Post-pandemic priorities for the US transit sector

09 February 2021 4 min. read
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The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the transit sector. With pre-pandemic ridership unlikely to return in the foreseeable future, transit agencies will need to accommodate for decreased usage and shifting patterns. Chris McCarthy, global transportation lead at North Highland, provides some recommendations for how transit agencies can navigate the landscape.

Setting the right priorities

Bus and Rapid Transit should take priority over fixed infrastructure to provide more flexibility and serve the population most in need. Transit is often viewed as serving three key purposes: 1) Provide critical transportation for the economically disadvantaged; 2) Reduce congestion from highways and; 3) Reduce emissions.

The pandemic has organically reduced congestion and emissions, leaving transits needing to focus the majority of its resources on serving the economically disadvantaged. These last nine months have highlighted the societal differences of two economies – one that that can work from home and one that must leave home daily and depends on public transportation for economic survival. 

Post-pandemic priorities for the US transit sectorEquity should play a major role in transit system redesign as these systems are key to providing access to opportunity. If you look at the use of rail versus the bus system in urban areas during the pandemic, it shows how important the bus system is for the economically disadvantaged. While bus ridership is down, it is not nearly as impacted as commuter rail, which moves workers from the suburbs to the cities. 

Transportation agencies should prioritize investment in bus improvements, such as bus rapid transit (BRT) and route optimization, that are cheaper and faster to operationalize. They also should be looking at how to better integrate Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) into first- and last-mile connections, such as integrating rideshare and/or scooters into a transit ticket, especially to reach the economically disadvantaged and people who cannot work from home.

To their credit, many transit agencies recognized early on in the pandemic where their ridership was traveling, and they made rapid adjustments to ensure that they were routing to where essential workers live and work.

Creative, data-based solutions

To regain public trust and lure riders back, innovation driven by creativity and data are imperative to survival. Such solutions include equipping riders with more knowledge by providing train car capacity counts on rider apps and informing users of the last time their train or bus was cleaned. 

Even more creative solutions such as providing scheduled station times are currently kept on hold but remain in the arsenal for future use. Solutions driven by practical necessity, such as decreasing the frequency of trains, or increasing the number of train cars per trip allowing more space, were also a common theme of the Strategies roundtable. 

Improving public perception

Another commonality was the importance of rebuilding public perception of hygienic and safe trains and stations. Transit agencies have devoted significant resources to cleaning and improving air filtration to build confidence. In Paris, the transportation agency has taken it even one step further by performing their cleaning of trains and stations in public rail stations rather than maintenance depots so passengers can observe these actions firsthand, which gives them a deeper level of comfort that they are safe. 

Now is the time to accelerate the passenger experience with improved train punctuality; reliability of station functionality, for example ticket machines; and the use of smartphones and contactless payment devices to buy tickets. 

Scenario and futures planning

While a few people predicted the impact the pandemic would have on the transit industry, virtually no agency undertook “Alternative Futures” and “What if?” scenario planning to build alternative operating models in advance. Most strategic planning activities see the future as one-dimensional and near-term. 

Futures Planning explores a wider spectrum of futures at a greater distance, which allows for better planning and creates preferable futures. Futuring allows organizations to plan effectively, minimize disruption, and take the necessary steps to create a preferable future state for their business and their customers. This is especially important for organizations that require significant capital and rely on long term infrastructure investment.