By Veronica Siranosian, AICP, LEED GA and Denise Casalino, PE

As states across the country begin reopening their economies, many individuals will have difficult choices to make about how and when to travel, weighing personal convenience and cost with public health and risk concerns. For some with access to a personal vehicle, driving alone may seem like the safest choice. However, moving from the current situation to a better normal requires that public transportation remain the backbone of our cities to support sustainability, safety, public health, and equity goals. Holistic operations protocols to ensure public safety, integrating technology into existing systems across the customer journey, and leveraging available data can ensure public transit remains a choice that passengers can make in confidence.

The Case for Public Transit

Deprioritizing public transit could have disastrous consequences including increased greenhouse gas emissions, rising highway fatalities, and exorbitant costs. For example, to replace the efficient capacity offered by public transportation in favor of vehicular travel, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) estimated that the DC metro area would require 1,000 lane-miles of new pavement on highways and arterials and 166 blocks of five-story parking garages, at a cost of $1.5 billion annually in fuel and wasted time from increased congestion. Instead, states and municipalities should look to strengthen public transportation so that our post-pandemic future is not just new, but better.

The trillions of dollars of investments made in transportation infrastructure over the past 100 years, both with initial build and state-of-good-repair, are valuable investments in our cities that can be leveraged and expanded to both grow the value of public transit and bring critical jobs to areas hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. The value of the New York MTA and Chicago’s CTA systems are over $1 trillion. Just two projects for New York’s public transit system, the Second Avenue Subway and the Metro North Railway Penn Station Access project, would bring over 32,000 jobs to the city and create additional economic value of over $4 billion. The Red-Purple Line Modernization project in Chicago also comes with an additional economic value of over $4 billion. In May, the White House announced $891 million in federal funds for twelve public transit projects across the country. This is a positive sign, but, undoubtedly, we will need to do more to ensure critical transit infrastructure projects continue to receive funding during the economic downturn.

A Safe Return to Operations

Several approaches exist to support resiliency of these systems and to build passenger confidence and ridership as shelters-in-place directives lift and economies reopen. Many transit agencies have implemented robust cleaning and disinfection protocols, passenger and employee safeguards (such as requiring face masks, instituting rear-door boarding only, and installing shields to protect operators), and operational changes. Digital and physical queues to encourage and require social distancing such as decals on station and vehicle floors, dynamic lighting and signage, and physically blocking usage of some seats on transit vehicles are also being put in place to help passengers safely navigate through stations and on vehicles.

Technology Integration for a Safe Return to Service

Despite these measures, some station areas and passenger pinch points may exist that pose challenges to maintaining social distancing. In these cases, combining traditional approaches with new technologies can help ensure safety. Existing automated passenger counting systems, video crowd density detection, app-based fare payment and booking, and touchless fare collection systems can be integrated and built upon to support a safe passenger journey.

Not only are technology and innovation part of the holistic solution to provide for public safety, they are essential to generating public confidence and trust in the safety of transit systems. A large part of this evolution will require behavioral change so people use the systems in ways that minimize, but not fully eliminate density, including pre-booking arrival times based on real-time station occupancy, monitoring and limiting entrance to stations based on occupancy, using visual cues and apps to direct people to stand at a distance while at stations and to board vehicles with available capacity, and staggering vehicle boarding and alighting by train car to minimize crowding on platforms and into and out of stations.

While these individual technologies exist and have been successfully deployed across a variety of industries, a holistic evaluation of the transit passenger journey is needed to identify the existing physical structures, technologies, and processes present at a transit agency, and how new technologies and systems can be integrated to support a safe journey for passengers and operators alike.

Leveraging Data for Dynamic Scenario Planning

With the integration of new technologies comes the opportunity to leverage robust data sets for more informed decision-making. The radical shifts in ridership patterns caused by the current pandemic has demonstrated that traditional approaches to ridership forecasting and scenario planning, based largely on historic trends and dated trip generation rates, are insufficient to help transit agencies understand how and where people are moving in order to serve riders’ needs. AECOM’s MobiliticsTM scenario planning tool uses both traditional census data as well as anonymized location data from smartphones to develop scenarios across a wide range of variables including phase of reopening, availability of a vaccine, public confidence, and more. This type of dynamic scenario planning can help agencies make informed decisions about how and where to bring back transit services to meet riders’ changing needs, a critical component to reducing congestion and helping passengers feel safe.

Changing operational procedures, integrating existing systems with new technologies, and leveraging data for more informed decision-making can help transit agencies move from the current crisis to a better normal- one in which transit service is strengthened to support sustainability, equity, and safety goals.