6 minute read 22 Jul 2020
EY - Man and son holding hands

How to rebuild consumer trust and revive ridership in public transit

By Tom Rousakis

EY US Transactions Infrastructure Leader

Intrigued by the impact infrastructure has on our communities. Motivated to improve government agency performance. Inherited a love of food and gardening from Greek immigrant parents. Father of two.

6 minute read 22 Jul 2020

As the US reopens after COVID-19 shutdown, people returning to work cite commuting as one of their highest concerns.

Transit ridership and fare revenue has plummeted by as much as 80%-90% across US transit agencies and globally. This has put a strain on agency budgets, somewhat offset by federal funding, but there is legitimate cause for concern about the long-term impact on customer trust.  Already, cities in parts of the world where the crisis in waning are seeing an increase in single-occupancy vehicle use without the commensurate rise in transit ridership.  Will congestion become even worse than what we experienced before and will local economies stagnate if transit agencies don’t regain the trust of the customer?

A key element in this conversation is the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on poor communities, who also have few alternative means of transportation and are likely to work in jobs where remote work is not an option. Safe mobility alternatives are critical to the well-being of these populations and their ability to engage in a local economy. The good news is that the mindset and tools that will be needed to regain trust  and ridership were in the works well before  the current crisis broke. Long before the pandemic, transit systems were being disrupted by ride-sharing companies, changing work patterns and decaying infrastructure, leading to service challenges and customer dissatisfaction. The COVID-19 crisis has only accelerated these trends and dug a deeper hole from which traditional strategies may not help transit agencies fully emerge.

There is a strong economic argument for taking aggressive action. Growth in ridership and revenue is needed to fund safe and reliable service for those using public transportation. Consider the millions of dollars that fares generate in revenues each year — and the money that has been lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Every month that riders return means tens of millions of dollars for transit systems and a more quickly recovering local economy. The alternative seems to be economic stagnation that could threaten urban areas and the tax revenues that subsidize transit, creating a vicious cycle. It’s worth it for transit agencies to go above and beyond to gain the trust of customers because, in the end, agencies and cities will be paid back many times over. However, actions should not be based solely on getting funds back into the system, but rather creating a balance between funding and public health. The goal should be to help the overall economy and enable workers to get to their jobs safely and on time.

Even before COVID-19, strategies around smart mobility were taking hold and transforming the way people move around — agencies now need to embrace and take ownership of these strategies to boost their acceptance. New transit megaprojects, as well as legacy system maintenance, were under strain prior to COVID-19 — capital priorities and alternative delivery strategies need to be examined. Internal management capabilities have been ageing out and stuck in time — a focus on building transit leadership for dynamic challenges has never been more critical. Accelerating these strategies will be necessary to rebuild customer trust and, likewise, customer trust will be critical to making these strategies a success.

What will it take to get riders back and regain their trust?

Safety in the workplace is a key topic of conversation these days. But, it’s also top of mind for those who need to ride a bus or train to get to their workplace. For them, COVID-19 is a public health threat that will test their willingness to get back to their daily routines.

  • Public transportation needs to be more attractive than other modes of travel. That means protecting riders by limiting frequent customer touchpoints and providing cleaning, disinfecting and sanitation services; masks, gloves and other safety equipment to respond to higher levels of customer demand.
  • Social distancing measures are also needed and present opportunities that may alleviate fears and encourage ridership. For example, blocking out certain seats, limiting the number of people on train or station platforms, providing real-time information on crowding levels, adjusting time schedules and designating less traveled routes for dedicated bus lanes. Some cities are also checking temperatures and requiring riders to wear masks on public transportation.
  • Introducing fare concessions and Mobility- as-a-Service concepts can also be important components. Partnering with ridesharing services to provide commuting options for local businesses, especially when combined with dedicated traffic lanes, can provide an alternative environment for some commuters, while lessening the burden and crowding on the system.

Developing a customer-focused COVID-19 response

Just as running hundreds of buses and trains on time requires careful planning and consistent monitoring of performance, so will a successful post-COVID-19 customer strategy.  We are responding to the many challenges that this pandemic presents across diverse industries and sectors, including public transportation, by applying its experience in strategy and implementations, insight and assessment tools, modeling capabilities, and tracking mechanisms.

We believe it is important that transit agencies adopt a careful, coordinated approach to change management in their response to COVID-19. Understanding how to measure maturity starts the journey to trust:

  • Develop a pandemic response plan: The plan should be driven by the goals of the endeavor and consider the level of risk that is acceptable and that can be measured. It should include a management and reporting structure, supply chain considerations for items such as PPE, and consider the impact on employees, contractors and  customers. There will be no “one-size- fits-all” solution for transit agencies, so reporting mechanisms should be incorporated for data and employee and customer feedback to ensure continuous improvement. Likewise, the plan should be tailored in coordination with and in support of the local economy reopening. Analysis should be undertaken to understand when local industries will reopen and how mobility solutions can be tailored to their commuting needs.
  • Monitor changing results: One of the most important, overlooked and difficult to implement means of addressing customer trust in transit is monitoring performance. We’ve already seen throughout this crisis changing responses to a virus whose behavior had been unknown up until this point. Technology can play a role in allowing transit agencies to receive direct feedback from employees, customers and third parties or to monitor through social media, and play a role in identifying governance shortfalls.
  • Optimize the plan: Listen to the voice of transit riders, employees and contractors, and to the data around infections and hotspots — feedback and iterative recalibration of a change plan will provide the greatest opportunity for success. Transit agencies can use monitoring and risk management technology tools to drive plan improvement, but there is also a major people-related component to the improvement. The plan and subsequent improvements will need to be communicated and socialized effectively for the plan to be successful, and the means of communication and training will play a critical role in that success.

Supporting long-term resiliency and connecting with customers is more important than ever to build trust, restore confidence and encourage ridership in public transit. I think many would agree, however, that these goals existed well before the COVID-19 pandemic. But a goal is not worth much without the strategy, plan, tools and resources to achieve the goal. Perhaps now is the time to move the transformation of transit into a new era.


Public transit agencies are dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on their operations, and customers find themselves in uncharted waters. As an essential service, public transit doesn’t have the luxury of remote working from home. The same is true for the many workers who rely upon transit to perform the work of hospitals and other essential services. Methods for protecting transit workers are being developed and implemented, but the impact on ridership has been dramatic.

About this article

By Tom Rousakis

EY US Transactions Infrastructure Leader

Intrigued by the impact infrastructure has on our communities. Motivated to improve government agency performance. Inherited a love of food and gardening from Greek immigrant parents. Father of two.