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As Transit Reopens, Long-Term Impacts of COVID-19 Unknown

Transit systems across the country are beginning to expand their service schedules in the wake of the novel coronavirus, but some changes made in response to the crisis will linger. For one, safety measures are here to stay.

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As states lift stay-at-home orders and businesses begin to reopen following the COVID-19 pandemic, public transit is also easing into fuller operations with a new focus on safety to lure riders back.

The transit system serving Las Vegas has resumed front-door boarding as well as the collection of fares. The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC) has also taken steps to reduce the numbers of customers in its transit centers to help ensure safety through physical distancing. 

“Having passengers board through the rear of the bus has prevented operators from collecting fare. With that, we’ve seen a significant increase of riders, which is making social distancing efforts more difficult on buses,” said Zac Prudhomme, public affairs administrator for RTC.

RTC is also reducing close-proximity seating on buses and deploying its largest vehicles, even on low-volume routes, to ensure riders are not cramped together. 

The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, which all but shut down travel over the last three months, forced residents and visitors to the Las Vegas region to either stay home or stay away. Now, the state is moving into Phase II of its recovery plan, which means businesses like casinos, hotels and other facilities are reopening.

Public transit experts have been speculating about how the novel coronavirus crisis might alter transit over the long term, as concern about being in close quarters with others and remote work arrangements hold fast. The Federal Transit Administration released its Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Resource Tool, which provides guidance in a dozen areas such as physical distancing, face coverings and sanitizing transit vehicles. 

“Consumers will continue to social distance, and most likely use different forms of substitution for travel. Maybe telecommuting, or online shopping,” said Susan Shaheen, director of resilient and innovative mobility with the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies, during a recent Transportation Research Board Mobility Forum.

Los Angeles Metro, one of the nation’s largest public transit networks, has been operating on a reduced service schedule since April 19, which is basically Sunday service, but with some rapid express routes added. On May 7, Metro began requiring riders to wear face coverings and upgraded cleaning and sanitation regimes, said spokesman Dave Sotero.

“This includes an elevated focus on cleaning high touch point areas such as handrails, railings, elevator call buttons, door handles and ticket vending machines,” said Sotero. 

Transit officials in Johnson County, Kan., part of the Kansas City metro region, are using “foggers” that emit a food-grade, safe aqueous ozone spray, “which has shown to be especially effective against COVID-19. And it also reduces the amount of time it takes for us to sanitize our fleet by almost 90 percent,” Josh Powers, business liaison for Johnson County Government, told listeners during a Meeting of the Minds webinar last month. 

The foggers only require a 15-minute process that would normally take 90 minutes for several people to clean a bus by hand, he explained.

Riders in Kansas and with the RTC in Nevada are not required to wear face coverings.

“Currently, several local medical experts, including those from Nevada’s Medical Advisory Team and the Southern Nevada Health District, are suggesting people wear face coverings in public to help slow the spread of the virus,” said Prudhomme. “The RTC is simply encouraging riders to follow the same recommendations that are currently being asked of them.”

TransIT in Frederick, Md., has begun to resume regular service, though with some changes to allow for expanded pedestrian access on some downtown streets. All passengers must wear masks or face coverings. 

In a post-COVID transit ridership world, technology could begin to play a stronger role, enabling more contactless surfaces.

“I do think agencies will be newly interested in contactless payments in the months ahead. Any technology that reduces the need to touch farecards or cash is more attractive now than it was before the pandemic,” said David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, Taubman Center for State and Local Government. “And contactless payments can also speed bus boarding, which can improve service — an added benefit for agencies.”

It could take efforts like these and more to lure riders back to public transit. A recent report by Ford Mobility, surveying 1,000 Americans, found 64 percent of respondents will avoid riding public transit “once COVID-19 guidelines are loosened,” with 36 percent saying they would consider returning with safety measures put in place. It’s not entirely clear how many of those surveyed were transit riders prior to the coronavirus crisis. 

In a survey of 511 epidemiologists by The New York Times, 20 percent reported they would ride a bus or subway this summer, with another 40 percent saying they would be comfortable riding transit in the next three to 12 months. 

“With regard to safety measures, many agencies are adopting requirements that all riders wear masks, which seems to have been very effective in Asian systems,” said Zipper. “I've not seen evidence that ‘social distancing’ on transit is necessary, or feasible. And if it were, I'm not sure why we would treat transit and airplanes differently.”

Given the challenges to a full restart of transit, agencies seem to be taking seriously the need to regain trust and rebuild ridership. In the Las Vegas metro area, ridership declined 50 percent during the crisis, said Prudhomme, while ridership in the resort corridor and along the Las Vegas Strip fell 100 percent. 

In Los Angeles, ridership fell between 65 percent to 75 percent systemwide during the pandemic, said Sotero.

“Since the ‘safer at home' order was implemented in late March, our ridership has inched up every week,” Sotero added, referring to the gradual reopening of the Los Angeles region. “Today we’re carrying approximately 420,000 riders per day, which is an indication of the importance of L.A.’s public transportation system for making essential trips.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.