A Preview of City and Agency Transportation Goals and Strategies in 2021

Most discussion about the outlook of U.S. transportation policy is focused on the incoming Biden administration and federal priorities. However, many of the interesting transportation policy developments over the past decade have been squarely at the local level. Cities and transit agencies have been innovating and finding new ways to solve longstanding problems, and this trend will only continue over the coming year. A once-in-a-century pandemic, a national racial justice and civil rights movement, a major economic downturn, and record-setting natural disasters from hurricanes to wildfires have upended local priorities and will shape city and agency strategies in 2021.

Among the most urgent and immediate priorities facing cities and transportation agencies is the need to balance budgets and preserve essential services amid major hits to revenue. Prior to the pandemic, states and many municipalities began the year with optimistic revenue projections and healthy reserves. Since the onset of the pandemic, cities have seen revenues decline by an average of 21%, while ridership on public transit has, on average, only recovered to 40% of pre-pandemic ridership. While localities and agencies received critical funding in the CARES Act, the uncertain prospects of additional federal aid is setting the stage for another round of brutal service and job cuts.

As cities begin to plan for a post-COVID recovery, there will be significant desire to tackle climate change at the local level and prevent a return to status-quo emissions levels. Many major cities had already been taking an increasingly larger role in combating climate change over the last four years, particularly to fill the federal void left by the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. However, the increasing urgency of the climate crisis and increased federal emphasis on climate action under a Biden administration is likely to bring climate change to the top of the local priority list.

The nationwide protests against police brutality not only sparked renewed focus on the role of policing in public safety, but also sparked a more direct focus on addressing systemic racism and inequality in all facets of public life, including transportation. Black and brown communities, who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, are also among the most transit-dependent. If they hadn’t already, cities and agencies are placing equity at the forefront of planning and decision-making.

There are a range of policy solutions and strategies that cities and agencies have at their disposal to tackle financial struggles, climate change, and equity in 2021. Based on Eno’s regular discussions with leaders and officials at local agencies, cities are likely to leverage the following five strategies to meet the challenges of 2021.

  1. Exploring new revenue sources

Cities and agencies will continue to consider new sources of revenue to help fund critical transportation services. To fill an expected $8.1 billion revenue shortfall, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is considering managed lanes, cordon pricing, mileage-based user fees, congestion pricing, and non-gas tax or vehicle fee increases. Initial studies and public comments on implementation of these potential options are expected by April 2021. In Los Angeles, LA Metro is also undertaking a traffic reduction study to identify potential pilot sites for a congestion pricing scheme. Other proposals include exploring a $3 tax on all non-essential online orders delivered in New York City to raise an estimated $1 billion annually for the MTA and proceeding with the approval of the city’s congestion pricing plan.

  1. Making changes to land use policy

As cities imagine a post-pandemic future, they are developing ways to better integrate land use and transportation policies to make car trips shorter, to make it easier for residents to get around without a car, and to increase the accessibility of essential services and recreation. Specifics include reducing parking minimums and permitting more (affordable) housing to be built in areas with good transit, pedestrian, and bicycle infrastructure. Other cities are exploring the “15-minute city” model, which envisions neighborhoods in which a mix of land-uses and transportation options allow residents to access basic necessities and recreation by walking, biking, or transit within 15 minutes.

This strategy builds off of examples from 2020: Oregon’s statewide land use board voted in early December to significantly reduce parking minimums on duplexes, triplexes, and other “missing middle” housing types, which will take affect across 58 cities and towns. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is also actively exploring strategies to cap car commutes to 40% of employees for businesses with 50 or more employees, including building more housing near transit.

  1. Re-allocating street and curb space

Among the more visible pandemic responses in major cities has been the rapid deployment of outdoor dining and open-streets pilots. By limiting vehicular traffic on select streets and converting parking spots into dining space, cities aimed to provide more opportunities to move, dine, and distance outdoors while also keeping local economies afloat. While many of these pilots have been deployed on a temporary basis, there are already conversations about making these outdoor setups permanent.

The growing popularity of active transportation modes during the pandemic—both recreationally and as a safe and environmentally friendly form of commuting—is likely to increase pressure on cities to dedicate more space to cyclists, pedestrians, and micro mobility users through expanded sidewalks, street closures, or protected bicycle infrastructure. The ability of many cities to rapidly set up open-streets and outdoor dining pop-ups could serve as a template for cities to quickly deploy similar tactical infrastructure solutions for these goals.

  1. Investing in Analytics, Data, and Technology

2021 is likely to see continued implementation and investment in transportation technology and analytics. Major agencies like WMATA and LA Metro launched contactless mobile fare payment on transit during the pandemic, and efforts to integrate transit options into third party apps continued to pick up steam in 2020. Cities like Chicago and Austin have also launched efforts to integrate bikeshare programs with transit trip planning and ticketing. While these integration efforts were not launched as a response to the pandemic, COVID-19 has led to an increased popularity of contactless forms of payment. As non-essential riders contemplate their return to public transit, investments in new fare payment and trip planning technologies to lure riders may play a role in agencies’ post-pandemic recovery. 

  1. Bringing equity to the forefront of decision-making

2020 led to a nationwide reckoning with longstanding police brutality, systemic racism, and inequality. Many major cities reallocated funding from police budgets and took steps to address racial equity across multiple departments. In 2021 local agencies will continue to more explicitly focusing on equity and racial justice in planning and transportation. Some cities are exploring moving traffic and parking enforcement under civilian transportation agencies.

Transit agencies are also expected to continue tackling equity in service planning and fare policy, and internal governance. LA Metro began studying potentials for fare-free transit to boost access to transit in 2020, and is expected to unveil findings in the coming months. Agencies in Austin, Chicago and Seattle are moving ahead with reduced or capped fares for lower income riders. These efforts are aimed not only at boosting systemwide equity, but also to support essential workers, many of whom are people of color and are among those who continue to rely on public transit for work and basic services during the pandemic.

Looking Ahead

Cities and transit agencies face difficult challenges, but are already considering new strategies to address them. As localities begin planning for a post-pandemic recovery, it is clear that climate, financial recovery, and equity will be at the heart of their pandemic recovery goals and that these strategies are likely to be at the top of the agenda.

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