Luskin Summit on COVID, Public Transit and Homelessness

In the Luskin Summit session “Transit Impacts: Fewer Riders, More Homelessness,” experts in urban planning and public policy discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the intersection of public transit and homelessness. Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke about the social service role of public transit and how the pandemic has affected ridership among different groups. Public transit ridership dropped suddenly and dramatically at the beginning of the pandemic but has been increasing slowly since, with returning riders more likely to be low-income and people of color, Taylor said. Conan Cheung, a senior executive at LA Metro, explained that the agency has made frequent service and fare adjustments based on changes in ridership and revenue during the pandemic. In a study of U.S. and Canadian transit systems, Associate Dean and Professor of Urban Planning Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris found that over half of the agencies reported that they see at least 100 individuals who are unhoused per day. Many agencies also noted the lack of clear policies and training on how to respond to and interact with unhoused people, as well as a lack of support from local and state governments in addressing homelessness. Steve Martingano of Denver’s Regional Transportation District shared how his department redirected funds from the police division to hire mental health clinicians, form a homelessness task force and hire a full-time outreach coordinator to address the issue of homelessness in public transit.

Transit Funding as a Racial Equity Issue

A Washington Post article arguing that federal transportation policies have fostered racial inequity for generations cited research by Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin. The article said that newly confirmed Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg may not be fully aware of the complexities of allocating federal transit funding that historically have cemented existing inequities, especially in majority-Black communities. State and local transit agencies rarely make it a priority to help low-income or minority riders, the article noted, pointing to research by Taylor, a professor of urban planning. Transit spending has focused on commuter-oriented rail lines rather than bus service in deference to “the wealthier general voting public, although most members of this group rarely if ever ride transit,” Taylor’s study found. In many cases, it concluded, transit policy had failed to focus on the needs of transit riders themselves, particularly the poor and transit-dependent.


Taylor on Social Service of Public Transit

Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke to Wired about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on public transit services. Facing plummeting ridership, public transit agencies have cut services significantly to stay afloat. According to Taylor, transit usually serves two sets of people: those going into busy downtown areas and those who don’t have other transportation options. During the pandemic, ridership has declined among the first group due to stay-at-home orders, fears about transit as a vector for spread and the shift to remote work for many companies. As a result, the burden of public transit cuts has fallen on the people who need the system most, such as essential workers in the grocery, retail and health care sectors who continue to rely on public transit during the pandemic. “The social service aspect of public transit is even more prominent than it was before,” Taylor said.

Matute, Taylor on Prospective Promotion for Garcetti

Director Brian Taylor and Deputy Director Juan Matute of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the possibility that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti will be appointed to a Cabinet post in the Biden administration. After serving as national co-chair of President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign, Garcetti is a potential candidate for transportation secretary. While Garcetti has only held local office, Taylor noted that he would not be the first mayor to run the federal department of transportation. Taylor added that big-city mayors like Garcetti have to know how to pull federal, state and local resources together, along with political will, to get transportation projects moving. Matute acknowledged the success of Measure M as Garcetti’s signature legacy but said he wished he “had more success in the implementation of his vision for a better Los Angeles,” given the mayor’s grasp of the intricacies of transportation planning.

Taylor on Return to ‘Normal’ Transit Ridership

Urban Planning Professor Brian Taylor was featured in a Ventura County Star article discussing the public’s hesitation to return to public transit. In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, the number of people driving on freeways and using public transportation plummeted due to stay-at-home orders. While driving has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels, public transportation is experiencing a much slower recovery. Taylor said concerns about safety likely played a role in the recent decrease, but he attributed much of the ridership losses to the large increase in people working from home. “The question is, ‘Are we going to get back to normal?’ ” said Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin. “Well, what was normal? Normal was that we were having this erosion of riders, and that’s not necessarily the normal that the transit operators would want to get back to.”

Taylor on Outdated Speed Limits

 Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke to BYU Radio about how cities, counties and states set speed limits. According to the “85th percentile rule,” about 85% of drivers on a given road will go at or below a reasonable speed, while about 15% will drive faster than is safe. Developed in the 1930s, this rule has evolved from a starting point for determining speed limits in rural areas to the rule of law in complex urban traffic environments. Motorists who would like to go faster are often at odds with residents, cyclists and pedestrians, but setting a lower limit won’t necessarily make people slow down, said Taylor, a professor of urban planning and public policy. He said that crash history and data from mobile devices can be used to set more dynamic speed limits that take into account time of day, weather conditions and other factors that affect safe driving.

After the Pandemic, a Focus on Transportation Equity

An article in the Hill on the post-pandemic future of public transportation featured research presented at this year’s UCLA Lake Arrowhead Symposium. The virtual learning series, hosted by the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, explored how the transportation sector can recover from the economic shock of COVID-19 in an equitable manner. The Hill cited two scholars who presented research during the symposium. Deborah Salon of Arizona State University shared results from a survey finding that many employees may prefer to continue working from home even after pandemic restrictions are lifted, decreasing commuter demand for transit options. Giovanni Circella of UC Davis pointed to a “massive shift” toward car travel among those who have reduced their reliance on public transit. “In the other direction, among those reducing driving, pretty much nobody is increasing the use of transit,” he said. 


Cuts in Transit Service Will Hurt Low-Income Riders, Taylor Warns

Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke to City & State New York about the risks associated with cuts to public transit service as a result of pandemic-related fears. Emerging reports suggest that public transit does not pose a great risk of COVID-19 transmission as long as people practice safe behavior, the article noted. But public transit ridership has plummeted due to safety fears as well as to stay-at-home orders. Those now getting back on subways and buses are likely to be lower-income residents, people of color, essential workers and immigrants with less access to cars, and they would be hurt most by any cuts to service, said Taylor, a professor of urban planning and public policy. “The social service mission of public transit — providing mobility for those without — is the central role that the systems are playing right now,” he said.

Taylor on Riding Public Transit During a Pandemic

A New York Times article offering tips for safely riding public transit cited Brian Taylor, professor of urban planning and public policy. Many essential employees who cannot work remotely or don’t drive have continued to ride buses, trains and ferries, the article said. “It is mostly riders without other options who are coming back to public transit so far,” said Taylor, director of UCLA Luskin’s Institute of Transportation Studies, which is studying the effects of the pandemic on public transit ridership, operations and finance. The article advised riders to avoid rush hour, seek open air when possible, stay away from communal surfaces, minimize conversation, keep possessions off the floor and pack hand sanitizer, among other recommendations.   

Taylor, Wachs on Fairness in Transit Planning

Professors Brian Taylor and Martin Wachs of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin co-authored a Streetsblog article calling for transportation equity as public officials decide how to move forward on transit projects in a pandemic-battered economy. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, L.A. Metro has reeled from revenue losses, raising questions about whether some planned rail and road construction projects should be postponed or even canceled. Taylor and Wachs argue that priority should be given to improving bus service in lower-income communities where most carless families live. “People of color and those from low-income households are more likely than others to depend on transit to get to health care, schools and jobs. Equity demands improving transit service where they live,” they wrote. They added that expanding transit operations creates stable, unionized jobs with health and retirement benefits, which are much needed in the current economy.