As transit agencies across the country emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, they are reportedly confronting an array of new challenges. Because after more than a year of constant adaptation to provide safe service, agencies must now adapt again — this time to conditions that differ markedly from both the pre-COVID era and the thick of the pandemic.
Travel patterns have shifted as a result of COVID, and service levels have yet to fully recover from the steep budget cuts. And despite the threat of COVID significantly decreasing in urban areas as opposed to its height last year, many measures to reduce the risk of transmission remain in place. One major one in Los Angeles was the addition of mask dispensers to Metro’s busses and trains.
In a recent post, TransitCenter posed the question: What comes next as transit agencies strive to bring service back and deliver what riders need in 2021 and beyond? Based on interviews with transit agency staff, the publication took on outlining the challenges and opportunities facing the transit industry as it recovers from the pandemic.
In the article, TransitCenter examined the major obstacles to restoring service that transit agencies are currently grappling with. Compared to pre-COVID levels, the volume of service agencies are now running varies widely. But in most cases, they are operating fewer service hours than before. Earlier this year, Metro voted to spend millions of dollars to restore transit service that had been slashed because of the pandemic. By Sep. 2020, bus service had decreased by 20%, and Metro’s ridership declined from a high of 615,000 in Oct. to 475,000 in Dec.
In addition to ridership decline and absenteeism from operators, other factors that influenced fewer operating service hours include COVID-related cleaning protocols, social distancing requirements, and workforce availability. The first option in TransitCenter’s proposals for a path to successful restoration of service is to transition away from the COVID-related cleaning protocols.
They argue that though protecting riders and transit workers throughout the pandemic strengthened rider confidence in transit’s safety, they placed an enormous strain on budgets and service plans. They also note that at this point, they are “unnecessarily hampering the transit recovery.” They set New York’s MTA as an example, which reportedly spent hundreds of millions of dollars on overnight deep cleaning during the pandemic. At other agencies, they note, bus operators had to spend more time cleaning and less time operating the bus throughout the day.
With public health experts saying that COVID-19 is airborne rather than spread by touching contaminated surfaces, TransitCenter argues that transit agencies will need to move away from this. Instead, they propose partnering with public health agencies and other trusted messengers to communicate that transit is safe.
This comes tied with easing social distancing guidelines. By imposing capacity restrictions that limit the number of riders on transit vehicles, these mandates reduced the amount of service agencies can provide with existing fleets. They note that current guidance from the WHO indicates that at least 3-foot of physical distance is enough, effectively doubling the allowed capacity from about 8-10 passengers on a 40-foot bus to 18-20 passengers.
In Los Angeles, Metro is still deep cleaning and disinfecting its vehicles, requiring face masks while on board, and suggesting keeping six feet of physical distance from other passengers, per their website. By June 2021, the agency reported an uptick of riders, and aiming to restore service to pre-pandemic levels by Sep. Metro’s total estimated ridership for Apr. 2021 across bus and rail was 13,683,274, according to the agency’s statistics. In contrast, a bit over 9.7 million people rode the Metro in Jan., 10.7 million in Feb., and just above 13 million in Mar.