America’s largest public transportation systems are facing their greatest challenge in generations — a crisis with the potential to decimate their service, cripple local economies, and diminish quality of life.

When Covid-19 arrived three years ago, most transit passengers stopped ridingshrinking transportation agencies’ fare revenues. Today, ridership remains far below pre-pandemic levels. Unless they can quickly find new sources of funding, big transit systems will be forced to drastically curtail service, which would drive away still more passengers and place those systems in an even deeper financial hole.

Such a scenario would directly affect current riders, but it would also devastate cities whose post-pandemic priorities — such as revitalizing downtowns, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and boosting equity — rely on the ready availability of mass transportation.

But a death spiral is not inevitable. To escape it, transit leaders must offer a full-throated defense of their essential role in American life. They must then secure new and reliable revenue streams from state and regional sources, which will require convincing residents and legislators that transit is worthy of subsidy — not an easy thing to do in a country where the vast majority of people don’t ride the bus or train. “Do you know how many times the median American rides transportation each year?” Brian Taylor, a professor of urban planning and policy at UCLA, asked me.“Zero.”

The only realistic way for transit officials to garner public support for the funding they desperately need is to demonstrate an ability to replace car trips, not just serve economically disadvantaged people who lack other means to get around their city. Otherwise, they forfeit the pro-transit arguments that resonate most with the public: curtailing congestion, reducing auto emissions, and boosting economic growth.

And to replace cars, transit agencies must offer fast, frequent, and reliable trips. This should be the core mission of any functional public transportation system, but increasingly, transit leaders are being pushed to focus on distracting priorities like electrifying buseseliminating fares, and fighting crime. The biggest US transit agencies must be allowed to simply focus on delivering high-quality service. There is no Plan B.

Read the full article about public transit systems after COVID by David Zipper at Vox.