Where’s public transportation going in the post-COVID world?

In March, 2020, the world changed overnight for everyone save “essential workers” and emergency trips.  Standing room only BART and Caltrain cars, city buses, and public and private shuttles emptied.  Only those with no other transportation options and whose jobs were on-site, were riding.  Across all transit agencies, ridership plummeted over 90%.  Freeways were at free-flow conditions and the air cleared.

In June, some offices started a slow re-opening bringing back some workers on an as-needed and rotating basis, and transit ridership increased slightly.  Thankfully, demand is still low enough that maintaining social distancing has been easily achieved on transit vehicles.   As we look to the future of public and private transportation, we are now having entirely new conversations.  Here are a few I’m finding most intriguing.

  • What will it take for riders to feel safe; particularly before a vaccine or effective treatment is available for COVID-19? How are employers responding to possible commute risks?  How will perceptions affect the public’s willingness to attend concerts, ballgames, museums, and other public events, longterm?
  • How might vehicular technology and design change? How will this affect rideshare and other micro-transport services, as well as ‘mass transit’?
  • How will shifts in commute-work patterns affect how public transit is funded; costs and levels of service? What new metrics are warranted?

Early research, while limited, on the risks of riding public transit seems encouraging.   The data so far is primarily from Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China and indicates that riding transit (while masked) is not the cause of transmission.  These heavily patronized transportation systems throughout Asia have not seen increases in contagion rates among riders.  Data from our own systems is not yet available (plus it’s too soon to draw any firm conclusions).  The transportation industry responded very quickly to the pandemic with enhanced cleaning and  limiting the number of riders on any vehicle at one time;  limited ‘points of contact’ in stations;  and furnishing drivers with PPE.

The CDC recommended avoiding public transit early in the pandemic other than for essential trips.  While sound precautionary advice, whether the same guidance is still warranted, based on current evidence, is unclear.  The CDC’s guidance instilled fear however, prompting many employers to issue a policy prohibiting workers from using public transit to get to and from work.

Because most employers are phasing in return to work, the number of employees needing to commute to an office on any given day may average only 20 and 30% of a full work force.  If data continues to show public transportation is relatively safe (with precautions such as masks), in the short term, I believe most systems should have the capacity for these commuters while still providing adequate social distancing.

One of the larger questions this leads to is whether the traditional ‘peak hour’ commute is now a relic of the past.  Even before COVID, it was commonplace for as many as 25% of office workers to work remotely at least once or twice a week.  With new social distancing requirements at the workplace, having an even larger contingent working remotely is now a necessity.  Having two or more ‘shifts’ to reduce the total number of people in the office at one time is another possibility.  These changes could shift the public (and private) transit world in many positive ways.   In addition to relieving uncomfortable and overcrowded conditions during ‘crunch’ times, spreading commutes across the day has the potential to improve all aspects of commuting.  With fewer people commuting, travel time and congestion across all modes would benefit.  Shift work means a single commuter wouldn’t monopolize parking every day for a full 8+ hours at BART and parking can ‘turnover’ more often.  Operationally, transit could improve frequency throughout the day accommodating not only workers but making it more convenient and attractive for non-work trips.  Local businesses in and around transit stations would benefit from all-day patronage.  Improved travel times which reduces total travel time, makes transit more viable, particularly for longer commutes.

What will happen with Lyft, Uber and real-time carpooling which were all flourishing just a few months ago?  Beyond requiring masks and having riders confirm they are not sick before riding, I expect to see some innovative adaptations in the near future such as installing physical separations between drivers and riders and between riders and other riders.  A few years ago, I participated in a design workshop that envisioned what a driverless micro-transit vehicle might look like.  We envisioned an on-demand vehicle notifying its rider of arrival via a color flashing on the vehicle that matched the color flashing on a smart phone.  The rider was directed to which door to enter (depending on occupancy); the door automatically opened and shut.  Each rider sat in a pod and had the choice to interact with other riders or not.  In fact, riders could even be scheduled/grouped by this preference.  It’s ironic that much of what we were envisioning at the time seemed like ‘overkill’ yet is so relevant today.  And while we’re years away from the driverless part, vehicle manufacturers could integrate some of these other features relatively quickly.

Cities are also moving ahead more quickly on expanding bike lanes, bike and scooter sharing.  The next iterations might be to offer active transport vehicles with protection from the elements and more stability (for people like me, afraid of falling off a bike).  Prototypes for many of these products already exist; it will be interesting to see which ones come to market now.

Reconfiguring existing modes and transit systems for the post COVID world will succeed only if we also rethink how infrastructure needs to change to support sustainable transportation.  This is a two-part challenge.  The first is re-prioritizing utilization of our limited roadways, sidewalks, and curb space.  Devoting what is equivalent to a full lane of travel to parking is not an efficient use of public space.  Making sure shuttles and ride-share vehicles have dedicated space to board passengers near BART and other mass transit entry points is critical.  Making sure buses and other ‘high occupancy’ vehicles can minimize travel time between destinations may mean dedicating bus lanes (or even streets) to these more efficient modes.  Minimizing conflicts with delivery vehicles and between modes – both public and private — would benefit all.  This is a great opportunity to redesign infrastructure in a way that actually supports sustainable transport.

Pricing is the second and equally difficult piece.   Pricing structures across all transit agencies is all over the map; it’s also wildly inconsistent even within agencies.  Sadly, it is stacked against the people who need it most.

Here’s just one example.  A corporation can buy annual passes on Caltrain for all of its employees at a deeply discounted rate of $342 per GoPass.  This pass entitles the employee to use Caltrain for any trip (work or non-work); and covers all five pricing zones – from the cheapest one-zone fare to the most expensive trip (i.e., from Morgan Hill to San Francisco) all for one flat annual price.  But only certain employers can afford this program.  Small employers and those with part time and high turnover employees simply can’t afford it.  So their employees —  the restaurant and hotel workers —  who are paid far less than corporate employees, pay a premium to ride Caltrain.  There’s no retail equivalent ‘annual pass’ for individuals.  The best fare is a monthly pass for $96 (limited to trips within one zone); a two zone monthly pass (example:  San Jose to Palo Alto) costs $163.50 per month.  It’s no wonder service workers drive instead of using transit!  The social inequity implications are huge.  One of the programs I’m most proud of  developing is one where the downtown Palo Alto TMA bought monthly Caltrain passes and subsidized Lyft rides for service workers earning less than $50,000.  The program grew within its first few months to over 200 workers and was constrained only by the budget.

We need equitable, affordable and consumer-friendly pricing that allows riders to use multiple modes as needed throughout the Bay Area region.  In Alameda County alone, we ‘export’ over 40,000 workers to Contra Costa County; 4,600+ to Marin; 100,000+ to San Francisco; 75,000+ to Santa Clara.  Right now, those workers have to navigate different fares and structures on at least two systems – it’s both difficult and expensive to use transit.

The pandemic will end at some point.  The Bay Area will continue to grow – we may see growth in different parts of the region – but growth is inevitable.  If we want better outcomes, we need to take this interlude to re-imagine how we can improve how we get around most sustainably, what it costs, and who should pay for it.


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