In a recent webinar dubbed, "Public Transit in the Time of COVID-19," co-hosted by mobility solutions companies Transit and Swiftly, the stage was set by a somber reminder of how the novel coronavirus has plagued the industry thus far.
"The work that we have always done has been really important, but in the past few weeks it’s literally become a matter of life and death," said Swiftly transit planner Jenn Golech at the beginning of the call. "We have lost many workers in our industry. It’s heartbreaking."
Golech's remarks were followed by a moment of silence for the public transit operators that have sacrificed their lives to keep essential transit running across the country for the good of society. In New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) alone, at least 50 employees have died of COVID-19 while many more have tested positive for the virus.
This kicked off an hour-long conversation, which served as an open platform for attendees to virtually ask a panel of public transit operators, consultants and journalists advice on how to run transit operations efficiently and safely amid an unprecedented pandemic. Questions touched on everything from procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) to the long-lasting impacts of the coronavirus, but the answers made clear that nobody knows how this will all play out in the end.
"The world that we lived in two months ago is not coming back," said Jarrett Walker, president of Jarrett Walker + Associates and author of Human Transit. "Whatever is on the other side of this pandemic is a different world."
Transit operators have the opportunity to shape that world with the decisions being made now, he said, noting that the steps agencies take will define how the industry is perceived in the long term.
'Ridership isn't the only point'
At the core of Walker's messaging was the notion that ridership isn't — and never was — the sole metric of public transit's success. If it were, he said, all transit operations would be shut down by now.
That isn't the case, but transit has seen a deep decline in ridership and demand since the pandemic hit the United States. Transit analyzed data from more than 90 public transit agencies to find there is a 74% drop in current demand compared to normal (as of April 12).
Transit Chief Business Officer David Block-Schachter also shared data that found 45% of agencies have eliminated fares (which he said "would have been unimaginable" a few weeks ago); 53% of agencies have moved to back-door boarding to protect drivers; and 35% of agencies have closed customer service centers and ticketing kiosks.
"This pandemic has really upended much of what we thought we knew in this industry," said Block-Schachter. "This has exposed what is really the true and the core purpose of public transit."
That core purpose — to run an essential service that society depends on, regardless of circumstance — is what agencies must emphasize in this time. Operators are still working on the front lines every day, regardless of ridership numbers, and that is something agencies must "take credit for," Walker said.
As part of its recent $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act package, the federal government has allocated $25 billion in funding for public transportation systems to support operations and make up for lost revenues, which will help agencies in the short term.
Agencies cannot rest on this funding, however, and they must stay vigilant and creative to sustain transit amid the coronavirus, said Steve Young, vice president of technology and innovation at VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio.
"I’m not confident the initial funding package is really designed to take agencies out in that kind of long-term fashion" if the industry continues to feel the impacts of coronavirus into 2021, Young said. Instead, the panelists encouraged attendees to crowdsource ideas and think outside the box to make the industry stronger when the pandemic is over.
'There's nothing wrong with stealing a good idea'
The Maryland Department of Transportation's Maryland Transit Administration (MDOT MTA) is still "struggling...every day as new developments come up," said Michael Helta, the agency's chief innovation officer. Helta encouraged attendees to step up in asking for and sharing best practices and information, noting "everybody right now is an open book."
"There's nothing wrong with stealing a good idea," he said. "Let's really start to come together."
The following examples and suggestions were shared by webinar panelists:
PPE and safety
- MDOT MTA is working with a local sewing company to manufacture reusable masks and is also preparing for hand sanitizer deliveries from the state's distillery industry, Helta said. "Make sure you're lifting up every rock and looking under each one of them to see what your options are," he said.
- The panelists emphasized vehicle sanitation and minimizing touch points, in some causes through the elimination of fares. They also pointed to some agencies installing "seat holders" to enforce social distancing.
- To enhance safety while maintaining service, Miami-Dade Transit eliminated its nighttime bus service and replaced it with subsidized Uber and Lyft rides for essential travel, according to journalist and Harvard Kennedy School fellow David Zipper.
- VIA was facing a messaging dilemma, Young said : "How do you maintain that constant up-to-date communications with [operators] that may not be connected via email or company phones?" To better connect with employees, VIA invested in a mass communications system to send information via SMS messages, voice messages and personal emails.
- In Maryland, the MTA has implemented a pre-screening program to ensure employees are healthy before they begin work each day. Officials are using that time to brief operators with up-to-the minute information on the coronavirus, Helta said.
- It is also important to communicate with employees not on the front lines to ensure they know the safety of operations takes priority, Helta said. "If you're not operations, you need to support operations," he said.
Rider info and community engagement
- MDOT MTA changed some bus head signs to say "Essential riders only." It has also increased its social media presence to share information with riders, according to Helta.
- VIA has partnered with local food banks to repurpose fleet vehicles into home delivery vans, Young said. The agency is also partnering with the local housing authority and school districts to leverage van fleets as mobile hotspots for Wi-Fi.
- The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has strategically adjusted routes so all riders can still access transit, but some may need to walk a bit further to a stop to board.
These adjustments and investments happening nationally will shape the industry for years to come, as will "the decisions we make in haste without feeling like we have the luxury to think about the longer term," Walker said. The biggest challenge right now is to look beyond raw data and make decisions based on the ethical and moral understandings of public transit's role in the greater mobility ecosystem, he said.
When agencies recognize their own value, beyond just ridership numbers, they can better infuse that understanding into broader society, the panelists said. The pandemic is that window of opportunity to shape the narrative around public transit.
"There is no better time for us to shine as an industry," Young said.
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CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to reflect Michael Helta's correct title as the chief innovation officer of the Maryland Transit Administration.