April 28, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended nearly every aspect of daily life, and public transit has been in the eye of the storm. Farebox revenue in most cities has all but dried up, operators are in short supply, and the public is in dire need of the essential services provided by transit agencies.
If the first few weeks of the pandemic felt like freefall, recent weeks have been about discovering parachute solutions through shared knowledge and community action. As the weeks tick by, transit has slowly begun to regain its footing, and best practices are emerging. That’s why we caught up with six public transit experts from different parts of the industry: to hear their perspectives on the top transit best practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s what we found.
It’s frightful that we need to consider this, but it’s a very real issue: if we don’t take proper precautions, we’re putting our drivers in peril, and as a result eroding our ability to help in the crisis. Like doctors and nurses at hospitals, transit vehicle operators are providing an essential service to help mitigate the pandemic. Over 100 transit workers have already died in the line of duty, and thousands more have gotten sick. This not only takes the obvious human toll, but it also imperils public transit’s charter to move people who have no other means of getting around — and that includes a lot of essential workers. Operators are risking their lives driving 2.8 million essential workers to work every single day.
“It’s a really tough situation because ultimately, we have our operators interacting with the public,” says Steve Young, Vice President of Technology and Innovation at VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio.
Transit agencies have scrambled to put safety measures in place. Across the United States, 56% of agencies have instituted rear-door boarding, 39% have added barriers to protect the operator, and 95% have increased cleaning frequency. And agencies are constantly iterating on safety, coming up with new ideas to implement and innovative ways to expand safety precautions.
“Frontline safety is our number one priority, and it’s something that we’re taking action on every day as new developments come up,” says Mike Helta, Chief Innovation Officer at MTA Maryland in Baltimore.
This matters now more than ever. We owe it to our drivers, and we owe it to our communities.
Transit agencies are working to provide PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), but with supplies running short, they’ve had to get creative. “Everybody’s trying to get their hands on masks. It’s not an easy thing to do,” says Helta. “We’ve worked with a local sewing company to actually get them to manufacture reusable and washable masks that we’re going to be getting to our operators.”
“We’re going into distilleries,” says Young. “For hand sanitizer, just to be clear. Although you might want to go there for something else at this point.”
Local businesses are motivated to assist whatever way they can, and agencies should be capitalizing on that to ensure that transit workers have the supplies they need. “I’ve heard from different agencies that they’ve reached out to a lot of their community partners to see what they can do,” says Helta. “There’s a lot of different industries that are trying to help out. So make sure you’re looking under every rock to find a solution.”
Disseminating information to operators — most of whom spend their days driving instead of sitting behind a laptop — has been tricky.
“It’s really difficult to communicate with the operators, because the operators at MTA do not have email addresses,” says Helta. But finding a way to do so has been a top priority, to ensure that operators are getting accurate information and that they know the latest updates and protocols from the agency. Says Helta, “We want to make sure operators get the information they need directly from us.”
San Antonio, for instance, has implemented mass communication strategies to get information to operators in whatever way they can.
“We use a tool that can send SMS and emails via home contact information and personal email addresses,” says Young. “We focus on mobile phone communication, and we can get a message out in a matter of seconds.”
Signage is an effective tool for behavioral change, and it can go a long way in creating a safe environment for operators. “We’re trying to educate the public and say, ‘You also play a part in this,’” says Helta. “‘You can wear masks. You can socially distance yourself.’”
Even simple signs about staying separated can go a long way. “We already have had instances where passengers were clumped together, and when they were asked to move, they got upset if signage wasn’t there,” explains Young.
But information with riders shouldn’t be a one-way street. This could also be an opportunity to have riders weigh in on approach. “I would love to see transit agencies putting out informal surveys,” says Jarrett Walker, President of Jarrett Walker and Associates. “Agencies could text a multiple choice question about an issue they’re dealing with and ask riders what they think the agency should do. I think that showing that you are improvising and interested in public feedback would be a really helpful thing for transit agencies to do.”
Ultimately what you do will vary based on your own agency — what works best for one city might not work for yours. “Right now it doesn’t seem like there’s a one size fits all approach,” says Jenn Golech, Transit Planner at Swiftly. “There’s a big diversity of experiences and challenges that individual agencies are having.”
A good example of this is Cincinnati Metro, which reversed its decision to eliminate fares amid complaints that buses were actually more crowded after they made transit gratis.
“Everybody working in this space has been scrambling to do crisis management on a day to day basis. Sometimes we’re going to get it right and sometimes we’re going to realize that we’re seeing unintended consequences,” says David Zipper, Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.
There are resources available to guide transit agencies. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA), and the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), and the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) have all released COVID-19 recommendations, and agencies have been following them to vary degrees. But Zipper warns that we’re far away from universal recommendations.
“I think it’s probably too early for any entity to credibly say here are really the things that every agency should be doing,” Zipper says. “There is a real challenge for a group like the FTA to come out and encourage everybody to do something specific.”
“We’re trying to plan from a place where we just don’t have enough facts on the ground because the basic facts of the industry have changed in a matter of days and weeks,” says David Block-Schachter, Chief Business Officer for Transit app.
The media is full of articles right now about how public transit is on the brink. And make no mistake: Transit is facing one of the biggest challenges it will ever face. Demand for public transit in the US and Canada has decreased 77% since the pandemic started. And in some places, ridership has gone down by far more. San Francisco, for example, has lost 94% of its riders.
Public transit relies on critical income from fares, sales tax, and payroll tax, all of which are taking a hit right now. And the $25 billion dollars in emergency funds will only get public transit so far. Even when shelter-in-place mandates have been lifted, ridership will likely take a long time to return to pre-pandemic numbers.
But what this take misses is that ridership isn’t the ultimate indicator of transit success. We’ve been seeing declines in ridership since long before COVID-19. And yet, public transit has soldiered onward — improving reliability, adding routes, and expanding equity and inclusion in some of our lower-income communities.
“We have to stop talking about ridership as though it were the only measure of our success. We have to correct journalists when they come at us with questions that start from that assumption,” says Walker. “What transit is doing right now is making it possible for civilization to continue.”
Indeed, one thing the pandemic has proved beyond all doubt is what an important role public transit plays in everyone’s lives. The essential workers that are keeping our world afloat are taking public transit to provide our food, help our elderly, and save our lives.
When the world stops, public transit keeps going.
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