Telecommuting is here to stay, but transit agencies can entice riders back

Over the past few years, we have talked a lot about how the pandemic changed the way we live and work. Finally, over the summer, Covid-19 was declared over and we were encouraged to return to our regularly scheduled lives (with caveats, of course).

Those of us in the transit industry rejoiced at the idea of workers returning en masse to our city centers and our ridership getting back to normal, or at least something resembling normal. While ridership is rising, and is, on average, back to 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels, it’s still far away from even loose definitions of recovered. Many of us are beginning to wonder if we’ll ever get there.

Here’s a new way of looking at it: I’d like to suggest that the pandemic wasn’t actually responsible for changing the way we work. What the pandemic really did is expedite a shift that had already begun. To borrow a phrase from the classic Mel Brooks movie Spaceballs, the evolution of where and how we work was placed into “ludicrous speed.”

The rapid evolution of telecommuting

Prior to the pandemic, working from home – commonly referred to as telework or telecommuting – was the exception. There was a broad bias against it. Federal employees were often only able to do it when the weather got bad. Some traditional employers had telework policies that allowed for occasional work from home (WFH) days, but under the eye of stringent policies to make sure employees were on the job. In general, only forward-thinking start-ups allowed (or even required) remote work so they could expand their talent pool as well as save on office expenses.

The pandemic changed that quite suddenly. Fears of workers catching up on their ‘soaps’ were replaced by a fear of a complete and utter economic collapse not seen in almost a century. For the first time ever, those who could truly work from home did work from home, whether they wanted to or not. Telework was forced on even the most skeptical of managers and employers.

As the pandemic dragged on, employers looked back and saw with their own eyes what telework advocates had been saying for years: It works. Most employers were quick to recognize that productivity didn’t drop, and in many cases it rose. The cost of having an office went down dramatically. What savvy businessperson would look at higher productivity and lower overhead and say, ‘no thank you’?

Employers who demanded a return to the office faced backlash, causing some to delay or abandon those plans. Current labor market conditions added to the importance of offering the flexibility of remote or hybrid work. Today, employers who offer at least partially remote work have an advantage, since they can more readily retain employees who would rather quit and find another job than go back to their cubicles and sit under fluorescent lights five days a week.

There is a downside to this rapid shift: Everyone working from home has had a huge impact on our downtowns. It’s hard to fathom that the city centers we have always known might be changed forever. Once bustling and vibrant areas of commerce that depended on daytime population boosts have been empty, desolate, and full of vacant office and retail space. Many small businesses like coffee shops, restaurants, and dry cleaners either went out of business or are struggling for survival.

Adding to that, transit agencies that relied on daily commuters are forecasting huge shortfalls in fare revenue. However, most experts agree that many of the workplace changes that were forced on employers are here to stay in one way or another.

About that (ugh) commute

Many public transit agencies and the vendors that serve them held out hope that everyone would return to their offices, and ride the train or bus to get there. Transit agencies have spent decades building a system largely around getting people to and from work, only to have commute and midday downtown trips experience the largest declines in ridership.

One reason many workers prefer to stay home is to avoid the slog of the commute. The pandemic has given them a taste of one the greatest telework benefits — their commute was eliminated; no more being in the car for an hour to go 15 miles (each way), no more waiting for the bus in the rain, no more train delays. Morning newscast traffic on the eights was replaced with, ‘please clean up your toys so I don’t trip on my way to work.’

The question for a lot of workers today is not, “Do you have to go back to the office”? Rather, it’s “Do you want to go back to the office?” The commute plays a significant role in that decision. For struggling transit agencies, this serves as both a problem and an opportunity.

There is a term in transit: “Choice riders.” Pre-pandemic, this described riders who had a choice of either driving to work, or taking a bus, train, or vanpool to work. Today, employees have another choice – they can stay at home.

Addressing changes in the workplace

What does this all mean for transit agencies? This is a problem we, as an industry, can solve. We can start by making transit a more appealing choice. When transit is easy to use, flexible, safe, and reliable, people who have a choice are more likely to hop on and head to the office. Transit agencies have an opportunity to lead the return-to-work charge by focusing on improving the riders’ experience.

There are many other ways that transit agencies can help bring riders back and return to work. Here are just a few examples:

  • Work with employers to adopt transit benefit programs. Federal tax code allows employees to get a tax benefit for employer-provided transit benefits. Employees can use pre-tax wages to pay for transit or employers can subsidize the cost of transit. Either way, employees can save more than $5,000 a year. In some cities, such as New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, employers are required to provide transit benefits. It is easy for employers to offer and has a real impact on transit ridership.
  • Allow for more flexible pricing. Many, if not most, transit agencies have a monthly pass or some type of program that provides some savings for commuters who use transit daily. Consider adjusting pricing models to take into consideration that more employees are working hybrid schedules partially at home and partially in the office riders. As more agencies go to an open cloud-based system, offering discounts to commuters or altering pricing based on usage and conditions is easy to implement. Agencies should look at different ways to incentivize and target those users.
  • Offer a complete mobility solution own the commute. Providing seamless end-to-end options for commuters will help agencies increase ridership. Agencies can no longer afford to just be a part of the commuting process. Technology enables agencies to provide core services, but to also integrate the planning, booking, and payment of other parts of the commute. For example, you could integrate first/last mile options, parking, or intraday travel into your agency’s offerings.

The wait is over

It’s time for us to recognize that we can no longer wait for riders to come back. Instead, all of us in the transit industry have to take steps to bring back riders — and more importantly – attract a new generation of transit riders. We are all stakeholders, and we need to shift our focus to thinking about what we can do to enhance ridership rather than simply waiting for it to return.

Every community is different, but we share the commonality that ridership will not increase unless we get creative. A renewed focus on providing seamless, safe, and reliable – and of course, equitable — end-to-end transportation is what will bring riders back.

It is a tall task and the burden of that weight needs to be shared by all stakeholders, including your partners at Genfare. We pledge to work with our agency partners to provide more than just our products and solutions; we will share the knowledge we’ve gained and our vision for the future of transit.

How can we help?

Over the coming weeks and months, we will use this blog and our customer newsletter to highlight some of the ways that transit agencies are finding success in this challenging environment. Whether you want to create a ridership incentive program, apply for a grant to upgrade infrastructure, or get the ball rolling on other creative thinking – count us in.

If you would like to learn more about how we can work together to bring ridership back, please contact me or your business development director.