To no one’s surprise, ridership has gone way down since the middle of March, when shelter in place first began for the earliest states who made the call.CDTA
It’s heartbreaking to see the devastation COVID-19 has had on the world but especially for public transportation workers and riders everywhere. From subways and buses to rail systems, passengers and agencies have been disrupted as routes were pared or shut down. While service continues to run in most parts of the country, public transit is viewed as a hotspot for possible contamination of COVID, putting everyone at risk — from the operators and conductors to the passengers.
To no one’s surprise, ridership has gone way down since the middle of March, when shelter in place first began for the earliest states who made the call. According to various media reports, 90% declines were seen by some of the country’s rail systems, such as New York’s Metro-North, New York City Subway, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit. Washington’s Metro closed 19 stations and reduced service. And then in Green Bay, Wis., the city shut down entirely their Metro.
Although currently under fire, public transit for the long term is not going anywhere. Eventually, our world will return toward a more regular pace, albeit different from the pre-COVID world through modifications across the board alongside other industries.
Public transportation agencies will bounce back. The importance of and reliance on public transportation in cities is immeasurable. However, perhaps more than any other industry public transit must adapt immediately to help society get up and running again. This adaption undoubtedly will take many forms.
Baseline, required personal protective methodology is the first essential element. This includes asking passengers to skip seats in the vehicle, having all bus drivers operate behind plexiglass dividers, and requiring face masks to ride. In short, public transportation agencies must insert barriers between workers and commuters and between commuters themselves. However, more can be done.
First I would like to see agencies here in the U.S. adopt some of the measures that we are already seeing in some other foreign cities like Taipei and Naples. For example, agencies here in the U.S. should begin to use noninvasive handheld or infrared thermometers to scan every passenger’s temperature. I do recognize that temperature checks do not address those who are asymptomatic. However, these checks will catch any and all who have a fever, which research has shown is critical to identifying potential risks.
Also, I would like to see public transportation vehicles begin to offer hand sanitizer throughout stations and vehicles, and to increase the frequency of sanitizing vehicles and stations. This could be proliferated via employees, or with the help of a drone, where we currently see them in action in Seoul.
Whether you call it Clipper Card, OMNY, or TAP, contactless reloadable smart cards have been in use for years. To mitigate the risk to passengers in a post COVID world, agencies need to make contactless fare payments mandatory for commuters. The benefits to this way of fare payments will not only encourage safety but will also streamline operations and make transit systems more profitable. For example, requiring contactless cards will certainly minimize the contact between humans waiting in lines. It will also provide a seamless way for passengers to reload their smart cards, which will encourage growth in ridership and faster payment settlement for transit authorities. However, investment will be needed to allow passengers to setup their accounts via the agency’s respective mobile app or website.
Technology & Innovation
Given the current state overall of public transportation systems around the world, one of the biggest concerns has been overcrowding. Technology must play a key role here when it comes to alerting commuters in real time how busy a certain route is.
For example, real-time commuter congestion metrics (e.g., via contactless card scanning and video monitoring) could count the number of commuters at a certain station, bus, subway, and then be able to relay that information in real time to the commuter. Commuters can review information to make decisions about whether it’s safe or not to catch the next scheduled pick up. As a byproduct, such metrics may also help spread out congestion, improve efficiency, and lower operating costs in the system as riders adjust their commutes.
Now is a unique moment in history when public transportation agencies can seize real opportunity to move their respective operations forward to the benefit of everyone involved. Federal, state, and local governments, as well as private companies, are attentively evaluating all methods to innovate for safety because we all know that the road to recovery is going to be a long one. The silver lining, therefore, may be government funding or strategic partnerships to change the transportation landscape for the better. Whether working at an agency or a commuter, we should take this moment to reassess what new ways and processes we can start to employ that will benefit everyone involved in public transportation.
Brendan Kennedy is CEO and Founder of NxTSTOP