering groceries to people over age 55. Other agencies are demonstrating similar value far beyond the traditional definition of ridership. If/when an agency needs to turn to the community for sustainable sources of local revenue, demonstrating measurable value far beyond traditional transit will be key.

Service Delivery

What is the worst-case scenario for transit one year from now?

What if, a year from now, transit is no longer deemed essential?

It’s hard to imagine a scenario more challenging than the spring of 2020 for mobility providers. Yet despite early warnings about the role transit could play in the spread of COVID-19, public transportation proved the lifeline for millions of essential workers.

This moment in modern history has shifted the paradigm for how communities are seeing their public transportation networks — a sign that ridership alone is a drastically incomplete metric for measuring the success of transit services.

A year from now, it’s very possible that transit service is where we are today — the blend of eroded customer confidence, high unemployment, low gas prices, social distancing standards, and guidance form public health officials may continue to apply severe pressure on the dynamics of transit ridership.

But what if we measured performance by something other than ridership? Organizations with mature performance management systems are weathering prolonged storms through their ability to respond with agility to resource allocation decisions, customer priorities, and fluidity in changing labor markets. The new proof in mobility is that high ridership does equal essential.

What are you measuring? How is your approach to performance management enabling your ability to make decisions in tough times?

Customer Satisfaction

The bad news: Customer confidence in public transit is low. How low? Here are some indicators:

According to a recent Qualtrics survey, 77% of people feel uncomfortable taking public transit right now, while 75% feel uncomfortable flying on an airplane. Of travelers who fly regularly, 20% say they believe they’re unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future.

The same survey found that 40% of customers want masks to be mandatory for every passenger, 38% want assigned seating spaced at least six feet apart, and 32% want the temperatures of passengers checked before they board
Lyft is reporting a dramatic drop in ridership during Q2 of 2020, from 21,807 in 2019 to just 8,688 this year.

Early claims about public transit’s role in spreading COVID-19 — claims that have since been discredited — have proven hard to shake as the transit industry works to spread the message that it is still operating and still safe.

For the moment, it appears that local agencies bear the largest burden of drawing customers back to their service with assurances of cleanliness, efficiency and safety — and internally, now may be the time to identify new success that will prove transit’s value to the local community, even as ridership lags.

Employee Engagement

A year from now, what does your employee engagement and satisfaction look like? With so many employees continuing to work remotely, organizations may find themselves struggling to keep employees engaged.

A pre-pandemic Harvard study indicated that workplace issues are more difficult to resolve in a remote work environment — workplace politics are more pervasive and difficult, and when conflicts arise, they can be harder to resolve. As remote work has exploded in the age of COVID-19, employers finding that these workforce issues have taken on a new urgency.

So what hope do we have of maintaining efficiency and morale when social distancing recommendations could be with us for months — or even Is it possible to keep employees healthy, happy and productive in this new normal?

As lack of access to clear information, face-to-face supervision, and distractions at home can be the top challenges to engaging employees, a focused internal communications strategy can ensure your employees have an active connection to the right information and their colleagues. Time will tell what the most popular solutions are. But a year from now, we may likely find that the employers that set specific communications outcomes — and met those goals — will have been the most successful in keeping their workforces engaged and contributing to organizational success, even as they work at a distance.