How are agencies making service changes in the wake of coronavirus?

Posted on March 25, 2020 by Amos Haggiag - Also by this author

Service cuts need to be planned first so the number of required bus operators can be determined afterwards and allocated to the right service. MetroLINK

These days, browsing through any transit agency site will tell you one basic truth: everything is changing quickly. Two weeks ago, agencies began posting notices about increased sanitation measures, and a week later there was a deluge of announcements: service changes, more service changes, backdoor boarding, no fares, and more. And when this is over (and I believe coronavirus will be over), these same service changes will need to be reversed gradually, creating more flux.

In ordinary times, transit doesn’t change that often and not so deeply. Usually service changes are minor and made in three to four picks annually, not more than that. Today everything is changing and this requires the industry and the tools it uses to be much more agile. On March 23, we surveyed Optibus webinar participants. Eighty-eight percent reported they have already implemented a reduced service plan. Clearly, we are in times of immense change in services that haven’t changed much before.

Driver shortages

Initially, transit agencies were required to submit contingency plans that answer the question of what happens when 10% or 25% of bus operators aren’t available. However these plans quickly became less relevant as ridership dropped, since a deeper need for service cuts was needed, mainly as a result of demands made by local governments or cities. Additionally, while scheduling optimization can take a reasonable driver shortage constraint into account, this approach won’t work well in case of severe shortages. In this case, service cuts need to be planned first so the number of required bus operators can be determined afterwards and allocated to the right service.

What service cuts do agencies perform?

In our March 23 survey, we asked participants which service cuts they had made. Only 3% reported to be adjusting service based on driver shortages. Thirty-four percent reported reducing service based on ridership and 23% reduced service across many metrics (span, coverage, and frequency), while the most — at 40% — reduced service by moving to weekend schedules by taking a Sunday or Saturday schedule and applying it for the entire week.

Moving to a weekend schedule

Moving to a weekend schedule is a simpler solution compared to reducing service across many metrics. However, we do recommend optimizing the roster after the change is made, since in our experience this can reduce the roster count, meaning that less bus operators are needed. Conserving bus operators is important to both protect them and also have many stand-by bus operators in case of quarantines, or a decision to use the buses elsewhere as part of emergency measures.

Service reduction

Another approach, yet one that is totally feasible with modern planning and scheduling platforms, is to plan a reduced service. With older systems that take weeks to produce a new pick, this may be a challenge, but with new systems it is possible to produce a contingency plan relatively quickly.

The process goes as follows:

  • We define which service metrics will be affected, such as reducing the span of service, eliminating routes or stop, or altering the frequency.
  • We then quickly generate a schedule to reflect this new service and optimize it. This can be done several times to create multiple scenarios. During this phase important insights can be produced: for instance, changes in timetables can be used to prevent long layovers in case of a reduced service frequency.
  • An important goal for the optimization process is to reduce the duty count by more than the service reduction — ensuring more bus operators are protected.
  • A final point is to group the different duties into rosters, with the goal of reducing the roster count.

The day after

This complex adjustment exercise will probably be repeated when all of this is over. Service will be restored gradually, and more changes and optimizations will be required. Is there a silver lining in all of this? Probably yes. The industry will learn how to quickly create planning and scheduling scenarios quickly and effectively and modernize as a result, hopefully providing better service in the future.

Amos Haggiag is the co-founder and CEO of Optibus, a high-tech mobility platform provider that improves mass transit performance. The company is offering help with contingency plans for COVID-19.

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