It's been an unprecedented year of community action and protests in America's streets. Cities across the nation have seen an influx of people flowing into downtown regions due to protests in 2020. In fact, recent polls suggest that about 15 to 26 million people in the U.S. participated in demonstrations this past spring. Large, unexpected crowds can result in significant disruptions that impact day-to-day activities — forcing cities to deploy new crowd control measures, close streets, and more.
Cities and communities have been challenged with balancing citizens' safety and protecting their First Amendment rights to peacefully assemble — all while still providing the necessary means for citizens to participate in their daily routines. During the spring protests, some cities opted to shut down transit to enhance safety and discourage people from participating in unlawful behavior that was disruptive to protestors and non-protestors alike. However, blocking the use of transit spurred controversy as closures disproportionately impacted travelers from urban and under-resourced communities, making it difficult for people to attend marches and gatherings.
Transit is critical to our daily lives — it's how we get to work, visit friends and family, go to school, participate in recreational activities, and travel. However, public transit services are significantly impacted when protests or civil unrest occur — whether it's overcrowded areas, delays, cancelled stops, or street closures, each of these outcomes reduce our ability to access mobility to important destinations. Consequently, transit agencies play a pivotal role in ensuring civilians are safe during protests, while providing them the opportunity for a safe ride to and from the event.
Peaceful assembly is a constitutional right that transit and city planners must consider as part of the urban ecosystem, as they would during times of celebration — such as parades, festivals, sporting events, or local concerts. It's important to find the balance in supporting Americans' ability to exercise their rights, while allowing for traditional daily activities to occur without hiccups. There are several ways transit agencies can prepare for potential civil unrest while protecting and supporting citizens. A few include:
- Partner with the city to identify planned protest areas and adjust bus and train routes, as necessary. Many protests and marches are planned with the city, so there is an opportunity for city leaders and transit agencies to be in constant contact with one another to prepare for large gatherings. Given sudden surges in ridership, it may require making necessary adjustments to routes, stops, and overall crowd control.
- Make real-time changes to routes if roads become closed to allow essential workers and other riders to still reach their destinations. However, some protests and marches are unplanned, and transit agencies and cities must react accordingly with solid plans in place. If the protest is located in a busy intersection or near a popular bus station, cities and agencies must monitor the news and community updates to determine if routes need to be adjusted. For example, rideshare apps can send a notification to users during a ride that their original route has been diverted to back-roads to avoid a new road closure. Or, bus signage can notify passengers that the new stop will be a few blocks down the road instead. This not only helps essential workers and everyday travelers, but also those who attend spontaneous gatherings.
- Indicate where hot spots are and whether riders should relocate pick-up or drop-off locations. Providing pop-up notifications or signals for buses, trains, and rideshares keeps drivers and riders in the loop. Such notifications can indicate if certain hot spots are near a rider's pick-up or drop-off location, giving them the freedom to choose and change their destination if necessary.
- Utilize other forms of transportation, such as micromobility vehicles, to disperse crowds from hot spots. When preparing for large events, it's important to have several modes of transportation available — from buses, trains, subways, and microtransit shuttles to micromobility services. Working with cities and other nearby transit agencies can ensure all hands are on deck for transporting citizens to and from desired locations, while remaining aware of happenings throughout the city. Adding a diverse mode of transportation helps disperse crowds and enhance safety, all while allowing riders to choose their desired mode of transportation with personalized routes.
- Always be mindful of how to keep riders safe, even amid a global pandemic. Rider safety is paramount, pandemic or no pandemic. Cities and transit must adapt to meet the ever-changing needs of both riders and cities, while being mindful of how to manage safety as times constantly change. By participating in public-private partnerships, transit agencies can access orchestration software that helps with many COVID safety protocols such as touchless fare payment, contact tracing, and allowing riders to see how crowded a vehicle is before boarding. These tools keep riders safe during community gatherings during a pandemic.
Unplanned public gatherings during seismic national events are part of the framework of American life, and it's important for city leaders to facilitate citizens exercising these rights. Instead of reacting, cities must have a proactive plan in place for protests like they would for any other event, such as holiday parades, local celebrations, or concerts. Safety comes first, while allowing for everyday activities to take place with a seamless travel experience.
Ben Haynie is VP, Product, at TransLoc.