Will COVID-19 Derail Public Transit?

People wear face masks at Times Square metro station, April 17, 2020. (Jeenah Moon / Reuters)

Across the country, the coronavirus pandemic has hit transportation systems hard and cast doubt on the future of their business model.

City transit systems have been battered by the coronavirus pandemic. They have lost millions of riders and are still bullied for carrying too many people. But the long-term effects of the pandemic on public transport are still unclear: who will drive if things return to a semblance of normality? How do transit agencies take care of the current riders and win back those who stay away?

Circles painted on the floor of a Paris train station to define social distance requirements can give a hint. The circles are more like a Twister game than a transit plan and assume that each person drives alone; there are no facilities for couples or adults with children. If each person is in a circle, how long do trains have to stay in the station to give the people in the furthest circles time to get in? How is the social distance maintained if everyone is On the trains? Who counts the number of people in each car, subtracts those who leave and adds up those who enter? Undaunted by these questions, New York City recently announced that it is considering similar charts.

In buses, some operators allow only ten or fifteen drivers. After that, the bus stops to offload passengers and only picks up enough drivers to replace the ones that left. Most cities use boarding points in the back to stay in contact-free and protect drivers from frightened, angry, and sometimes unmasked customers.

Back door access is free, which begs the question of when and how – or if – the rates are reset. It also creates problems similar to the Parisian plan: who is responsible for protecting patrons? Who is responsible for the number of passengers? Will those who start in the middle of their ride be assured of boarding a bus or will their journey depend on the number of riders entering or leaving for their stop?

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The the bigger picture is no less cloudy.

In ‘normal’ times, the New York City metro system serves an average of more than 5 million people every day. According to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) of New York, the metro network fell by 90 percent from mid-April compared to the same time last year, the bus car by 80 percent and the commuter car by 95 percent. While also severely hit, the agency’s bridges and tunnels reported the smallest loss, with crossings down about 60 percent. The transit systems serving Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area have reported similar sharp declines in use.

Patrick J. Foye, the chairman and CEO of the MTA, said the system lost $ 4 billion in mid-March due to the pandemic. Despite receiving approximately $ 3.8 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the system said that the “present and future of the MTA will be severely compromised without additional relief to cover operational losses. estimated at over $ 8 billion. “

But money may not be the only problem.

The Port of New York and New Jersey received $ 450 million in CARES Act funds, much less than the requested $ 2 billion. It reported a 95 percent decrease from the same time last year in the handling of trains traveling between New York and New Jersey, along with a 97 percent decrease in customers at major airports (Newark, LaGuardia and JFK), but only a 50 percent drop in bridge and tunnel traffic.

What do the MTA and the Port Authority tell us about the future of mass transport? Lower losses on bridges and tunnels indicate that when the New York metropolitan area wakes up from the break, travelers will refuse public transport in favor of their own car, making it easy to maintain social distance and not require the use of a mask?

In New York, the MTA recently put forward the idea that in addition to all customers who wear masks and are exposed to the previous night’s cleaning chemicals, they may be asked to reserve space for subways and buses, as they now do for concerts and other tickets events. Currently, only employees submit to having their temperature measured, but if technology is improving, can customers be required to do so? Transit systems have rightly dismissed the Transportation Security Administration’s check-in procedures as inappropriate for mass transportation, but they are now talking about much more invasive and time-consuming protocols.

After the anxiety is gone, will the riders self-regulate by wearing face covers and avoiding crowds? Will employers stagger office hours to eliminate rush hour rush hours, or would they rather introduce work-from-home arrangements that prevent employees from commuting daily, weekly, or monthly? Pointing to the success of staggered hours during the 1918 flu pandemic seems like a nostalgic indulgence, a look back at the number of people who worked a century ago, the kind of work they did and the lack of other travel options they had; it is not necessarily a recipe for a successful reopening of 21st century urban America. But it can be tried very well, and if so, patterns of throughput usage can change drastically: the fewer employees who need to visit the office, the less they buy the weekly, ten-day and monthly tickets in exchange for a small discount , provide transit systems with a regular stream of income paid before the actual ride.

A number of cities, notably Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis, are experimenting with closing streets to private cars. New York City also does this, but the closings are less likely to remain there permanently. Not all cities have the same rules; some allow walking alone, others walking and cycling, others the full range of activities without a motorized vehicle.

They all claim that the changes are primarily intended to facilitate residents’ ability to exercise while maintaining social distance. But the sale of bicycles is on the rise; Cities in the United States report that bicycles are just as difficult to purchase as toilet paper and cleaning products at the onset of the pandemic. As people walk, cycle, or even skateboard more often, these can become viable options for commuting at close range. Will they increase enough to make a dent in transit revenues, especially if tariffs go up and service remains limited?

In London, with similar concerns about busy trains and buses, bicycles are also in high demand. And while the transit system got £ 1.6 billion after Mayor Sadiq Kahn threatened to stop the service, cities suggest there is free parking to encourage people to use their cars. This is also an alternative in many American cities where there is ample parking even in the city center.

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Few Systems everywhere, with the exception of Metrolink, the commuter railroad that serves Southern California’s Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura counties, have researched riders to determine what the future holds. In an email survey to which 11,000 Metrolink drivers responded between April 23 and 28, approximately 40 percent described themselves as transit dependent, either because they were disabled or because they did not have a car. A much larger number – 81 percent – said they would drive Metrolink after the home orders were lifted. But less than a third of the latter group said they would already feel safe driving this summer, and an almost equal percentage said they would not feel safe until after a virus vaccine existed or could not spend time- box to their answer.

Most transit agencies are not primarily dependent on tariffs to cover their costs. But until now, the goal of every transit organization has always been to provide maximum service to the maximum number of people. The pandemic has changed that, forcing systems to limit their service to those who absolutely need it. If this new model survives after things return to normal, the cost of continuing to use transit systems would no longer be worth it. So in the next round of transit decisions, systems may have to choose between rebuilding the motor vehicle or accepting a much smaller role in moving the urban mass.

Will COVID-19 Derail Public Transit?

Dorothy Moses Schulz is an Emerita Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, and a retired Captain of the MTA-Metro North Railroad Police who has served as a safety and security advisor to transit agencies across the country.

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