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Candace Brakewood in front of UT bus

Transit Solutions

Brakewood Seeks to Boost Post-Pandemic Ridership

By Andrew Faught.

COVID-19 wasn’t the only story to emerge from 2020. Public transit ridership hit a 100-year low—due in part to the pandemic but also to factors that civil and environmental engineering researchers are working to identify in hopes of fueling renewed demand.

As part of a $1 million US Department of Transportation effort, UT is part of a Tier 1 university transportation center known as T-SCORE (Transit – Serving Communities Optimally, Responsively, and Efficiently) that will provide transit agencies with new insights into ridership trends to help them adapt more quickly to changing conditions. The other collaborators include lead institution Georgia Tech (led by Adjunct Associate Professor Kari Watkins) in addition to the University of Kentucky and Brigham Young University.

“The focus of the T-SCORE center is to understand why there have been declines in transit ridership, really over the last decade,” said Associate Professor Candace Brakewood. “We’ve seen slow-to-steady declines prior to COVID-19, and we’ve seen massive declines since the pandemic began.”

Brakewood is leading T-SCORE’s Community Analysis track, which is researching which markets are most effectively served by public transit. A separate Multimodal Optimization and Simulation research track led by Dr. Greg Erhardt at University of Kentucky is considering which transit routes should be traditional, with fixed schedules, and which should be flexible and provided on demand. The two-and-a-half-year effort will conclude in January 2023.

While there have been gradual increases in transit use since the start of COVID, Brakewood says, “It’s still not at prepandemic levels in many cities. What we’re trying to understand now is why. And then try to forecast when it will actually recover. Right now, we don’t have a great answer.”

Besides the pandemic, there are many factors may be contributing to recent declines in transit ridership, such as new shared modes. In a previous collaborative project (TCRP A-34) sponsored by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, Brakewood’s research with Georgia Tech and University of Kentucky found that ridehailing services like Uber and Lyft are impacting transit use, causing small but significant declines in many urban areas.

As part of the ongoing Community Analysis T-SCORE research, Brakewood has been collaborating with UT Professor Chris Cherry and graduate students Abubakr Ziedan and Nitesh Shah to analyze the impacts of shared electric scooters on transit use. Their findings suggest that shared e-scooters are likely not causing significant impacts on overall transit ridership.

Public transportation still is considered a linchpin for community mobility and a vital service for disabled, elderly and low-income populations. Further, policy-makers often credit transit service for contributing to a healthier environment by improving air quality, cutting oil consumption, and encouraging better land use policies.

While ridership falloffs surprised researchers in 2020, the industry is recovering, albeit slowly, according to Brakewood. She says the current moment is a critical time for self-reflection for the transit industry.

“It’s thinking about how the industry remakes itself,” she said. “What technologies do they need to be using? What types of policies should they be implementing? What changes should be made to the infrastructure, and where should new bus routes and rail tracks be going?”

In her T-SCORE Community Analysis work, Brakewood is also working with UT graduate student Abubakr Ziedan and undergrad student Ashley Hightower to research fare capping, a practice used by a small number of transit agencies that ensures riders will not be charged more than the price of weekly or monthly passes.

“It’s trying to be more flexible and cater to the riders a little bit more,” she said. “I think that people will come back, but it may take a while. There is no easy answer.”