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COVID-19 Fueled Innovation in Public Transit Solutions

While the pandemic meant fewer cars on the road as many Americans worked from home, transportation agencies looked to new ways trains, buses and ride shares could get essential workers to their jobs.

Overhead view of an empty traffic intersection with lanes marked for bikes and pedestrians.
It would be impossible to overstate COVID-19’s impact on transportation. The novel coronavirus became a global pandemic, in part, because of our insatiable need to stay on the move. And when societies around the globe ceased travel and movement by mid-March, a series of previously unthinkable experiments around urban mobility began.

In the United States, almost overnight, airports emptied, freeways went quiet, and public transit buses and trains scaled back operations amid steep declines in ridership. However, the pandemic brought another transportation reality into sharp focus: Public transit emerged as a lifeline, ensuring critical workers arrived at hospitals and other institutions needed to keep the country functioning. The pandemic essentially reframed the conversation around public transit, casting it as an “essential service,” a heightened status transit agencies and city officials will likely call attention to as they compete for funding and other resources to support struggling agencies.

“What transit is doing right now is making it possible for civilization to continue,” said Jarrett Walker, president of Jarrett Walker and Associates in Portland, Ore., a transit consulting firm, in mid-April. “What transit is doing right now is making it possible for everyone upon whom civilization rests at the moment — everyone who works in medical, everyone who works at the grocery store, everyone who works in the supply chain — everyone who is doing all of those things, without which our civilization would collapse right now. Transit is making that possible.”

Far-reaching stay-at-home directives quickly emptied streets, freeing them of vehicle congestion. Transportation and other officials rapidly rethought how else to use this space, transitioning it to active uses like biking or walking. In no time, curb space was reallocated for increasing needs related to deliveries, and soon, al fresco dining as restaurants reopened under new protocols with a limit on indoor seating.

New curb management pilot projects emerged in cities like Aspen, Colo., and Omaha, Neb., which partnered with transportation technology firm Coord to use digital platforms to create “smart loading zones” to serve not only traditional delivery services like UPS, but also the growing cadre of on-demand deliveries from the likes of GrubHub or Postmates — along with accommodating the needs of transportation network companies like Uber.

Not only did the pandemic clear airports, restaurants and neighborhood streets, but also office buildings, as workers decamped to home offices. An open question is when or if workers will return to the office. Both large and small employers are re-evaluating their office needs, with a number opting to have employees work from home permanently. A large share of transit ridership used to be made up of commuters. If workers no longer need to trek to train platforms and bus stops, transit watchers wonder how significantly this could shake up public transit long term.

The COVID-19 crisis is also leading to an uptick in creative partnerships between public transit and private mobility companies to help close last-mile gaps and make services as safe and accessible as possible. Already, in more than two dozen cities across the country, transit agencies have partnered with private-sector transportation providers, such as Lyft, Uber and Via, as well as local taxi companies. And agencies are turning to technology to develop more digital tools to better integrate transportation providers and payment systems.

“The push for agencies to move to truly contactless, the market was shifting that way, but the acceleration of the market right now has never been as high as it is,” said Eric Reese, CEO of Bytemark, a transit technology firm leading mobility-as-a-service deployments at the Orange County Transportation Authority in Southern California and Capital Metro in Austin, Texas.

COVID-19 also upended the micro-mobility market, prompting a cross-current of conversations and speculation about the future of businesses supplying e-scooter and bike-share services and whether these modes have staying power in a time of economic and transportation uncertainty.

“You have to start with the premise that transportation is a money-losing business,” said Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer and head of the Office of Extraordinary Innovation at L.A. Metro, during a CoMotion webinar discussion back in April, presenting the argument for some form of public subsidy to ensure the viability of micro-mobility.

“I didn’t think there was a future for for-profit transportation before this crisis, and I don’t think there is one now,” he added.

This story is part of our 2020 Year in Review series.

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.
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