For regular transit riders like myself, the last few weeks of February and early March provided an early glimpse into what the period between the cancelling of stay-at-home orders and the availability of a vaccine might look like. During that time frame, as the increasing number of COVID-19 patients across the country began to dominate the news cycle, passengers began to space themselves out - in advance of now-accepted social distancing policies. Some passengers wore masks - making those of us who didn't have one wonder if they knew something we didn't. A cough or sneeze was met with fixed stares - or even glares - from all of the other passengers. Every day there seemed to be fewer riders.
And so begins public and community transit systems of all sizes and types asking themselves the (now) not so theoretical question: "What would your system look like and how would it serve your community differently if, knowing what you know, you could start over and build it from scratch?" Of course, the responses to this question, and the very nature of the transit re-start, will be unique to every community and every operator - but there are some common concepts and tactics to discuss.
I'd like to urge all CTAA members to look at their operations prior to the pandemic with a clear, unbiased eye. Take a look at your data and metrics. Honestly, why re-start routes that were unproductive prior to the shutdown? Why not take a closer look at how on-demand mobility models can be integrated into your re-start? Isn't it time to look more closely at micro-transit models and even micro-mobility partnerships? Can you launch your own ride-hailing services to better serve your community? Initially, here's what I'd expect to see.
From a safety perspective, transit operators of all sizes and types should be stocking up on personal protective equipment and sanitizing and disinfecting supplies for at least the next six to eight months for vehicles, common areas, staff and passengers. Efforts that many operations have made to separate the driver compartment as much as possible from passengers must also be made more permanent. The transit vendor community will surely provide options for the wide variety of transit vehicles currently in operation around the nation.
Predicting the travel behavior and patterns of Americans in the wake of the pandemic - particularly prior to the availability of a vaccine - will be extraordinarily difficult. So many questions spring to mind: Will urban commuters feel immediately comfortable packing rush hour buses and trains? What is the short- and long-term impact of telework (and for that matter, telehealth)? What will the transition from essential to non-essential trips, and employees look like? How long will it take at-risk older adults, people with disabilities and others with underlying conditions to begin traveling once again? How do transit systems maintain social distancing and avoid overcrowding on vehicles?
I'm sure you're thinking of a few more questions that I might have missed. But you get the point - there's no shortage of questions.
One skill all transit systems are going to need is the ability to speak openly with the community and engage in a meaningful dialogue with passengers, partners, funders, and destinations alike. The community-based design skillset we at CTAA have developed over the past five years, along with the inclusive planning practices we've championed will be vital in getting this re-start right. Let us know if we can help in these areas.
The difficult and likely truth is that simply re-starting community and public transit systems exactly as they were prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as comforting and straightforward as that sounds, is not the answer during phase two. Responding to what the community needs and wants, to what local public health officials are advising and with the flexibility to quickly change as local conditions demand, surely that must be the right answer. But trust me, I'm aware that's far easier to write than it is to do.
Many governors are currently pointing to widespread availability of COVID-19 testing as one key element in ending stay-at-home orders and re-opening their states. Just as many transit agencies, in the first phase of the pandemic, began serving their communities with home delivery of meals, groceries, prescriptions and more, these same transit agencies will no doubt need to play a role in helping people access testing facilities. I'm thinking we're going to need testing availability far broader than drive-up testing facilities for people with private automobiles only. Here's an idea: turning buses into mobile testing facilities that can be brought directly into communities.
Naturally, this does lead to a discussion of new technologies that will influence the transit re-start in phase two. This summer, transit passengers may be far more interested in real-time information about how many people are on-board the bus, or how recently it was disinfected and cleaned, than when it will arrive at their stop or home. Trip planning technology will need to add a few new features. Further, how will transit systems collect fares in a contact-less system? Technology that enables cashless and even contactless fare collection, already in use at many transit agencies, will find more widespread adoption.
There also are technologies that might play a role in the near future for transit that are far more difficult to conjure. There's much talk in Asia of using thermometers to accurately assess a passenger's health before admitting them onto the bus or into the system. Apple and Google are reportedly working on software that allows a user to anonymously know when they've come within six feet of anyone who has subsequently tested positive. Do not dismiss these types of technologies too rashly, or do I need to remind you of how quickly things can change - particularly what people will accept - in the name of staying healthy (or keeping their loved ones healthy).