Two Reports Offer COVID-19 Transit Recovery Advice

Separate reports issued by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Transit Center advocacy group argue that there is a “fundamental alignment” between how transit agencies respond to the health and safety needs posed by COVID-19 and the measures they implement to improve sustainability, reliability, and cost to transit riders as the pandemic recedes.

[Above photo by the MBTA.]

BCG’s report – Solving the Mobility Challenge in Megacities – is based in part on a pre-pandemic survey of 2,000 people in Beijing, Boston, London, and Moscow about their “mobility priorities.” That poll identified three long-term “priorities” transit systems should incorporate:

  • Productivity and Multitasking: Consumers want to use their time in transit for work and entertainment.
  • Independence:Flexible schedules and on-demand mobility are key.
  • Sustainability: Environmentally sustainable transport solutions are important differentiators for many consumers, especially millennials.

While COVID-19 has altered mobility decisions in the short term – with consumers more inclined to use private cars because they offer greater protection against the virus than shared forms of mobility – BCG believes the findings will hold true over the medium to longer term.

Photo by MassDOT

“Contrary to the often-touted shift away from car ownership that dominates much public debate, survey respondents expressed a growing desire to own a car,” the BCG said in its report.

“But the main reasons given for car ownership were practical concerns (including speed and flexibility) and necessity (due to a lack of better alternatives), rather than personal preferences, such as emotional attachment, the car’s importance as a status symbol, or the joy of driving,” the group added. “This suggests that consumers are willing to give up their vehicles provided cities create more effective transportation systems to take their place.”

A separate report by the Transit Center argues that the COVID-19 pandemic proved that cities “literally could not survive without transit” as transit “kept cities functioning during the initial outbreak, enabling millions of workers to reach jobs at hospitals, warehouses, grocery stores, public utilities, and other basic services.”

Photo by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority

At the same time, the effects of COVID-19 pose serious challenges for the continued provision of abundant, reliable, and safe transit service.

“People are justifiably wary of gathering in shared spaces, and even small shifts to car travel will further mire surface transit in congestion that makes service slower and less reliable,” the report said.

To counteract that shift, enacting measures to protect transit riders and transit workers while redoubling efforts to enhance the fundamentals of good service will help make transit systems “more just and sustainable” and help recoup ridership after COVID-19 recedes, Transit Center argued.

Drawing on interviews with public health experts and transit agency officials, as well as a survey of more than 2,000 residents in major American cities, the Transit Center report focuses on three key findings:

  • Transit is not perceived as more risky than other enclosed spaces, such as offices and restaurants. In fact, several survey participants remarked that mask compliance appeared to be higher on transit than in private venues. At the same time, they felt that life — and their use of transit — would not return to normal until COVID is no longer a risk. While that suggests aversion to transit won’t outlast the pandemic, it also implies that headwinds facing transit ridership and agency finances will continue for an extended time, at least through 2021.
  • Participants were aware of cutbacks to local transit service, but felt specific route and schedule changes were not communicated well. Transit riders expressed patience toward reductions in service during the pandemic. However, a lack of information about current schedules, including the mismatch between printed schedules and actual service, led some to perceive service as less reliable.
  • Mask compliance and social distancing are both seen as necessary to feel safe on transit vehicles. Attendees were uniformly in favor of mask wearing on board, and many felt that failure to do so should be met with social stigma. Riders who switched from transit to taxis, ride hailing, or driving their personal vehicles often said that seeing other riders without masks or sitting closer than six feet away deterred them from transit. The attitudes about social distancing don’t necessarily align with evidence from other countries that indicates high mask compliance and low overall case rates make traveling on transit safe without strict six-foot distancing.

Several state departments of transportation are already engaged in transit efforts suggested by both reports.

Photo via the Connecticut Governor’s Office

The Connecticut Department of Transportation, for one, conducted statewide mask distribution efforts to both rail and bus riders in August and July, respectively.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials also sent a letter to the Federal Transit Administration in April outlining “thoughts and recommendations” from its Council on Public Transportation on ways the agency can maximize aid to state DOTs and their transit sub-recipients during the COVID-19 national emergency.

That letter argued in part that state DOTs and transit systems should be allowed to submit several grant modifications based on priority needs and a revised program of projects to better combat challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also, in September, the American Public Transportation Association launched a national “Health and Safety Commitments Program” for transit agencies during a virtual event – a program designed to assure passengers that public transit systems are “taking all the necessary measures to operate safely” as the nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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