Finding Our Way around COVID: Transit and the Future of Resilient Communities
As the COVID-19 pandemic has compelled governments at the local, regional and state level to implement stringent physical-distancing measures, cities have needed to maintain public-transportation services for essential workers to sustain basic economic activities. Keeping transit systems running while protecting the health of passengers and staff requires significant adjustments.
Many communities have taken steps both to limit non-essential travel and redirect some of the remaining demand to alternative or personal modes of transportation. As a result, transit ridership has fallen off significantly, by as much as 70% to 90% in many cities around the world.
Because it is essential for many people’s livelihood, we must identify and implement steps to preserve transit systems, provide safe and healthy options, and improve the reach, quality and reliability of these mobility services. Strong public transit is key to building healthier, more resilient, more sustainable cities in the long run, and crucial to more equitable urban economies.
In New York City, even with bus and rail ridership down 70% to 80%, roughly 1 million transit trips were still being made every day by essential workers – nurses, grocery clerks, building-services staff.
In the months following initial stay-at-home orders and the closures of industries, businesses and schools, pollution from transportation sources decreased sharply. Satellite-data comparisons show a stark reduction in NO2 emissions as a result of reduced vehicle miles travelled (VMT). As communities work to reopen, adapt and recover from the challenges COVID-19 has created, transportation behavior has and will continue to shift as well.
Aided by the opening of more bicycle lanes and the closure of streets to pedestrians, biking and walking, for example, has significantly increased across the United States and Europe. However, due to closures and suspensions of transit routes and schedules, as well as the increase of telework, many people have also switched from riding transit to driving single-occupancy vehicles.
Shifts in Transportation Use
Many cities have experienced a range of transportation impacts as a result of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders including:
- Immediate decrease in transit use. Following the stay-at-home orders in New York City, C2SMART noted a 94% decrease in peak ridership for buses and subways. In Seattle, transit demand decreased 79% in March.
- Immediate decrease in VMT followed by stark rise and stabilization. While VMT across the nation initially declined significantly in April compared to last year – 72% in New York City and 80% in Southern California—Southern California Association of Governments officials have found that, by August, VMT has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels as transit use continues at a low, suggesting possible congestion problems when the economy fully reopens.
A survey by IBM’s Institute for Business Value found that 17% of respondents intend to use their personal vehicle more as a result of COVID-19, and one in four expressed their intention to use it as their exclusive mode of transportation in the future.
- Higher speeds. Using school-zone cameras to monitor vehicle speeds, New York City saw a 75% increase in speeding tickets following its stay-at-home order.
- Fewer, but more severe crashes. With reduced traffic, crashes in New York City have been reduced; however, the fatality rate per crash has increased, most likely as a result of motorists driving faster on less crowded streets.
- Increase in bikeshare use and pedestrian activity. Several cities around the country have been experiencing an increase in bikeshare use and pedestrian activities. In New York City, this increase resulted after a drop in use, immediately after the stay-at-home order. Rides have increased in length and are more frequent during weekdays, according to CitiBike data, which suggests that people are using services for commuting and less frequently for recreation.
- Increase in vehicle traffic at a higher rate than transit use. After the immediate drop in vehicle traffic following the issuance of stay-at-home orders, some cities have seen a quicker recovery of vehicle traffic compared to transit use. C2SMART suggests that this may signify a shift in transportation preferences from transit to single-occupancy vehicles.
These COVID-related shifts (and responses) will result in shortfall of $26-$38 billion over the next year for U.S. transit agencies, according to the TransitCenter, as fare revenue has collapsed and operating costs have grown significantly with the need for sufficient social-distancing and sanitary strategies.
Recommendations for Recovery
Experts suggest a few strategies that could streamline the critical recovery of transit operations, and consequently support the revival of the economy as a whole.
In response to the COVID-induced interruption of revenue streams, transit agencies have curtailed and adjusted services to reduce costs while seeking additional funding to maintain the continuity of essential operations. At the same time, they have adopted public-health protocols to stabilize current ridership and restore passenger confidence in hopes of bringing ridership back to pre-COVID levels.
- Cleaner, safer transit: Daily cleaning of the system is a necessity. In addition to regular nightly cleaning of vehicles, agencies have implemented additional deep cleanings using bleach to disinfect, and other solutions recommended by the CDC. Transit authorities are also developing communication campaigns to give passengers audio and visual guidelines on how to maintain social distance, requiring masks, and reducing contact between passengers and drivers by making transit free and implementing back-door boarding.
In Southern California,Culver City Bus, Foothill Transit and Santa Monica Big Blue Bus have eliminated fares and mandated rear-door boarding (for all riders not in a wheelchair) to ensure a safe distance between passengers and drivers. In major urban areas in China, transit agencies have resorted to opening all windows and shutting down air-conditioning systems on buses.
Transit agencies can also require temperature checks and facemasksfor staff and passengers. Transit workers must all be well equipped with protective gear. Like other frontline workers, transit workers should receive bonus pay.
- Ridership management: Implement clear rules and incentives for businesses with substantial commuting workforces to continue telework, shift employees to every-other-day schedules, and use time-altered shifts to reduce peak demand. Local and state governments should require employers to implement transit-management plans and help to coordinate them. In New York, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has ordered rider-capacity limits on trains to reduce crowding. In major urban areas in China, Bus Rapid Transit stations and subway station entrances are controlled by agency officials to minimize platform crowding.
- Route suspension and modification: Nationally, some small transit agencies have had to temporarily shut down. In Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakland and Alameda County, transit agencies remain open, although mostly operating at reduced levels by modifying their schedules and suspending less populous routes. In New York, MTA has suspended early-morning subway service from 1:00 am to 5:00 am, so that the system can be completely disinfected every 24 hours.
- Contact-tracing technology: Some transport systems are relying on digital platforms to help locate potentially contagious individuals and those in contact with them. Beijing’s subway has set up a system of online pre-trip reservations and voluntary on-board check-ins (with QR codes) to help improve traceability and reduce passenger density as cities reopen.
- Open street space for buses: Implement an emergency and permanent network of dedicated bus lanes, interconnected with bicycle infrastructure to link with key destinations and institutions, to keep transit moving efficiently for essential workers. Paris is rapidly implementing emergency bus and bike lanes – known as “coronapistes” – to give people more commuting options.
- Funding: It’s estimated that MTA needs an additional $4 billion to keep operating in New York City through the end of 2020. In the Bay Area, BART’s current fiscal-year funding gap is $33 million. Transit agencies desperately need more federal funding to fill the gap.
Some cites have taken the matter into their own hands with ballot measures to increase taxes to pay for transit. In the Bay Area voters passed Measure RR, which creates a new 1/8-cent sales tax to help fund Caltrain service. In Seattle, voters renewed the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, originally passed in 2014, which funds a large portion of the region’s bus network.
- Occupancy requirements for personal vehicles: Traffic can be cut by 40% overnight by introducing occupancy requirements, such as carpooling to enter downtown areas or business districts. While the pandemic is ongoing and immediately after, fewer people will be eager to carpool; but following a pricing model used on highways in Texas, Virginia, California, and other states where single-occupancy vehicles pay higher fees than carpooling vehicles could work.
- Update rideshare: Revise rideshare formulas based on time spent in downtown areas instead of the existing drop charge. This change would provide an incentive for greater efficiency with fewer vehicles, and free up much needed roadway space for transit.
- Embrace remote work: Telecommuting is an eco-alternative to transit ridership, and going forward it may be the default option for many employees and their employers once the pandemic is over. However, for people who must commute to their workplace, cities can encourage e-scooters, e-bikes, and other active transportation by dedicating more streets exclusively to non-automobile travel – as in the “slow streets” movement we’re seeing in places like Oakland and San Francisco.
Transit and Resilient, Equitable Communities
Transit systems are essential for many people’s livelihood and a cornerstone to sustainable and equitable communities. Transit is often a crucial mode of transportation, nearly one in 10 American households (8.7%) – 28.5 million people – don’t have access to a vehicle, according to 2018 census figures. On average, about 9% of households in urban counties don’t have access to a car, compared to approximately 6% of households in primarily rural counties.
While most of the counties with the highest rates of carless households are in big cities (like New York City, Baltimore, San Francisco, New Orleans, and the District of Columbia), the majority of counties with overall high rates of zero-car households are, in fact, rural. More than one million rural households don’t have access to a car, according to the latest American Community Survey data.
Intervention is needed by government at all levels to ensure that critical transit services are maintained. As the pandemic has made all too clear, our transportation networks and our community’s health are inextricably intertwined. We need both to be strong and equitable for our communities to remain resilient and prosperous.
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