North Americans Turning Away from Public Transit as Direct Result of COVID-19

March 19, 2020

Jennifer Yellin
SVP & Managing Director – USA

Note – the results below are based on an online survey conducted from March 6- March 8, 2020 among a nationally representative sample of n=1000 Canadians and n=1000 Americans.  We recognize that attitudes and behaviours have likely changed dramatically since this survey was originally fielded, due to closures and reduced public transportation options.

As a direct result of COVID-19, North Americans are switching their travel habits from public transit to either staying at home or relying more on their cars.  Northstar’s public opinion poll found that 48% of Americans and 40% of Canadians feel that riding public transit poses a high health risk due to the virus.

More specifically, between 30-40% of Americans and ~30% of Canadians report decreased usage of public transportation (subways, buses and light rail) as a direct result of COVID-19.

“People’s movement away from public transit is likely to have long-term consequences,” says Jennifer Yellin, SVP and co-lead of Northstar’s Transportation Practice.  “The implications include lost revenue for public transit authorities, which is ultimately used to upgrade and maintain systems.  There is also the potential for increased traffic and congestion on roads, which could result in increased pollution and have longer range environmental impacts. The ultimate question is whether these riders will return to public transit or stick with their cars long-term.”

“What is also interesting,” Yellin notes, “is the difference in perceived risk levels between Americans and Canadians.  This could suggest that the repercussions of this behaviour change may be not as long-term nor as severe as the United States may see.”
Plane travel is also being impacted – more so than public transit.  While approximately 40% of North Americans say they are currently taking flights less often, an additional 10% (total of 50%) report they are less likely to consider taking a flight in the next 3-4 months because of COVID-19. “Layering on the cancelled conferences, sporting events and concerts, corporate travel bans, and closures of popular tourist attractions, the ripple effect is likely to be significant across all aspects of the travel, tourism, and hospitality industry,” says Yellin.

Most North Americans (between 60-70%) believe airports and airlines are taking the appropriate steps to reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19.  However, they are less confident with the steps being taken by public transit agencies. That said, nearly 30% of Canadians and 25% of Americans don’t believe that any company associated with travel is taking the appropriate steps to reduce their risk.

Overall, nearly 50% of Americans and 40% of Canadians are very or extremely concerned about COVID-19.  Furthermore, 47% of Americans and 35% of Canadians believe that they are at least somewhat likely to personally contract the virus.  “Again, the differences between perceived risk between Americans and Canadians is stark,” notes Yellin.

Interestingly, those who are at the greatest risk from COVID-19 (those who are 55+) are the least likely to believe they are personally at risk of contracting the virus.  “This group is likely less concerned about personally contracting the virus due to their decreased mobility – as many are retired and are less likely to be traveling, including taking public transportation,” posits Yellin.

Click here for more details on this study and to see additional data points.

For more information, contact
Jennifer Yellin, Senior Vice President, Northstar Research Partners;

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