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Public Transit & COVID-19

Resident transportation expert Alex Kelly dives into how COVID-19 will affect public transportation.

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by Team Onlia

COVID-19 has impacted the way we live, work, and play. Recently, we published an overview of what has changed over the course of the pandemic, and now we’re looking closely at some of the key transportation changes as they unfold. With society starting to shift gears and planning to reopen, how will public transit evolve for the new reality?

Transit response to COVID-19

The initial impact of COVID-19 on transit systems was a perfect storm of factors. Employees started to work from home, businesses closed their doors, and people started using personal vehicles — all protective measures to avoid the spread of the virus. Transit agencies felt the impact almost immediately, with Toronto’s Transit Commission reporting an initial 80% drop in ridership

Transit agencies, classified as essential services, scrambled to find a way to offer safe service, acknowledging that essential workers still relied heavily on public transportation. Early modifications included increased cleaning protocols with more aggressive products, suspending payment options that were high-touch (cash, tickets, transfers), separating operators from riders with barriers, and enforcing social distancing measures such as seat limitations or back door boarding. Many agencies chose to run a Saturday schedule every day, a way to offer limited service in response to lower passenger traffic. 

Lasting impact on agencies

As communities and businesses start to sort out the shape of the future, it is clear that transit agencies will continue to feel the impacts of COVID-19. Since March, the TTC has reported a $92M monthly revenue loss, and if ridership levels don’t improve, projects a $300M loss by Labour Day.

A number of factors contribute to lost revenue: lower ridership, increased budget allocations for protective equipment, increased cleaning costs, and lost cash or ticket revenue at the farebox. Transit agencies have a tricky numbers game ahead of them; as ridership increases, agencies have to restore normal service schedules, at a cost. The math doesn’t work for some jurisdictions, with Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson mulling over the idea of parking the city’s entire transit agency for the summer, just to ease the financial strain of rebooting full service.

Advocates are calling for a bailout, not unlike those structured for the airline and oil industries, but it is too early to tell what the options are for transit. The Canadian Urban Transit Association has requested $400M/month from the federal, provincial, and territorial governments in a bid to replace some of the lost revenue, citing that, “[on] average, transit systems are incurring four times the normal costs of cleaning and disinfecting vehicles as a result of COVID-19.”


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Future of transit 

It may be early days for the “new normal” on transit, so it still remains to be seen how the transit safety culture will shift. A recent study by the University of Toronto found that transit networks may experience additional social impact fallouts from COVID-19; 25% of Toronto respondents reported they will not return to public transit until there is a widely available vaccine. 

Global trends see transit agencies rushing to find solutions for the next wave of transit. New York’s transit system, which normally sees five million riders a day, is investigating ultraviolet radiation robots and COVID-19 zapping nanoparticle cleansers to ensure their system is safe for riders. However, the city still is only seeing 600,000 riders a day – albeit a slow increase from 400,000 weeks prior. While cities are trying to bring their normal schedules back on board, some are filling service gaps with ridesharing companies, such as Uber (a company that is also constantly reworking its entire COVID-19 response).

Rider experience will certainly change, with increased reminders to practice personal hygiene, wear masks, and adhere to social distancing guidelines. Early studies indicate riders would be much more likely to use transit if there were limits on the number of passengers, and if mask usage was enforced. Payment systems will most likely be overhauled to accommodate contactless fare collections, while capacity on transit vehicles may be reduced. 

Transit rider or not, the COVID-19 evolution of public transit will be felt throughout cities. Concerns about COVID-19 transmission may drive more personal vehicle use (or hopefully, carpooling), increase congestion, and impact environmental health — all reasons that underscore the importance of getting transit back online. How the public transportation industry responds and adapts will be an important indicator of how we can all move forward together, safely.


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