Public Transit Service During the COVID-19 Pandemic

April 2, 2020 Renee Ray

As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, many people in urban areas around the world are staying home to practice safe social distancing and avoid transmitting the virus. However, they still need access to food, pharmacies and essential services, such as medical care. Transportation as a whole is disrupted by the effects of this pandemic, but public transit providers are uniquely affected by infectious disease outbreaks. This is because the shared mode of vehicles increases the risk of spreading infection, yet they also provide valuable access for people who must get to essential jobs or access healthcare, food, or other essential services.

During this time of unprecedented need, public transit can play an essential role in enabling access to help people in cities meet essential needs. Additional precautions must be taken however, since using public transit may otherwise heighten the risk of exposure to the virus.

Fortunately, several agencies are implementing best practices to maintain safe, hygienic public transit for riders and operators. Transportation Research Board (TRB)'s’s A Guide for Public Transportation Pandemic Planning and Response details how transit providers can prepare for a pandemic, prevent the spread of disease, and communicate effectively through the duration of the crisis. The American Public Transit Association built on that guide with its Developing a Contagious Virus Response Plan. The APTA plan has sample checklists agencies can use to manage tasks such as developing communications protocols and managing disinfection, including who should manage each task. APTA is also responding to COVID-19 by hosting webinars and establishing a dedicated email hotline to respond to questions. Those resources may be found here. For European transit agencies, UITP’s Management of COVID-19: Guidelines for Public Transport Operators offers sample COVID-19 messages and a link which is being updated over time to add case studies and other best practices as they are developed to help mitigate the pandemic’s impact.

U.S. transit agencies are quickly adopting best practices and initiatives that were first put in place in China, Europe, and other parts of the world. Many large agencies such as the Los Angeles Metro and New Jersey Transit have updated their websites and written blog posts to describe actions they’re taking to protect riders and operators. The King County Metro shared its updates via YouTubeAgencies are mitigating COVID-19 transmission risks with more frequent disinfecting of vehicles, including handrails, armrests, and seats, and other objects such as turnstiles, ticket vending machines, elevators and escalators. Some are suspending payments or loading and unloading in the middle and rear of buses only, to reduce the number of passengers coming too close to the bus operator. Others are checking employees’ temperatures daily and providing them with protection such as face masks and gloves.

Given the restrictions on our daily lives imposed to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, difficult decisions including cuts in service or stoppages may occur. SEPTA implemented its Severe Weather Plan for weekday regional rail. Capital Metro in Austin, TX, is running on a Sunday schedule and cutting weekend and late-night service. Access to reliable, real-time data is key to helping transit agencies better understand operations and make decisions during rapidly changing emergencies. As a leading transit industry fleet management and fare payment technology provider, Conduent Transportation is working to support our clients as they work to provide a safe, clean work environment for their employees and deliver reliable transit services for their riders.  To that end, Conduent Transportation Strategy and Innovation Leader, Renee Autumn Ray, offered her insights for the Eno Center for Transportation (Eno) to discuss how urban planners are working with data sources and colleagues in public health and healthcare to better measure the outcomes of transit programs. View a recording of the webcast here -

About the Author

Renee Ray

Renee Autumn Ray is Strategy and Innovation Leader for Conduent Transportation Solutions.

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