Opinion: Transit Agencies’ Pandemic Response Is on the Right Track, but More Coordination Is Needed

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

The onset of COVID-19 has posed a new challenge to transit agencies around the country as they scramble to keep riders safe while effectively serving those who rely on transit for essential purposes like going to work and buying food. Transit agencies are also facing steep budget cuts, worker strikes, and other complications. These factors have led transit agencies to implement a mix of policies aimed at cutting costs and keeping riders safe. Though these policies have largely been successful, there is room for improvement, especially when it comes to coordinating different transit agencies’ service cuts.

Masks and rear-door boarding: effective and necessary measures

Virtually every transit system in the U.S. has made mask-wearing mandatory, and encouraged physical distancing on trains and buses. They have met little resistance, because experts agree that mask-wearing and physical distancing greatly reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. Many transit agencies have also implemented rear-door boarding on buses, where most passengers enter through the rear door.

This is mainly a result of pressure from bus drivers, who would get much higher levels of exposure to COVID-19 if passengers boarded through the front and passed by them. In most transit systems, this policy has been accompanied by a stop in fare collection, as fare payment machines are normally by buses’ front doors. While this policy has been linked to decreased coronavirus transmission, it does mean a loss of revenue for transit agencies, so some have been hesitant to introduce this.

Nevertheless, this policy is beneficial for both passengers and drivers, so it should continue to be implemented wherever possible. A recent trip on the Washington D.C. Metro showed that these policies are largely being followed, with virtually every person wearing a mask and mostly empty trains — even at rush hour — allowing for easy physical distancing.

Image from WMATA

Sign indicating cut in metrorail hours (Lucas Ribeiro for Lenses News)

Service cuts: good in theory, often bad in execution due to lack of communication

Since the coronavirus pandemic has universally led to drastically reduced ridership for transit agencies, many have considered it acceptable to reduce or cut service on many routes and lines. While in some cases, this is okay, like on commuter-heavy routes where most riders are parking at bus or train stops, in other cases? Not so much. For example, in some parts of southeast D.C. and Prince George’s County, MD, where car ownership rates are lower and people are more dependent on transit, many local routes, which were crucial to giving some communities access to groceries and jobs, were cut. These cuts mean people living in these communities who do not own a car may have to spend far longer walking to another bus stop or biking, or take an expensive rideshare trip.

Service cuts on express bus services and on trains, although less serious, also have negative effects. For example a rider wishing to go from say, Fairfax, VA to Washington, D.C. prior to the pandemic could have taken one commuter bus straight to the city. Now, they must take a different route, with a local bus to a nearby metro station (Vienna), a train replacement shuttle to a metro station closer to D.C., then take a last short metro trip into the city.

This exposes them to far more people, increasing the risk of coronavirus transmission. The complication of these transit itineraries is also a result of the lack of coordination between transit agencies in the DC area.

In this case, the agency that operates the bus from Fairfax to the metro station in Vienna is different from the company that operates the metro and the shuttle buses, which meant that local buses from Fairfax kept running to a metro station which wasn’t getting any trains. If the transit agencies had coordinated together, they could have rerouted the bus from Fairfax to the nearest open metro station, or have the train-replacement shuttles continue as local buses into Fairfax after stopping at the metro station, at little additional cost.

Transit agencies must also make sure to increase service and reliability as coronavirus lockdowns end. If transit cuts continue into the future, most people will just switch to using their cars. While this may not be a major problem now, since few people have reason to drive at peak times, as regions reopen, the additional cars coming from former transit users could mean more traffic, even more than at pre-pandemic levels. We have already started to observe this in some Chinese cities, where congestion levels have generally been only 5-25 percent lower than at the same time last year, even as many people are working from home.

Bus service in Prince George’s County before the pandemic (Image from WMATA)

Bus service in Prince George’s County during the pandemic (Image from WMATA)

Other actions on the part of transit agencies and local governments — A silver lining?

Transit agencies have also encouraged people to pursue non-mass transit personal mobility options, such as bikes and scooters to reach their destinations. This, combined with the fact that many people are scared of taking transit, has led to a surge in people using biking, walking and scooter-sharing to reach their destinations. City officials have taken note, and they’ve used the reduced traffic on roads(at least for the time being) as an opportunity to close car lanes, or in some cases entire roads themselves for pedestrians, scooters, and bikes.

The public has embraced these changes, and these new areas for safe walking and biking have been used extensively, to the point where some cities are making these changes permanent. So while mass transit service may be reduced during the future as a result of this pandemic, bike and pedestrian infrastructure is expected to greatly improve. These improvements in bike and pedestrian infrastructure may allow people to switch to biking as a mode of transportation, helping avoid the nightmarish traffic that is expected as people return to work in a post-pandemic world.

Road closed to car traffic in Oakland (The New York Times)

Expanded Sidewalk in Washington, DC (Lucas Ribeiro for Lenses News)

Overall, considering that transit agencies are in uncharted territories, it’s to be expected that their response will be imperfect. That said, barring some inefficiencies, transit agencies at least in the D.C. area have been largely successful in responding to the pandemic. Whether this success will continue as the region reopens or if traffic will become an even worse nightmare than before depends on transit agencies making prudent decisions when it comes to increasing service and keeping riders safe.