Thinking About the Transit Re-Start
May 1, 2020
I am asked to make many speeches and presentations each year, which I always enjoy doing. In doing so, I've learned a few strategies to engage audiences and, hopefully, get them thinking a little differently about public and community transportation.  

One way to get transit managers and leadership - people often scrambling to make daily pull out, work effectively with elected officials and funders, respond to ever-growing bureaucratic demands, and a thousand other daily tasks - to focus on a topic like transit service design and re-designs is to ask: "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?" 

Now let's be clear. Every time I have posed this question I never really considered that there would be a time where the people in the audience would actually have that opportunity. It was, in my mind, a useful theoretical or academic exercise, nothing more. 

And yet here we are. In the span of six short weeks the network of public and community transit systems that connect millions of Americans with millions of destinations everyday has been effectively brought to its knees. Ridership has plummeted to lows never before seen, service has been drastically reduced and, worst of all, more than 3,500 transit employees have tested positive for COVID-19 with more than 100 losing their lives. It's been a startling whirlwind. 
Understanding Where We Are
I strive to be an orderly thinker; so with the onset of the pandemic, it struck me that there would be three distinct phases to the challenge it presents to the transit industry. As I write this, we are beginning to see the end of the first phase, which is one of understanding and triage; of service reductions and ridership declines; of emergency appropriations and stay-at-home orders; and, one defined by the need for personal protective equipment and new definitions of essential trips. 

The second phase will take place as the much-discussed curve begins to bend and stay-at-home orders are lifted and prior to the widespread availability of a COVID-19 vaccine. This phase will include the transit re-start that is at the heart of this commentary. 

Finally, the last phase of the pandemic will be the "new normal" that emerges after a vaccine is developed. In this final phase, we'll learn which travel pattern changes brought about by the pandemic are permanent, and we'll get a clearer picture of its long-term impact on state and local economies. Before we get to the important discussion of transit's re-start, let's take stock of the reality of the pandemic's first phase. 
The Stark Phase One Reality
As the scale of the pandemic's impact on public and community transit became all-too-apparent in mid-March, CTAA's focus was squarely on Congress and ensuring that supplemental emergency appropriations would support transit agencies. The objective was clear: keep transit staff employed; provide funding to pay for increased cleaning costs and personnel protective equipment; and, make up for lost farebox, contract, and state/local tax revenues. 

These increasingly dire needs found a foot-hold in the form of $25 billion for urban and rural transit in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act which was signed into law by President Trump on March 27. For scale, the largest single emergency appropriations to transit that I could recall was the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) at $8.4 billion (or, about a third of the CARES Act allotment). 

Transit managers and leadership were challenged in unprecedented ways throughout the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. CTAA held manager roundtables in small-urban transit, rural transit and non-emergency medical transportation that highlight the scope of these unprecedented challenges and threats. 

At one point in early April, 42 states were under governor-mandated stay at home orders. At the same time, all 50 states had been declared major disasters by a president for the first time in history. But today, several states have already lifted or are making plans to lift stay-at-home orders and the beginning of the country moving forward into phase two of the pandemic is now underway. 
Phase Two: A Re-Start with More Questions than Answers
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). 
Count on CTAA to Help You
You can count on CTAA to assist you throughout the phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though our home office has been temporarily closed since mid-March, our 22 dedicated staff members, each teleworking, are committed to providing you with the very best resources and expert guidance on navigating these uncharted waters. We continue to work with Congress and the Administration, advocating for policies and funding for all CTAA members; we're moving many of our most popular training programs online, so members can benefit from them without having to travel; and we're developing sessions for both our SUN and EXPO conferences later this year that will directly address the issues, ideas and assistance our members most need right now. 
Executive Director
Communications Specialist