The American Public Transportation Association recently released a new report, On the Horizon: Planning for Post-Pandemic Travel, examining how demographic, employment, and travel trends may change in the coming years due to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.
[Above photo by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority]
The report focuses in particular on how public transit systems are taking lessons learned during the pandemic and using them to retool their operations for the future.
Falling ridership, staff retention issues, and fiscal concerns due to COVID-19 forced most public transit agencies to cut services, APTA’s report said. However, the group’s report also found that not all agencies responded this way, with some agencies eliminating fares and reorienting service to prioritize essential workers and social equity, and/or splitting shifts to provide social distancing for employees.
Even as transit agencies adapted to the challenges of the pandemic differently, they all emphasized employee and rider safety, APTA said.
This included deploying measures such as improving cleaning protocols, working with unions to develop programs for sick employees, securing operator space on buses, and providing free masks.
In fact, while the federal government began requiring riders to wear masks on transit systems in January 2021, more than 85 percent of public transit agencies had already mandated mask use back in July 2020, with more than half also deploying recovery plans that included new safety precautions for riders and employees.
Based on research collected from transit operators, a nationwide survey of staff, and detailed case studies of five agencies, APTA’s report offers four overarching recommendations that the public transportation industry can incorporate into planning and operations as they look beyond the pandemic to ensure their ability to provide equitable access to mobility:
- Institutionalize Best Practices from the COVID-19 Period: That includes developing partnerships with existing labor and ramping up hiring for more operators and mechanics; improving community engagement to both share and gather information; expanding sanitation measures for both public health and ride quality.
- Prioritize Social Equity in Transit Planning: That means redefining transit success beyond ridership measurements; reallocating resources toward underserved neighborhoods and essential workplaces; realigning services to different needs on different days of the week and different times of the day.
- Explore Opportunities to Expand Ridership: Increase efforts to link transit service with equitable transit-oriented development; develop engaged, long-term relationships with other government entities; consider identifying new fare discounts to expand ridership.
- Keep Abreast of Changing Trends: Respond to telecommuting trends and increases in automobile traffic; plan for changes in market demand central-city areas; anticipate increased development in suburban communities; respond to concerns about spreading infections from COVID-19 or future pandemics.
“Throughout the pandemic, public transit agencies across the nation kept our communities running, from providing transportation to connecting community members to food to even setting up bus Wi-Fi hotspots for students,” noted Paul Skoutelas, APTA’s president and CEO, in a statement.
“In this time of crisis, our industry provided vital services and reliable mobility for millions, with public transportation employees continuing to prove their abilities to adapt to the swiftly changing needs of their communities,” he explained.
“Now, as the industry looks to the future, we can take the lessons we’ve learned and apply them to improve mobility in the coming years,” Skoutelas added.
The APTA’s report is the latest in a string of resources developed to help the public transit sector recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials helped sponsor a series of listening sessions as part of the Federal Transit Administration’s “America’s Open and Transit’s Open” national outreach effort in July and August.
State department of transportation executives, transit agency leaders, transit advocacy groups, and leaders of national equity organizations highlighted their most promising strategies to encourage riders to return to transit systems across the country as part of that summit.
State DOTs also spearheaded a number of transit initiatives during the COVID-19 pandemic, including efforts focused on rural transportation needs as well as ones designed to help transport people to and from vaccination sites.
The Community Transportation Association of America also developed a 61-page paper chronicling the “new normal” created by the COVID-19 pandemic for the public transit sector.
CTAA also provided six recommendations within that paper to help preserve some of the positives that came out of the re-orientation of transit services during the pandemic.