After more than a year of a deep crisis, when the public transit sector has been hit hard, we are slowly getting back to normal. So, the question is, will public transit return to the pre-pandemic mode of operation, or will there be radical changes? How do the transit agencies react?

Photo by Thomas Kinto

Nowadays, America's transit agencies face many new challenges: they have to adapt their services to new needs and new travel patterns; they have to ensure safe transportation and figure out how to regain and retain regular travelers. Many trends that emerged before the pandemic have accelerated. For instance, vast portions of the working population are now home-based, avoiding the conventional commute. In this light, we expect an increased dependency on cars as mass transit is being downsized.

However, assuming that public transit will disappear completely may be an overstated assumption. But certainly, travel patterns have changed and are not expected to return to a previous level. Service levels are recovering from severe pandemic-induced cuts, but not at the same rate as economic "reopening" is occurring.

And although a significant portion of the population is now vaccinated, some measures reducing the risk of virus transmission will remain in place. US Transit Center recently highlighted some of the major challenges and obstacles that transit agencies face in restoring services while also proposing solutions to better manage this shift.

Please wear a face mask,  it's for you  and for the other people in covid-19 times
Photo by Waldemar Brandt

1) Transitioning from COVID-related cleanup protocols

One of the reasons commuters avoided using public transportation was hygiene issues and risk of social contact. Ensuring safe and clean transport services has been a priority for transit agencies during the whole pandemic. Many protective measures: mandatory face mask, reduced number of passengers allowed on board, one-meter distance, improved ventilation, etc. However, to keep constant safety and cleanliness, agencies have had to face huge costs, which have deeply affected their budgets and service plans.

As reported by the Transit Center, the New York MTA estimates it spent hundreds of millions of dollars on deep overnight cleaning during the pandemic. However, this is not the only case; many agencies have faced high costs. Cleaning protocols increased, not just overnight, but even daily service, often between runs. As a result: reduced hours of transit services; allocation of additional time to cleaning staff; including sometimes drivers in the cleaning process.

Transit agencies should collaborate more with public health agencies to communicate to users that transit is safe. They also need to be aware of case rates and variances to update protocols promptly as needed.

2) Loosen social distance guidelines.

Among the measures mentioned was a social distance requirement to meet guidelines imposed by state and local public health agencies. Throughout the peak of the virus spread, public transit operated with reduced ridership and limited capacity. Across regions and states, these restrictions have in many cases limited the flexibility of agencies, resulting in inadequate or insufficient transport service.

For instance, the San Jose VTA significantly increased frequency on key bus routes even beyond pre-pandemic service levels and still was not able to fully address the ridership problem.

Recently the measures were loosened following updated WHO guidelines that allowed to move from a 6-foot standard to a 3-foot standard. This effectively doubles the allowable capacity from about 8-10 to 18-20 passengers on a 40-foot bus.

As an interesting solution to social distancing, there is the initiative by Northwestern University senior Ryan Teo, who, along with three graduate students, designed the concept of the "Futurebus." How does it work? Instead of entering and exiting through a single door, the design of this bus opens up an entire side of the vehicle, allowing passengers to exit without coming into close contact with each other. Teo described Futurebus as a "blue sky idea for a radical future," but Paul Comfort, author of "The Future of Public Transportation," said many agencies are exploring "high tech, low touch" solutions to meet the new challenges that emerged during the pandemic.

Many agencies are trying to find solutions, adapt to the new normal, and resume services. For example, after a successful pilot, the Bay Transit Area (BART) said it would install denser air filters throughout its fleet of rail cars by June 2021 as part of a multi-tiered plan for increased system safety. Chief security officer, Jeff Lau shared: BART is "actively evaluating many different technologies" that could potentially be used in the transit system to combat the coronavirus. "We are open to all different types of technologies and innovations," Lau said. "We are trying to be an industry leader in keeping our patrons and employees safe. I am very confident that our system will be just as safe, maybe even safer, than before (Covid) through better cleaning and behavior changes like wearing masks."

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ("Metro") is working on upgrading air filtration on its trains and buses, as well as providing real-time crowding information. Metro General Manager/CEO, Paul J. Wiedefeld said: "Metro is doing our part to help Metro customers feel safe when traveling, and we are proud to release this new tool to help customers make more informed travel decisions." "Social distancing is a top concern as we all navigate this public health crisis, and we hope customers find this information valuable when deciding when to ride."

Washington Metro
Photo by Julian Lozano

3) Hiring more personnel

Already before the Covid-19 pandemic, many agencies were facing workforce shortages like SFMTA, which was 411 operators short in 2018. During the pandemic, the situation got worsen due to infections and quarantine procedures. LA Metro in Los Angeles needed to cancel, e.g., around 10% of the trips. But now, new operators are needed, and it will not be easy to hire and train them in a short time period.

Moreover, other obstacles influence the hiring and retention of the workforce, like unhealthy working conditions, lack of flexibility, and low pay. Agencies must put more effort into the recruiting process, training, protection, and compensation of the employees. Just in the Bay Area, AC Transit will need to hire 211 operators, SFMTA 800, and VTA 90. It will so take months before these agencies will be able to hire and train the workforce.

VTA’s workers are represented by the ATU Local 265, and its President, John Courtney, proposed to increase the number of training hours this way: “Instead of doing a 5-day cycle, we can do it every single day, 7 days a week, 10 hours a day and have some operators out there in 3 weeks time”. In order to do so, it is necessary to relax the social distasting guidelines, which would make otherwise really hard to train additional operators. Moreover, a new union contract is being negotiated to bring solutions and clarify the steps that need to be taken in the future.

In conclusion, public transportations will go through some changes in the post-pandemic period: from updating protocols to hiring more operators to adapting to a new normal. Resources and efforts will be needed, and it will take several months to complete the transition.