More than one year ago the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus as a public health emergency. The announcement quickly sent the world into a frenzy — with statewide and citywide shutdowns, which in most cases were only supposed to last a month, to new recommendations and mandates from the CDC requiring people to practice social distancing, wear masks, and work from home to stop the spread of the virus. These immediate and unprecedented changes have had tremendous impacts on the transit industry from record-breaking losses in ridership to driving many transit agencies into deep financial distress.
Through it all, though, operators have continued to provide essential services to their communities with increased safety measures, from onboard capacity restrictions and temporarily suspended fares to the use of rear-door-only boarding procedures and mandatory mask requirements.
While it is clear COVID-19 has changed the face of transit operations today, the pandemic has also proven the importance of proper emergency planning to ensure the safety of passengers and employees. And now, with a vaccine rollout in progress and ridership slowly inching back to pre-COVID levels with more businesses and schools reopening, operators are reflecting on the “new normal” in transit safety, their lessons learned, and plans for a post-pandemic future.
Before COVID hit in March 2020, South Carolina’s Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority (The COMET) averaged about 9,000 passenger trips per day. Now, the agency is at about 20% less than that with 7,400 daily trips taken since July 2020.
John Andoh, the agency’s executive director/CEO, credits much of this gradual boost in ridership to The COMET’s various cleaning and safety measures, including mask requirements, the installation of multiple temperature check stations for drivers, plexiglass barriers between the drivers and passengers to minimize the possibility of any COVID-19 exposure, and increased disinfection of all vehicles and facilities.
“We’re encouraging social distancing on the buses and not allowing any standees so we can ensure there’s ample capacity in our vehicles,” Andoh says. “We’re also doing extra cleanings at our bus stops and bus shelters and offering testing to employees and passengers to ensure that we’re keeping everyone safe.”
In December 2020, the agency launched, in partnership with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SC DHEC), free COVID testing for passengers of its bus system. SC DHEC set up a testing kiosk at COMET Central, one of the agency’s transit hubs, to provide scheduled testing four days per week, Wednesday through Saturday. Meanwhile, testing for The COMET’s employees is offered every couple of weeks based on concern of positive COVID cases in the workforce. (As of press time, The COMET reported less than 1% of its workforce as having contracted COVID.)
Even though the pandemic didn’t have direct impacts on The COMET’s service delivery, Andoh says the agency has still been successful in adjusting its service to match the available demand, particularly in partnering with bike-share companies, ridesharing companies like Lyft and Uber, and entering into a contract with the University of South Carolina in September to operate the university’s shuttle routes as an integrated part of The COMET’s transit system.
“We’ve created flexible transportation modes, deviated fixed-routes, and we’ve enhanced service,” Andoh says. “We’ve also engaged in partnerships with local community organizations to help connect people to their respective services and promote safety.”
A more recent example of this has been The COMET’s “Don’t Miss Your Shot” campaign, launched in February 2021 to transport residents free of charge to major COVID vaccination sites in Richland and Lexington Counties. The campaign, which is expected to run through the end of 2021, has already helped transport hundreds of Midlands residents to get their vaccines.
“Being flexible with the ever-changing operating environment is key,” Andoh says. “Fortunately, we’re a regional transit authority with our own board of directors and we can move fairly quicker than traditional government in making these types of decisions. If it was not for our flexibility, we probably could’ve ended up with more positive [COVID] cases in our workforce and community and not having the right service levels for what was needed.”
Moving forward, The COMET’s main goals are to create more accessible mobility options and build up its customer service training for bus operators, as they are tasked with enforcing the CDC’s mask mandate, as of early February, and practicing limited passenger interaction.
“We want to be proactive so that if another emergency was to occur, we won’t have a situation like 2020, where basically our economy and environment were shut down,” Andoh says. “We’re going to have to come up with creative ways to move people, and that’s going to involve our various mobility options that we have developed over the past couple years so people feel safe and people continue to use some form of public transportation.”
From the earliest stages of the pandemic, Portland, Ore.’s, TriMet has followed the guidance and recommendations of the Oregon Health Authority, which is informed by the CDC. Following health expert advice, the agency began requiring that all its riders wear a mask on board in May 2020 and was among the first transit agencies in the country to begin providing masks for free on its trains and buses.
Other safety measures that were introduced, included temporarily suspending cash payments for riders (from the end of March through September 2020), limiting the number of passengers on board buses and trains, installing hand sanitizer dispensers, disinfecting all vehicles before sending them into service, and hiring more cleaners to wipe down touchpoints on vehicles throughout the day.
TriMet began the process of hiring cleaners in June to disinfect high-touch surfaces on its vehicles, with a goal of doing so about every four hours during regular service. More than 300 people initially applied for the 124 cleaner positions available, and since then, TriMet has continued to hire and train new employees for these limited duration positions. From pushing through countless Black Lives Matter and social justice protests over the summer in Portland to dealing with heavy smoke from the raging wildfires and high winds last fall, Tyler Graf, TriMet’s public information officer, says the cleaners have kept buses and trains “tidy and sanitized” even during the pandemic.
To supplement their cleaning efforts, TriMet purchased 36 CURIS System fogging machines to disinfect its vehicles. The foggers, which use hospital-grade, EPA-registered low-level 7% hydrogen peroxide, were first used as part of the agency’s daily disinfection of buses and whenever an operator believed that someone on board may have been sick with COVID. However, with the introduction and convenience of electrostatic sprayer technology last fall, Graf says the agency started using the foggers on a quarterly basis.
“The sprayers are more efficient. It takes about three and a half hours to disinfect a bus using a fogger,” Graf notes. “With an electrostatic sprayer, it takes about 15 to 20 minutes.”
As for keeping bus operators safe on board, TriMet already had panels, made of thick safety glass, next to the operator’s seat in more than half of its buses. Because these panels help block airborne droplets and act as another barrier to the coronavirus when used in combination with a face covering, TriMet began retrofitting its remaining buses with the panels in July. Despite a shortage of supplies as transit agencies elsewhere rushed to do the same, all TriMet’s standard buses that were in service had the safety panels before the end of September. The installation of the barriers allowed the agency to safely reinstate cash fares, which were previously suspended, on its buses in October.
Even with those safety measures in place, TriMet reported that about 83 of its 3,200 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, roughly 2.5% of the agency’s workforce since the start of the pandemic. The cases, however, have not directly impacted the agency’s service capabilities.
“We did see the numbers increase in the fall before, and then dropping significantly in recent months,” Graf explains. “After each reported case, we’ve followed standard safety protocols by cleaning and disinfecting the facilities and vehicles the employees used and notifying colleagues who were in contact with them.”
While some of TriMet’s changes to safety have resulted in big projects, like the addition of the operator safety panels, others have been fairly simple such as requiring all riders to use rear doors when exiting, producing several training videos for employees, and installing stainless steel dispensers for face masks and hand sanitizer on board vehicles.
“As we transition to a post-pandemic world, it will be important to listen to our riders and health experts to figure out what will be commonplace,” Graf says. “One learned lesson is just how adaptable transit is — how it can rise to meet unforeseen challenges.”
After receiving extensive federal funding, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC) has invested more than $14 million to date on new services and technology, all with the goal of protecting its employees, contractors, and passengers during the pandemic.
What began as nightly cleaning using hospital-grade disinfectant and social distancing efforts, evolved as more became known about COVID-19 and the severity of the pandemic. The agency started implementing more safety measures, some based on ridership numbers, which were monitored daily. And, as state mandates required the shutdown of non-essential businesses, the transit agency made additional adjustments — suspending some of its routes, moving to a less frequent service on certain routes, and instituting rear-door boarding to facilitate social distancing.
The RTC also began encouraging the use of face coverings, even before they were mandated by the state and the CDC. To help enforce this effort, the agency increased its security operations from one officer for every nine buses to one officer for every six buses. Currently, the national average for transit agencies of similar sizes is one officer to 15 buses.
“While we continued these stringent health and safety protocols, we began to look at ways to incorporate these goals into our long-term planning and leveraging innovative options like a contactless payment system, live passenger counts for all routes, and an advanced air filtration system,” says M.J. Maynard, RTC’s CEO.
Since making contactless payment an option in the rideRTC smartphone app last year, approximately 4,383 transactions have taken place from mid-December to the end of February. Additionally, 150 of RTC’s 400 buses have received upgrades for air filtration systems that use ionization technology. The remaining buses are expected to be outfitted with the systems by the end of March.
Other unique solutions that the RTC is working on for the near future include applying microbacterial shields on seats and high-touch surfaces and displaying sanitation information on each vehicle to inform riders of the vehicle’s most recent cleaning. The agency is also adding more vehicles along routes where buses frequently reach maximum COVID capacity.
With the vaccine rollout in progress, Maynard says the agency is working diligently to inform and promote to residents which routes can provide quick and convenient access to local vaccination clinics.
“While no transit agency knows exactly what the ‘new normal’ will look like, the RTC has adapted over the course of the last year by implementing a 14-Point Safety Plan and will continue to adhere to this plan and expand upon it,” she says. “As safety is our top priority, our focus will remain on the cleanliness of vehicles and social distancing for the foreseeable future.”