As the industry and nation begin to look to the future, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released a new report, “On the Horizon: Planning for Post-Pandemic Travel,” at this week’s TRANSform & EXPO, which examines how demographic, employment, and travel trends may change in the coming years. Based on the data, four overarching recommendations were developed for agencies that included integrating best practices from the COVID-19 period, prioritizing social equity, leveraging opportunities to expand ridership, and keeping abreast of changing trends.
“Throughout the pandemic, public transit agencies across the nation kept our communities running, from providing transportation to connecting community members to food to even setting up bus Wi-Fi hotspots for students,” said APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas. “In this time of crisis, our industry provided vital services and reliable mobility for millions, with public transportation employees continuing to prove their abilities to adapt to the swiftly changing needs of their communities. Now, as the industry looks to the future, we can take the lessons we’ve learned and apply them to improve mobility in the coming years.”
In response to falling ridership, staff retention issues and fiscal concerns, most public transit agencies were forced to cut services. However, the report found that not all agencies responded this way. Some agencies eliminated fares and reoriented service to prioritize essential workers and social equity, and/or split shifts to provide social distancing for employees. For instance, Port Authority in Pittsburgh, Regional Transportation District in Denver, and the GRTC Transit System in Richmond expanded or reoriented services to underserved and low-income communities that depend on more frequent service.
Spokane Transit Authority reassigned paratransit vehicles to help older adults better access health care, recreation, and other needs. To keep the public informed of these changes, transit agencies also had to expand communication efforts with the public. For example, Los Angeles’ Metro system reinforced its social media campaigns and signage, while monitoring customer feedback in real time.
Even as transit agencies adapted to the challenges of the pandemic differently, they all emphasized employee and rider safety. This included measures such as improving cleaning protocols, working with unions to develop programs for sick employees, securing operator space on buses, and providing free masks. In fact, while the federal government began requiring riders to wear masks on transit in January 2021, more than 85% of public transit agencies already were requiring masks by July 2020. More than half also developed a recovery plan that included new safety precautions for riders and employees.
Based on research collected from operators, a nationwide survey of staff, and detailed case studies of five agencies, there are four overarching recommendations that the public transit industry can incorporate into planning and operations as they look beyond the pandemic to ensure their ability to provide equitable access to mobility. The recommendations are:
Institutionalize Best Practices from the COVID-19 Period
- Develop partnerships with existing labor and ramp up hiring for more operators and mechanics
- Improve community engagement to both share and gather information
- Establish efforts to address potential material shortages
- Expand sanitation measures for both public health and ride quality
Plan and Operate More Effectively in Prioritizing Social Equity
- Redefine transit success beyond ridership measurements
- Identify people and communities with inequitable access to opportunity
- Reallocate resources toward underserved neighborhoods and essential workplaces
- Consider adapting services to different needs on different days of the week and different times of the day
- Harness these lessons to improve capital planning programs
- Realign existing services to best meet the needs of the travelling public
- Provide opportunities for meaningful involvement in decision making by all
Leverage Opportunities to Expand Ridership
- Focus on opportunities to make transit a good choice for everyone
- Expand education on how to pay for transit and consider identifying new fare discounts to expand ridership
- Increase efforts to link transit service with equitable transit-oriented development
- Develop engaged, long-term relationships with other government entities.
Keep Abreast of Changing Trends
- Respond to telecommuting trends and increases in automobile traffic.
- Plan for changes in market demand central-city areas
- Anticipate increased development in suburban communities
- Respond to concerns about spreading infections from COVID-19 or future pandemics