COVID-19 & Public Transit

WRITTEN BY CAITLIN ALLEN-CONNELLY, PROJECT DIRECTOR

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Americans woke up on January 20, 2020, to a new COVID-19 world, with the first case of the Coronavirus reported in the United States. An unprecedented set of national, state and local government orders would follow over the weeks to come, placing severe limitations on citizens’ ability to go to work, to interact with family and friends, and to meet the basic needs of their families. Almost overnight, many Americans were deemed non-essential and directed to stay at home and practice social distancing to protect themselves and other citizens—and to help to “flatten the curve,” or rate of infections, to mitigate a surge on already-limited hospital resources.

In the public transit sector, the social distancing directives called for immediate responses to strengthen sanitation protocols. They also called for continued adjustments to service to respond to declining ridership and to limit exposure for the essential workers both operating and using public transit to support frontline efforts to win the war on COVID-19.

In the United States, 2.8 million transit riders—one-third of transit commuters—are considered “essential” during COVID-19.1 Globally, essential workers also rely on public transit as their primary mode of transportation. Shutting down public transit systems during a pandemic is therefore not feasible. Worldwide, public transit agencies are putting in place the requisite protocols following emergency response plans. In the United States, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) issued a Policy Brief with a summary of the National Academics of Sciences, Engineering Medicine Guide for Public Transportation Pandemic Planning and Response (NCHRP, Report 769) as a supportive resource for public transit agencies.2

This brief provides a snapshot of the range of measures that many transit agencies in the United States and globally have put in place to provide for the safety of their workforce and riders as it endeavors to maintain transit services vital to those involved in the medical, emergency, and other essential services. It also looks at potential future actions transit agencies may need to put in place in the near- and long-term to provide service in the post-peak and post-COVID-19 world. A Better City acknowledges that public transit agency response measures are evolving on daily basis and that this paper only captures actions taken to date.

A Better City applauds the MBTA actions to date to manage and monitor the crisis to protect workers and move essential works to and from the frontline. A Better City also extends its gratitude to the brave MBTA workforce that is critical to the COVID-19 relief effort.

PURPOSE

Since late February 2020, the MBTA has grappled with how to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. This brief seeks to provide a snapshot of the range of measures that many transit agencies, including the MBTA, have put in place to provide for the safety of their own workforce and riders as it endeavors to maintain transit services vital to those involved in the medical, emergency, and other essential services. It also looks at potential future actions transit agencies may need to put in place in the near- and long-term to provide service in the post-peak and post-COVID-19 world.

INTRODUCTION

On January 20, 2020, the first case of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) was reported in the United States. Since then, the highly-contagious virus has spread across the country at a rapid pace, requiring government intervention to slow its transmission. In March 2020, the White House issued guidelines calling for non-essential American workers to stay at home and to practice social distancing reinforced by state and local orders to protect citizens and flatten the curve. On March 30, the White House extended its guidelines (“30 days to slow the spread”) through the month of April and possibly beyond.3 State and local governments also extended deadlines and tightened up directives on social distancing to address area needs.

These critical actions have closed down the American economy resulting in an economic downturn and high levels of unemployment, impacting both essential and non-essential sectors across the country. For the public transit sector, these measures have required the implementation of stricter protocols for sanitation and adjustments to service to limit workforce and riders exposure to the virus while providing transportation to essential workers.

The relationship between public transport use and transmission of the Coronavirus is not well-understood. Some experts believe that exposure is higher at schools and through household spread than via public transportation. Many believe that transmission levels for public transit depend on the health of the passenger, how crowded the transportation source, the duration of the trip, and the trip destination.4 In the post-COVID-19 era, further research will be necessary to better understand the risks and potential transmission rate. In the absence of such information, public transit agencies must take aggressive actions to ensure the safest possible environment for workers and riders.

These stringent yet critical COVID-19 response measures are putting significant strains on public transit agencies, but agencies are forging ahead because public transportation is essential to the economy and to mobility. Entirely shutting down public transit systems during a pandemic is not feasible as it would prevent essential workers from getting to work. In the United States, 2.8 million transit riders—one-third of transit commuters—are considered “essential” during COVID-19.5

 

Thus far, transit agencies have worked to prevent the spread of disease across their employees and the general public by scaling back services, by identifying essential functions they must continue, and by establishing clear safety protocols to minimize any infected transit employee from infecting others. Over the months to come, they will need to review their response measures to determine what protocols are necessary to support service in a post-COVID-19 world both for the near- and long-term.

 
GUIDING PRINCIPLES TO SUPPORT PUBLIC TRANSIT AGENCY EMERGENCY RESPONSE

According to Chad Chitwood, Program Manager of Advocacy Communications, American Public Transportation Association (APTA), “Public transit systems have longstanding contagious virus response plans that are being adapted, updated, and put into action, most of which revolve around cleaning and reminding riders about best hygiene practices.”6

The APTA offers a guideline to public transit agencies to assist with pandemic planning and response. The guidelines were re-issued in March 2020 as a COVID-19 resource. They focus on four main task areas: (1) Preventing the spread of the disease; (2) Providing service during the pandemic; (3) Managing workforce impacts, and (4) Crisis communications. These APTA guidelines can be summarized in Table 1.

 
TABLE 1: APTA MAIN TASK AREAS

TASK AREA

EXAMPLES

Preventing the Spread of Disease

 

Engineering Controls

Separate people from the contamination (e.g., Plexiglas barriers for drivers and ticket sellers)

Administrative Controls

Training, plans, policies, and procedures that articulate and enforce means to reduce infection

Personal Protective Equipment

Gloves and respiratory protection to reduce contamination; hand washing, waterless hand sanitizer

Environmental Hygiene

Cleaning (e.g., steam cleaning, disinfectants) of stations, vehicles, and workplaces to minimize surface contamination (fomites)

Social Distancing

Maintain a space of 3-6 feet between persons to minimize contamination from aerosol and droplets (e.g., sneezing and coughing)

Ventilation Control

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning to reduce the spread of contamination

Providing service during the pandemic

Identifying essential functions—those primary and supporting services that the organization must continue even in the event of an emergency. Ridership will likely go down during a pandemic. People are likely to stay home from work and go out less often to shop or partake in entertainment. People may stay home from fear of exposure in public, or public health and emergency management may order people to stay home. People showing symptoms of infectious disease may try to use public transportation services to get where they need to go. The NCHRP report advises that “transportation agencies should establish clear safety protocols for providing reasonable accommodation to potentially contagious individuals while best protecting uninfected workers and riders.

Managing workforce impacts

Regular staffing will likely be disrupted during a pandemic. Organizations may require increased staff time to take on new tasks like additional cleaning of transit vehicles. Workers may stay home due to illness or fear of exposure to infection. Because of this, the NCHRP report advises that “worker safety and providing a healthy and safe workplace must be the highest priority for transportation organizations to maintain ample human resources.”

Crisis communications

Communication during a pandemic is critical as well as challenging. Simplified messages are necessary during a crisis to ensure that the message reaches a distracted community.

Source: APTA (2020), Summary: A Guide for Public Transportation Pandemic Planning and Responses (NCHRP Report 769), March 2020. https://www.apta.com/wp-content/uploads/APTA-Coronavirus-Brief-03-05-20.pdf; http://www.trb.org/Publications/Blurbs/170529.aspx

Our research suggests that public transit agencies in the United States are following these guidelines to one extent or another. Most agencies, including the MBTA, are doubling or quadrupling down on cleaning and sanitizing vehicles and stations, in particular high touchpoint surfaces, and installing hand sanitizer dispensers in stations.8 They are also scaling back service due to lower ridership and reduced fare revenue, in addition to shifting focus to routes and schedules that support essential workers, closing low-frequency or tourist stations and access points to conserve cleaning supplies, limiting agency personnel exposure temporarily by suspending fare enforcement and allowing rear-door entry, and finding ways to communicate to the public on their changes to service, hygiene, and social distancing.

There are other recommended measures that separate people from contamination, e.g. Plexiglas barriers for drivers and ticket seller, and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) for transit staff, such as gloves and respiratory protection. There are also recommended administrative controls like training plans, policies, procedures, and ventilation control; however, based on our review, these measures are not in wide-spread use at this point. This may be due to the cost, response time to implement measures, and competition for equipment with other public agencies, e.g. health workers. We hope that these recommended measures will be part of further efforts that public transit agencies put in place over the days, weeks, and months to come.
“The main challenge, as is the case for many industries, is the lack of personal protective equipment, which is dangerous to begin with when doing this kind labor, let alone in the midst of a pandemic,” said Mike Vartabedian, business representative of the MBTA’s bus maintenance union. "We feel management is doing its best to rectify some of these issues. The lack of access to protective equipment is not management’s fault but is becoming an increasingly urgent issue.”9 

 
INVENTORY OF ACTIONS BY THE MBTA

In early March, Massachusetts was still considered to be at low risk for COVID-19. However, as a precautionary action, the MBTA put in place its first COVID-19 response measures on March 4, 2020. The agency called for an increase to sanitation schedules to enhance and expand the frequency and intensity of vehicle and station cleaning, new protocol to clean high touch point surfaces in stations every four hours, wider distribution, when available, of in-station sanitizer dispensers, and placement of Department of Health (DPH) informational posters in stations.

On March 10, Governor Baker declared a state of emergency and significantly increased public restrictions. He called for all essential businesses and organizations to close for in-person operations through May 4, including K-12 schools and early education or non-emergency childcare programs. To support of the Governor’s updated directives, the MBTA put in place a second wave of response measures to reduce service across the system to protect workers and passengers. This was followed by a marked ramp-up of actions (level and frequency) across the four APTA major task areas.

The initial and somewhat abrupt changes to service in mid-March led to negative rider feedback and concern over safety to passengers and workers. “Nothing like taking the safe, mostly empty commutes from earlier this week, canceling service, and creating tightly packed highways to transport COVID around the state,” one rider, Jeremy Banchiere, wrote. “Nice work!”10 Since March 16, 2020, the MBTA has issued regular updates to inform about new service changes and additional cleaning, as well as discourage non-essential travel and communicate about infected workers and related disinfection protocols.

The MBTA’s primary focus is on protecting its workforce and providing service strictly for travel that is absolutely necessary and prioritizes transit for essential workers, such as hospital staff and emergency responders, who are crucial in helping to slow the spread of COVID-19. On April 1, 2020, the MBTA instituted a new policy to take employee temperatures starting at the Cabot Garage in South Boston – one of the agency’s largest facilities – at the start of each shift. To ensure employee privacy, the screening will take place on a bus. The policy states that anyone with a temperature over 100 degrees will be told to go home and can use the instituted COVID-19 MBTA leave which, which advances 10 sick days to employees, notify their manager and the MBTA employee support provider as well as work partners, and to call a doctor. This action will be rolled out to other parts of the system.11

On April 2, the MBTA General Manager, Steve Poftak, urged residents to avoid nonessential travel and to maintain social distancing when riding buses or trains, and to board buses and trolleys by the rear door whenever possible. He also announced further revisions to add service to bus lines on routes critical to pandemic response efforts such as the Longwood medical area in Boston, Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Medford, and the Steward Satellite Emergency Department in Quincy, officials said in a statement. In addition, earlier service or additional trips will be added to some of the T’s busiest bus routes in an effort to support social distancing among passengers and employees, and some weekday express routes with lower ridership will be suspended.12 “These further revisions will continue to support critical travel needs of those who are essential to slowing the spread of this virus,” Steve Poftak, general manager of the MBTA, said in the statement. “These revisions, along with the additional precautions we are implementing to protect the health and safety of our workforce, will ensure we can continue to provide critical transportation services.”

The agency will continue to monitor the crisis closely and follow recommendations from the Massachusetts Department of Health (DPH) and US Center for Disease Control (CDC) as necessary according to the agency’s tiered contingency plan.13 According to the MBTA, all measures will be in place for the duration of the public health emergency.14 Table 2 provides an overview of MBTA actions to-date:


TABLE 2: MBTA RESPONSE TO COVID-19

TASK AREA

MEASURES

Preventing the spread of the disease

Implemented daily fleet cleaning and disinfection of high touch points at stations 4 times per day

Installed hand sanitizer dispensers*

Implemented rear-door boarding on buses, Green line, and Mattapan trolleys

Ordered personal protective equipment (PPE) *

Improved ventilation on buses and at stations by opening bus windows and station doors

Enforced social distancing

Providing service during the pandemic

Adjusted service level to accommodate ridership levels on each line and eliminated ferry service

Managing workforce impacts

Instituted COVID-19 Leave Policy, providing 10-day advance sick leave for employees who meet certain criteria**

Instituted teleworking (when applicable)

Crisis communications

Launched COVID-19 website page***

Implemented electronic signage at stations

Implemented signage on buses to promote social distancing

Continuing to provide online updates via social media outlets

* Nationwide demand for sanitizers and other PPE items has resulted in delivery delays;  ** Employees who have tested positive for COVID-19; Employees who present with apparent signs of illness at work; Employees who are self-quarantined; and Employees who are caring for a close family member who has tested positive for COVID-19 or who is subject to self-quarantine; *** https://www.mbta.com/covid19

 
A COMPARATIVE LOOK AT PUBLIC TRANSIT SYSTEM RESPONSES TO COVID-19

In a review of other public transit agencies, it appears that most agencies are following general protocol as a baseline and customizing additional response measures to best suit local outbreak conditions (see Table 3). As compared to other systems, the MBTA response actions rank within the norm or above-the-norm, with a somewhat slower ramp-up in urgency for significant response measures, but overall taking strong protective measures. The agency has encountered some difficulties and persistent delays with procurement and distribution of PPE both in stations and to employees, which are due to nationwide demand for these items, and indicates a need to re-think the agency’s preparedness protocol going forward. In addition, the MBTA has not taken additional efforts to install more rigorous protective PPE such as Plexiglas barriers in vehicles, which could also be considered as a preventive measure in the future, and targeted construction continues.

 
TABLE 3: SELECT PUBLIC TRANSIT (US & UK) SYSTEM COVID-19 RESPONSE MEASURES

Agency

Actions

New York MTA

75% reduced ridership

Service: Suspended service of express lines and select branch services, reduced buses to 75% of capacity, reduced LIRR and Metro-North to the weekend schedule

Cleaning: Instituted cleaning of buses and trains every 72 hours and cleaning of high touch points two times per day

Other: Closed 1.6 miles of city streets to allow for biking/walking with proper 

social distancing

https://new.mta.info/precautions-against-coronavirus; https://coronavirus.health.ny.gov/home

Chicago CTA

82% reduced ridership

Service: Continuing to maintain normal service on bus and rail

Cleaning: Instituted disinfection of vehicles and high touch surfaces multiple times per day

Other: Offered credits on 7 and 30 day passes for future purchases for those working from home

https://www.transitchicago.com/coronavirus/; https://abc7chicago.com/coronavirus-chicago-illinois-update-cases-covid-19-news/5973196/

Washington DC WMATA

Rail ridership down 90%, 65% on bus, essential travel only

Service: Implemented a Sunday schedule, suspended some bus routes, closed 19/91 rail stations, allowed bus drivers to skip bus stations to maintain social distancing on board

Cleaning
: Reduced number of entrances at open stations to reduce areas that are touched and disinfected daily, no mention of cleaning buses or trains besides high-touch places;

Other
: Waived payment on buses with rear door boarding; Launched pandemic task force

https://www.wmata.com/service/status/details/COVID-19.cfm#main-content

https://wtop.com/coronavirus/2020/03/coronavirus-updates-dc-maryland-virginia-march-25/

London TfL

Tube ridership down 88%, Bus down 76%

Service: Reduce service, suspended late-night service, closed some stations and ordered essential travel only

Cleaning: Instituted enhanced cleaning across the Tube and buses, including additional substances to kill viruses to improve an already well-established daily cleaning routine in place prior to the pandemic

Other: Stopped work on project sites; Providing rent relief for 3 months for small and medium businesses on TfL’s land (86% of tenants)

https://tfl.gov.uk/campaign/coronavirus-covid-?intcmp=62419

https://www.statista.com/chart/21079/coronavirus-cases-uk-map/   

 

CONTINUED CONSIDERATIONS FOR PUBLIC TRANSIT AGENCIES

After the immediate response to COVID-19, public transit agencies are facing myriad issues as they navigate through changes in service and assess the efficacy of instituted pandemic-related sanitation protocols. Increasingly, there is a shortage of workers to carry out baseline service due to high absenteeism, questions on how to further ensure worker and passenger safety, and continued strain on the system due to significant loss of revenue. 

Workforce Shortages

Workforce shortages are the result of many COVID-19 related issues, including school closures, sickness, and fear, which impact an agency’s ability to provide baseline service. Public transit agencies like the MBTA are trying to assuage worker and passenger fears with outreach campaigns in stations and online that communicate the measures the agency is taking to promote worker and passenger safety. In Detroit, workers felt their buses were not adequately cleaned and didn’t feel protected so only 10% of buses were able to run until the situation was rectified.15

Enhanced Protective Measures

As the crisis evolves, public transit agencies are assessing the strength of current protocols and determining whether additional measures are necessary for the immediate future and longer-term. Agencies across the globe are rolling out their own protective measures that underscore what public transit agencies can be doing to take sanitation and emergency protocols to the next level. In Taiwan, for example, actions are being taken to retrofit systems with technology to monitor at-risk individuals, including an infrared tool to measure people’s body temperature before allowing them to enter the train. Those with a temperature of over 100 degrees cannot board. In Hong Kong, robots are being used to disinfect trains in addition to staff to increase the frequency of cleaning.16 As agencies move from emergency response to preventative future measures, these and other examples will serve as critical lessons.

Fiscal Strain

With decreased ridership, agencies are experiencing a significant fiscal strain, while expenses have increased for frequent sanitation and protective materials. The federal government has responded with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which is a $2 trillion stimulus package with a $25 billion allocated to mass transit agencies to support COVID-19 related capital and operating costs.17 Massachusetts is slated to receive $1 billion of the assistance specifically to provide operating budget support to the MBTA and the Commonwealth’s other Regional Transit Authorities. Fare revenue accounts for a third of the MBTA’s revenue. With ridership down by 80%, the MBTA is projecting a fare revenue loss of $35 million.18 The federal CARES Act will cover some of the MBTA’s losses but is mostly aimed at recovering costs associated with protective measures to eliminate threats to public health and safety. 19 20

 
POST-PEAK REALIZATIONS AND PUBLIC SYSTEMS TO BETTER MANAGE FUTURE PANDEMICS

Historically, public transit has played an essential role in boosting the economy, and while the outbreak may provoke new trends in workplace practices and commuting, public transportation will still have an important role to play in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery. This is true for across the globe, and in Massachusetts, where pre-COVID-19 outbreak, 500,000 residents relied on the MBTA to get to work every day.21

With distance from the outbreak and more time to allocate to non-emergency actions, public transit agencies will shift from reactive to proactive measures and thinking. Any post-peak protocol must consider various scenarios¬—from complete virus eradication to an endemic situation with some low level of individual infection¬—and assess how to provide reliable service while ensuring worker and passenger safety. These actions will play an important role in building confidence in the system and defining the new norms for safety and service. In the long term, agencies will need to create or update their emergency response protocols to include a robust Contagious Virus Response Plan for future pandemics.

Near Term Strategies

In the near term, public transit agencies should focus on developing a plan for post-peak safety and service. Agencies will be assessing their current protocols and determining which response measures are necessary to continue in a post-COVID-19 world and what other preventive actions are required to make the system operational to meet safety and ridership demand. As of March 30, 2020, MBTA ridership is down 90% compared to February levels, varying slightly on different lines.22

Continuing COVID-19 cleaning and disinfecting protocols should be reviewed as a priority action. Prior to COVID-19, the London Tube (TfL) reported regularly cleaning on trains and buses, including regular disinfecting, while the New York MTA reported to only deep cleaning and disinfecting their fleet 5 times each year, instead simply sweeping trains daily. With rigorous cleaning schedules applied to almost every major transit agency, it may be worthy for them to maintain these schedules after the pandemic subsides to maintain good public health and environmental hygiene.

The provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees and operators on buses and trains should also be a priority. In the past, these pieces of equipment have been considered an operating expense and large operators are not able to cover these expenses with federal funding and therefore, do not have stockpiles of PPE at their disposal. The MBTA has been a victim of delays in the arrival of PPE for operators and has been behind certain agencies in ramping up protective measures, putting their employees at risk, especially given the early, abrupt changes to service that led to packed trains. Thinking through how to address this weakness in PPE provision will be critical for many transit agencies.

The American Public Transportation Association suggests that there four main areas that transit providers must address during a pandemic. An assessment of emergency response actions taken across these four areas will help transit agencies determine what measures, if any, are unnecessary to continue, and what, if any, measures should be added. Public transit agencies can look to other national and global systems for examples and lessons learned. Table 4 below illustrates emergency response measures undertaken by the MBTA, as well as new post-peak measures that the MBTA should consider.

 
TABLE 4: ADJUSTING TO POST-PEAK NORM – MBTA

Task Area

Emergency Response Measures

Recommended Potential
Post-Peak Measures

Preventing the spread of the disease

Daily cleaning of fleet with disinfecting high touch points at stations 4x daily

Hand sanitizer dispensers*

Rear-door boarding

Ordered personal protective equipment (PPE) *

Improve ventilation on buses and at stations by opening bus windows and station doors

Social distancing

Employee temperature reading at beginning of shift

Retrofit vehicles to separate people from the contamination (e.g., Plexiglas barriers for drivers and ticket sellers)

Conduct training, plans, policies, and procedures that articulate and enforce means to reduce infection and ensure access to concise information

Stockpile gloves and respiratory protection to reduce contamination; hand washing, waterless sanitizer

Retrofit vehicles and stations for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning to reduce the spread of contamination hand sanitizer

Determine social distancing protocol and measures for all vehicles (number of seats, etc.)

Providing service during the pandemic Service level adjusted to accommodate ridership levels on each line with ferries eliminated

Adjust service to new ridership numbers and need to maintain social distancing

Managing workforce impacts

COVID-19 Leave Policy – 10-day advance sick leave for employees who meet certain criteria**

Teleworking (when applicable)

Team shifts

Employee temperature reading at beginning of shift

Establish pre-defined policies/protocol for employee health checks, teleworking, sick leave, etc.

Crisis communications

COVID-19 website page***

Online updates via social media outlets

Electronic signage at stations

Signage on buses to promote social distancing

Create a task force

Create communications templates

Establish pre-defined policy/protocol

* Nationwide demand for sanitizers and other PPE items has resulted in delivery delays;  ** Employees who have tested positive for COVID-19; Employees who present with apparent signs of illness at work; Employees who are self-quarantined; and Employees who are caring for a close family member who has tested positive for COVID-19 or who is subject to self-quarantine; *** https://www.mbta.com/covid19

 
LONGER-TERM STRATEGIES

Government officials, businesses, and other thought leaders will need to look at the role of public transit as an essential service in a post-peak world. With people being forced to work from home during the outbreak, teleworking trends may continue and transit patterns may change with lower peaks during rush hour. Leaders may also need to reassess issues related to revenue, including the fare recovery ratio and what changes may need to be made to the overall revenue approaches. In addition, they will need to look back on response measures and identify key lessons learned and concrete steps for the future including how they can help slow the spread from the early days of a pandemic.

Developing a Contagious Virus Response Plan

Longer-term, public transit agencies should consider developing targeted contagious virus response plans. In 2013, APTA developed a standard for the creation and implementation of a contagious virus response plan (CVRP) for transit agencies in the event of a contagious virus break. Their recommendations cover specific aspects of an outbreak that are not covered in a general emergency preparedness or all-hazard response plan. A CVRP should include easily identifiable phases that trigger actions, information and education programs, disinfection and sanitary aid programs, plans for vaccines or antivirals, and service reduction or shutdown plans. Agencies must be prepared for worst-case scenarios that may necessitate full system shutdowns, and the resulting provisions needed to properly maintain fleets and to ensure employee welfare. A Better City will be looking at this longer-term need in more detail to support local efforts to ensure a safe and resilient public transit system.

Adjusting Service to New Post-COVID-19 Norms and Retrofitting Capital

Public transit agencies will need to tailor service to new ridership and look at options to increase the frequency and decrease crowding on trains as well incorporate sufficient safety measures that meet worker and passenger expectations and build confidence to encourage ridership. They will also need to determine what investments will be needed to retrofit vehicles and stations to reduce health risks and increase the safety of the workforce and riders. Some of these may be covered by the CARES Act but others may require additional stimulus funding. Additionally, they will need to build a stockpile of PPE for future use. 

Potential Long-term Investments to Support New Post-COVID-19 Norms

• Stockpile PPE (masks, gloves, sanitizer) based on current workforce needs
• Install Plexiglas barriers on all vehicles to protect the workforce
• Improve and upgrade ventilation systems to improve airflow and reduce transmission risk
• Modernize fare collection with automatic fare collection to reduce contact physical contact
• Reduce fares at off-peak times to spread out commuting times and promote social distancing
• Expand and increase rail service to allow for regional rail with shorter headways, e.g. 15-minute headways
• Electrify rail to reduce respiratory health risks
• Reconsider future fare increases that are already assumed.

Revenue

Agencies with low farebox recovery ratios are better able to handle short-term recessions in fare revenue, however, large agencies like the MTA, CTA, or the MBTA rely on fare revenue for over a third of operating expenses.25 As noted earlier, the MBTA is projected to lose $35 million in fare revenue, and the MTA is projected to lose $3.7 billion in fare revenue if ridership trends continue over several months. These agencies are going to need some form of emergency funding to avoid long-term damage, starting with the $25 billion coming from the $2 trillion stimulus bill. A further injection of stimulus funds directed at the transportations sector will be needed to advance system resiliency measures.

 

CONCLUSION

There are and will be many lessons to draw from the COVID-19 pandemic affecting public transit agencies. Looking inward at agency responses and outward at other system actions in the United States and globally will strengthen ongoing agency responses, set agencies up to effectively navigate service post-peak, including building back confidence and developing new-norm system and ridership protocols that provide reliable service while ensuring worker and passenger safety. Additionally, lessons learned will help improve agency readiness for future outbreaks.

Public transit agencies will need to determine how best to prepare for and respond to various post-peak scenarios, ranging from complete virus eradication to an endemic situation with a low level of community transmission. This “new-norm” is completely uncharted territory and will require cooperation and collective action, including creating a Contagious Virus Response Plan, stockpiling PPE and other supplies needed to more effectively protect workers, and investing in solutions, technological or other to render agencies more resilient to future disruptions.

Public transit is a common good and critical to the economy and to social equity. Transit agencies must lead the way forward, but the public has an important role to play in providing input and respecting necessary protocols that may change the way we are used to getting around. Like flattening the curve, together, we can build back a resilient public transit sector that is vibrant and fit for the post-COVID-19 world.

A Better City is grateful to the public transit agencies and workers across the country—and in particular the MBTA—for their heroic efforts to ensure frontline workers reach their jobs and get home safely.


Special Thanks to Research Assistant, Stephanie Eggers, Fellow, TDIP Project 

SOURCES 

1 http://t4america.org/2020/03/27/2-8-million-essential-workers-use-transit-to-get-to-their-jobs/

2 https://www.apta.com/wp-content/uploads/APTA-Coronavirus-Brief-03-05-20.pdf; http://www.trb.org/Publications/Blurbs/170529.aspx

3 https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-deaths-top-30-000-as-china-opens-up-province-where-it-began-11585466594

4 https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/3/13/21177324/public-transit-pandemic-coronavirus

5 http://t4america.org/2020/03/27/2-8-million-essential-workers-use-transit-to-get-to-their-jobs/

6 https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/3/13/21177324/public-transit-pandemic-coronavirus

https://www.apta.com/wp-content/uploads/APTA-Coronavirus-Brief-03-05-20.pdf

8 Railings, fare gates, and fare vending machines

9 https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/03/30/metro/mbta-unions-looking-more-ways-slow-spread-coronavirus/

10 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/us/coronavirus-buses-trains-detroit-boston.html

11 https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/04/01/nation/mbta-begin-taking-temperature-employees/

12 https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/04/04/metro/mbta-cancels-planned-changes-bus-service/

13 Guiding principles: people shortage, policy goals (e.g. decreasing mobility as a form of social distancing), route management to manage crowding, ridership decreases, and unnecessary exposure (employees and public)

14 https://www.mbta.com/covid19/faq

15 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/us/coronavirus-buses-trains-detroit-boston.html

16 https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/3/13/21177324/public-transit-pandemic-coronavirus

17 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-25/mass-transit-systems-poised-to-get-25-billion-in-federal-aid

18 https://commonwealthmagazine.org/transportation/virus-notes-mbta-fare-revenue-off-35m-in-march/

19 Pursuant to FTA’s Emergency Relief rule at 49 CFR part 602, eligible activities include emergency protective measures to eliminate or lessen threats to public health and safety, such as performing enhanced cleaning/sanitizing of rolling stock, stations, bus shelters, etc.; placing hand sanitizer dispensers in high traffic areas; and providing personal protective equipment as appropriate. https://www.transit.dot.gov/frequently-asked-questions-fta-grantees-regarding-coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19

20 Funding for states in which the Governor has declared such an emergency (49 U.S.C. 5324), to be used for COVID-19-related public transportation capital or operating expenses at an 80 percent federal share, regardless of whether operating expenses generally are an eligible expense for a recipient.  https://www.transit.dot.gov/frequently-asked-questions-fta-grantees-regarding-coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19

21 https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2017/12/06/MassDOT_TransportationFacts2015.pdf

22 https://commonwealthmagazine.org/transportation/t-ridership-keeps-falling-as-staff-infections-rise/

23 https://www.apta.com/wp-content/uploads/Standards_Documents/APTA-SS-SEM-S-005-09.pdf

24 To achieve our transportation, economic, and public health goals, we may need to rethink our farebox ration and transportation pricing.

25 https://www.citylab.com/perspective/2020/03/coronavirus-public-transit-fares-free-rides-bus-covid-19/608350/

 

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