It’s likely that no singular event will define the year 2020 like the global outbreak of COVID-19 has. The virus that began spreading around the world early this year has resulted in global shutdowns of lifestyles and economies and in no uncertain terms has fundamentally changed our lives.

And though it doesn’t take an expert to understand the integral roles that transit systems play in our daily lives, as planners working closely with public agencies, we saw firsthand how extreme shifts in our daily lives, and uncertainty in the near-future, also required transit agencies to re-evaluate how they deliver services. Within the past few weeks, we have written about virtual public engagement strategies and how our company has adapted to a virtual environment as part of our three-part series on transportation planning during COVID-19. This blog post, the final installment, will highlight some of the major effects the viral pandemic has had on public transit systems and agencies, including how Foursquare ITP has pivoted its work to provide assistance.

Initial Impacts and Service Reductions

The virus forced states and cities around the nation to enact stay-at-home orders limiting travel to essential needs only, which led to an unprecedented mode shift in commuter travel from traditional means to telework, and eliminating most discretionary travel as well. A recent APTA study reported that transit ridership was down over 70 percent nationwide, comparing April 2019 and April 2020, due to restrictions on essential work and travel. While all of this very clearly results in a lower rate of recovery at the farebox, the effects that mandatory stay-at-home orders have had on the ability to plan for future transit have been complicated.

Perhaps the best analogy for planning public transit in the state of a pandemic is that it is like a moving target trying to hit another moving target, where the present circumstances are constantly changing and future context for transit is uncertain. As the world as we knew it came to a screeching halt, transit agencies were immediately pressed with new challenges: how do we maintain essential connections to jobs and facilities with fewer riders taking transit? How do we plan for appropriate levels of service on a route or a corridor? Unfortunately, in many cases these questions were being asked in the context of how to meet all of these challenges with the looming threat of budget reductions, whether it was state funding, local contributions, or depressed dedicated tax revenue. Practically overnight, transit providers were forced to reconsider the utility and efficiency of their entire systems to restructure services with the anticipation of reduced operating budgets.

It’s likely that transit agencies planned for their largest reductions in operations very early into the pandemic when relief funding for transit was still uncertain at best. The pandemic was fully realized in the United States as early as early March, but it wasn’t until March 27th that the CARES Act was signed into law, providing $25 billion in relief funds for transit agencies nationwide. These funds certainly lessened the impact that COVID-19 could have had on transit systems, but still fell short of anticipated funding needs by nearly half of the amount needed to maintain previous year levels of service.

While some transit agencies initially shut down entirely for a few days, some cut their commuter services, and others operated at significantly reduced systemwide levels of service, or some combination of the three. As the pandemic situation became better understood, service needed to be ramped back up. Transit agencies were in contact with essential facilities (hospitals, food distribution sites, distribution warehouses, etc.) throughout their service areas to understand where and how to maintain the connections employees and residents needed to get to work or access essential services.

Ramping Back Up

There are still many unknowns to contend with as transit agencies look ahead to the future of operations: How can we readily adapt to future changes in stay-at-home orders and guidance? Through what channels can we disseminate vital information to our riders? What effect will pandemic service changes have on low-income and minority communities that rely on transit? And perhaps the burning question: as we ramp back up, how do we maintain efficient services while providing enough service to allow riders sufficient space for social distancing requirements?

The enormous drop in ridership due to COVID-19 led to concerns that ridership could remain down for months (if not years) as people might be reluctant to pack onto buses and trains, further complicating hopes that levels of service similar to the previous year could be maintained efficiently. In effect, this led to budget-strapped transit agencies setting reduced operating budget targets and restructuring their services into essential transit networks practically overnight; while some agencies offered service on the same routes at reduced schedules, others performed systemwide evaluations, eliminated inefficient routes (temporarily or not), and transferred vital segments to more productive routes.

Overcrowding is certainly one of the biggest issues as transit agencies consider how to ramp back up to full service, since riders will want and need to practice social distancing even while traveling. Transit agencies with APC-equipped buses have the benefit of being able to measure the number of people on a bus at a given time and can adjust thresholds for overcrowding to help plan for safe and efficient services in the future. Additionally, some agencies have even been able to start reporting out how crowded a bus is to their customers in real-time, allowing riders to make the choice of taking a crowded bus, waiting for the next one, or choosing an alternative.

Foursquare ITP has been working with several of our clients to assist in modifying their networks to ensure access for essential workers; tracking ridership and crowding to inform updates to their networks; and right-sizing the amount of service as ridership begins to rebound on certain parts of the networks. This includes a lot of scenario planning to address both the uncertainties of future ridership as well as the need to keep costs in check and meet efficiency guidelines.

Foursquare ITP provides service planning support for Washington Headquarters Services (WHS), the organization responsible for providing transit services to the Pentagon and other Department of Defense facilities in the National Capital Region. Despite the specialized nature of the Department of Defense as a place of employment, the sheer size of the organization (the Pentagon is the largest office building in the world by floor area) and number of people employed meant that WHS has also contended with numerous complex adjustments to the transit commuter services they provide.

Internally, like most public transit agencies, WHS was developing protocols based on federal guidance in the form of the Pentagon Resilience Plan. In response to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, regional public transit providers temporarily suspended or reduced service. Due to the decreased availability of public transit services, WHS issued temporary parking permits to any non-essential employee at the Pentagon Reservation. As a result, parking lots started reaching maximum capacity. As one solution, the Mark Center (located in Alexandria, Virginia) was designated for overflow parking. WHS, who contracts with WMATA to operate Metrobus 7M (Pentagon-Mark Center), worked with the agency to return to 10-minute peak frequencies in order to accommodate commuters who might use the Mark Center for overflow parking.

Planning for the Future

The restrictions on essential work and travel that resulted from the outbreak of COVID-19 have fundamentally changed how we live our lives, and therefore how we utilize transit as well, but the ability for transit agencies to use data and interagency communication to share ideas and solutions will be vital moving forward, as the virus is likely going to be an issue we all deal with for some time. Transit agencies and planners will need to remain flexible to changing circumstances in order to meet the needs of riders despite looming budget constraints. This may be ironic to say on a blog post about bus services, given that buses don’t often have seat belts, but transit agencies, riders, and naysayers alike should buckle up, because this ride is not going to end any time soon.