BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — If you thought Golden Empire Transit buses seemed sparsely filled before the pandemic came along and super-charged the already growing trend of work-from-home arrangements, consider the reality of public transit today.
With roughly 40 percent of U.S. workers working from home, office buildings are quieter, traffic is lighter and commuter buses have more empty seats than even before. Is that a bad thing for the county bus system? Or a big push in a better direction? It depends on how you look at it.
Clearly, demand is not what it could be. But GET management is not sitting idly by, accepting federal subsidies and watching this unsustainable scenario play out. They’re carefully tracking workplace economics, lifestyle trends and consumer habits — and, like the executives of many public transit systems around the U.S., developing plans to serve the commuting public as demand changes.
Karen King, chief executive officer of Golden Empire Transit, says the pandemic accelerated an already changing landscape for public transit.
“We had a 20-year plan that included expanding our fixed-route bus service and implementing some bus rapid transit and hopefully getting some bus-only lanes and a number of things like that,” said King. “But this whole pandemic thing has really caused us to pivot and rethink that.”
One key pivot will be toward the type of on-demand service that has made ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft so successful. A 15-ton bus with a tight schedule and a set route just can’t compete with a guy with a Toyota Corolla and a smartphone. So now, more and more, U.S. cities are turning to what’s known as microtransit. For GET, that means an on-call van service called RYDE — for now, available only in portions of southwest Bakersfield — that’ll drop customers curb to curb for just $3.50 per person.
It’s all part of a wholesale revolution in commuting, says Paul Comfort, a Maryland public transit executive and author of the 2020 book, “The Future of Public Transportation.”
“There are four big trends coming in the last half of 2020 and 2021,” Comfort says. “One of them is zero emission buses — ZEBs. There’s battery-fueled buses, CNG- or compressed natural gas-fueled buses, and hydrogen-fueled buses.
“The other trends are contactless fares. You can use your phone now to pay for your fare, or you have an account, or you tap and go with a card. Some places like Vancouver, Canada, are talking about using wearables — where you have a bracelet or a necklace with a chip in it.
“The other trend,” Comfort says, “is technology — technology that is leading transit innovation — from microtransit, which is smaller vans picking up people, to another trend, which is autonomous public transit vehicles. People are using it for last mile solutions. Picking people up and taking them to the train station.”
One of the things regional public transit systems around the country must do to make this happen is build up their zero-emission-vehicle charging stations to service those buses. But GET’s board of directors has a unique challenge — GET’s headquarters is in the path of California High Speed Rail. The state agency will at some point purchase GET headquarters and tear it down. So GET is moving — but precisely when or where they don’t know quite yet . The GET board’s dilemma — why invest in expensive fueling infrastructure for zero-emission buses if they’ll soon have to walk away from it and start over?
“I’m hoping we can get a new facility built in the next five years,” King says, “because we have to start buying zero emission buses and that means we have to make modifications to the facility for fueling them. And our board is very hesitant to invest that funding into our existing location.”
The public transit world was changing before COVID-19 came along and shook up the status quo so profoundly. And now — with more people working from home and not needing cars or buses nearly as much — it’s even more complicated. So public transit systems must be prepared to evolve — new buses, new fuels, new ways to pay — down south, they’re even task forcing the possibility of making the L.A. Metro bus and rail system free.
In any case, we may one day start seeing fewer and fewer of those big, sparsely filled $687,000 buses. because — sparsely filled or not — we may see fewer of that type of bus. So to the long and growing list of things the pandemic has changed in our world, add public transportation, which will have changed perhaps for the better — by making public transportation a more personalized experience.