Guest Op-Ed: Transit Agencies Continue to Renew Their Missions and Reinvent Service

In 2020, all at once, public transportation providers were forced to confront multiple and varied challenges. Transit rose to the occasion to help communities, local economies, and health networks navigate the pandemic and to provide continued service to the nation’s essential workforce. Along the way, transit agencies augmented practices to assure the health of riders and workers, realigned services continuously to meet new travel patterns, maintained core operations while reducing other services amidst extreme revenue loss and budget uncertainty, and embraced expectations for heightened attention on social equity in transportation decision-making.

From this, a renewed mission for public transportation focused on economic opportunity, community-building, and social equity has surfaced. This vision will guide transit agencies into their next chapter. Throughout the pandemic, transit agencies have demonstrated innovation and community leadership in multiple ways:

Protecting Riders and Workers: Transit agencies have implemented extraordinary practices to assure the health and safety of transit riders and workers through the use of hospital-grade air filters, ultraviolet lamps, fog machines, and state-of-the-art airflow and ventilation technologies.

Washington Metro and Utah Transit Authority are among transit agencies distributing free masks to riders. Oahu Transit, New York MTA, and others provide temperature screening for front line workers. Public transportation has not been known to be the source of any super-spreader events.

Adjusting Service: Transit agencies such as Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority have ensured better and more frequent transit access to hospitals, urgent care facilities, grocery stores, and job centers. LA Metro and Miami-Dade Transit are among those who have entered service partnerships with private mobility companies to fill service gaps and provide essential on-demand trips. Transit agencies have utilized “sweeper” buses to pick up additional passengers when regularly scheduled buses have reached passenger capacity limits.

Serving Broader Community Needs: Extraordinary times have required transit agencies to serve their communities in many ways. Transit agencies have mobilized their assets to deliver groceries directly to the homes of seniors, to bring meals to students sheltered at home, and to transport citizens without cars to drive-up testing centers. In Minnesota, buses have provided stress-free, door-to-door service 24/7 to anyone working at a health care facility. In Salt Lake City, special transit operations are connecting people to farmers markets and healthy food. In Columbus and San Antonio, wifi-enabled buses are being used to bridge the digital divide and help students in underserved neighborhoods.  Transit agencies in Cleveland, Madison, Denver and Atlanta are partnering with social service agencies to assist those in need of housing and health services during the pandemic.

Embracing Change in Fare Payment and Fare Policy: To minimize contact between customers and vehicle operators as the pandemic set in, transit agencies nationwide stopped receiving cash and enforcing fare collection.  As fare collection returns, some transit agencies have continued to extend free or reduced fare programs to children, low-income earners, persons experiencing unemployment, and service to addiction treatment centers. Transit agencies in Columbus and Richmond have indicated they will continue to provide fare-free service for an extended period.

Trends away from using cash and paper tickets, already prevalent prior to the pandemic, have grown even stronger as payment by phone, smart card, or bank card increases. In Austin, riders without a bank account or card will be able to load smart cards with cash at participating retail stores. In Boston, new kiosks on train platforms allow for electronic payments on commuter rail services and allow five-day tickets to be used over a thirty-day period. LA Metro allows fare validation through wearable wrist bands and key chains.

Reorienting Streets and Communities: Regions are using the disruption caused by COVID-19 to improve the reach, quality, and reliability of public transportation service. Seattle is making permanent changes to provide more street space for cyclists, pedestrians, and transit users through its Safe Healthy Streets initiative. Chicago’s Equitable Transit-Oriented Development initiative is positioned to build healthier communities without displacing people. The pandemic is generating an opportunity to retrofit suburbs with desired amenities such as transit and pedestrian friendly streets and town centers. In Massachusetts, cities are working together to build dedicated bus lanes to improve service reliability and reduce crowding.

Earlier in the year APTA created a Mobility Recovery and Restoration Task Force to guide the industry-wide effort to restore service and operations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and to forge a path forward in repositioning our industry’s essential role in a post-pandemic mobility world. A key deliverable is the “Health and Safety Commitments Program.” Already, over 150 transit agencies (representing more than 85 percent of transit ridership nationwide) have signed on, pledging to riders that they are taking all the necessary measures to operate safely as the nation recovers. The program was developed after asking transit users across the country what measures would make them feel more confident riding public transportation amid concerns about COVID-19.

As 2019 transitioned to 2020, urban mobility was amid several converging and transformational trends.  Regions across the country were making transit more attractive by repurposing street space, managing traffic congestion through road pricing initiatives, improving customer experience by advancing contactless fare payment systems, and integrating the mobility ecosystem trough multi-modal trip planning and payment and mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) concepts. The pandemic is accelerating all these trends.

There has never been another year quite like this one. But through it all, core values have been tested, reaffirmed, and reinforced. Even with ridership down sharply, millions of people are still moving on transit, and transit continues to be essential to city living. Public transportation continues as a strategy to restore urban communities that will be stronger, more sustainable, more resilient, and more equitable.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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