University of Vermont Transportation Research Center

Evaluating public transit agency responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in seven U.S. regions

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 3-6-2023


The Covid-19 pandemic's impacts on public transit will be felt for years, if not longer. In a few short weeks in 2020, the nature of day-to-day travel shifted around the world. Many of those who were able to stay at home did so while a large majority of those who needed to continue traveling moved away from public transit if they had alternatives available. For their part, public transit agencies responded with rapid service adjustments during March 2020, making varying efforts to communicate with riders and the public during this time so that users could understand how service was changing and how it would affect them. The impacts of the pandemic were dramatic—public transit ridership dropped by nearly 80% in April 2020 across the United States as the unemployment rate reached 14%—worse than any month during the Great Recession. But agency responses were nonuniform. In this paper, we characterize how seven public transit operators in the United States—those responsible for 55% of all unlinked trips in 2019—adapted service during the pandemic using quantitative performance information and a review of agency press releases. We also assess impacts on riders for whom public transit is essential. We find that pandemic-era changes largely did not change existing disparities between groups, suggesting that baseline inequities did not worsen as overall service levels fell. Understanding transit agency behaviors using different data sources is a first step towards linking agency responses with outcomes. This type of analysis that blends quantitative performance analysis with qualitative data can also provide insight into how agencies can adapt to future crises.