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Austrian Transit Offers Ridership Lessons to U.S. Agencies

The city of Vienna, Austria, has seen some success with boosting public transit ridership in the wake of the novel coronavirus. An official offered recommendations to improve stateside ridership with some safety adjustments.

by Larry Higgs, NJ Advance Media Group / June 18, 2020
Commuters wait to board an NJ Transit train bound for Manhattan on Track 1 at Penn Station in Newark on April 21. A report has 53 recommendations to make trains and buses safer for people concerned about corona virus exposure. TNS

(TNS) — Transit agencies seem to be in the role of dentists trying to convince children to come in for a check-up, when it come to getting them on trains and buses in post-coronavirus world.

There’s a lollipop at the end of the dental visit, but there also could be a drill.

For riders, the drill is fear of being exposed to coronavirus, due to close proximity of others on trains and buses. Ways to ease concerns and keep riders and workers safe from COVID-19 were discussed during the introduction of two studies during a Zoom conference Wednesday.

Perhaps what happened to Vienna’s transit ridership, when it and that Austrian city reopened as the coronavirus subsided, might give American transit riders and officials a glimpse of what happened, if everyone does their part.

Ridership on Wiener Linien, the operator of Vienna’s transit system, saw daily ridership come back to 65% of pre-COVID-19 levels on weekdays and to 75% on weekends, said Karin Schwartaz, Wiener Linien’s head of external communications.

Schwartz was one of nine panelists participating in a virtual press conference Wednesday for a report containing 53 recommendations for resuming transit service in the post COVID-19 era.

“We supplied (riders and employees) with masks and implemented rules of conduct straight away,” Schwartz said. “We mandated mask wearing on transit and still do. We are still upholding all measures and it is working well. People are very disciplined.”

Some of the things Vienna did, such as having bus passengers enter and exit by rears doors, social distancing and regularly sanitizing vehicles and facilities, are among the recommendations of two reports issued by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Green for All, a non-profit environmental and social justice organization.

The recommendations for riders, transit agencies, businesses and other government branches were made after the authors interviewed experts and officials in 11 states and did a “deep dive” into what transit agencies in Illinois, California and Massachusetts did

After Vienna officials enacted restrictions in mid-March for non-essential workers and travel, Wiener Linien ridership dropped 80%, except for essential workers, Schwartz said. By contracts, ridership on NJ Transit, PATH and New York’s MTA fell by 90-95% when similar restrictions happened here.

Some of the report’s recommendations build and expand the steps transit agencies took during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Others, such as asking passengers not to hold loud conversations to avoid spread of the coronavirus, was announced by NJ Transit Tuesday.

“That’s a great approach,” Schwartz said. “It has been established that speaking while riding increases infection risk.”

Expanding existing “quiet car” policies, with facial coverings and social distancing all can reduce sources of airborne virus particles, said Toph Allen, an epidemiologist, and former EcoHealth Alliance senior data scientist.

“Talking spreads more respiratory droplets,” he said. “One method is to reduce sources of virus particles in to the environment.”

NJ Transit, PATH and the MTA all require riders to wear masks to contain and prevent contact with virus-laden droplets and particles that could transmit the virus from person to person.

Based on the science, modified quiet car policies would reduce risk by encouraging commuters to refrain from spreading droplets via speech, especially if everyone was wearing a mask, the report said. Mandating everyone wear face coverings is a requirement on NJ Transit PATH and the MTA.

What happens when a passenger tries to board without a face covering and aren’t allowed on a bus or train? A viral video showed a mask less official putting riders off a SEPTA bus for not wearing masks. Another video showed police carrying another maskless man off a SEPTA bus who refused to leave.

Panelists suggested transit agencies might consider temporarily providing masks for those riders and to make sure policies are clearly communicated. SEPTA had conflicting messages between its website and twitter feed about whether masks were required or not, said Nat Lownes, a representative of the Philly Transit Riders Union.

Agencies need to continue and increase cleaning frequency in high-traffic areas, especially areas repeatedly touched and should install social distance spacing indicators on the floors of platforms, trains, and buses for physical distancing, the report said.

And agencies should continue to experiment with new sanitizing technology such as ultra violet light treatment being used inside subway cars by the MTA, the report said. PATH officials said they are investigating the effectiveness of smaller UV equipment that is easier to get on train cars.

Employers also need to offer staggered work hours for employees who can’t continue working from home, the report said. Both employers and transit agencies need to offer adequate sick leave and paid sick days so ill employees stay home and don’t feel compelled to come to work and spread COVID-19, the reports recommended.

Will following them pay off?

“It’s important that NJ transit does what it says it will do...and makes sure riders comply with the rules,” said Nick Sifuentes, Tri-State executive director. “The MTA saw 92% compliance with mask wearing.”

©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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