The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major changes to transit and shared mobility. In the wake of the outbreak, researchers and professionals in the field are now discussing how best to rebound from the challenges of the past year.
At a quarterly meeting of the Twin Cities Shared Mobility Collaborative, experts from the University of Minnesota, Metro Transit, the City of Saint Paul, and design firm Huitt-Zollars shared their perspectives. The April 27 event was supported by CTS.
Yingling Fan, professor in the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, led off the discussion with a look at her ongoing research into public perceptions of transit and shared mobility in Greater Minnesota, post-COVID.
Concerns over COVID safety have driven a significant decline in transit ridership; according to the American Public Transportation Association, national public transit ridership fell in March 2020 by 70 to 80 percent from pre-pandemic levels. It has since rebounded, Fan says, but only moderately.
“If we want to target accelerated ridership,” Fan says, “it’s very important that we respond to perceived safety risks across population groups.”
Fan and her fellow researchers, funded by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, responded to this issue by first creating an inventory of existing safety protocols used by shared mobility and public transit providers. Public transit agencies across the world can help build an inventory of the public transit response to COVID-19 by taking a 10-minute survey.
The next step in their work is to launch a second online survey targeting potential shared mobility and public transit users to understand public perceptions of COVID safety risks when using those modes. The second survey will be launched in June 2021.
The information gathered by these surveys will provide both demand- and supply-side perspectives, which are important in deciding the next steps for public transit, Fan says. Not only does the industry need to strategize safety protocols in order to recover from COVID, but it should also consider emerging opportunities to better integrate shared mobility and even connected and autonomous vehicles into public transportation networks.
“If we expand public transportation options, we will have more opportunities to serve the transportation needs of all population groups,” Fan says.
Eric Lind, manager of research and analytics at Metro Transit, took a closer look at transit demographics: Which transit modes are being used and by whom?
Though nine-to-five commutes have dropped considerably in the past year as office jobs become remote, Lind says that Metro Transit is still providing around 80,000–90,000 trips per day, many of them on local systems such as buses and light rail. These local systems tend to be used more by people of color; also, models that examine ridership by census block find that renters and people with lower income generally rely on transit more heavily.
These demographics should be kept in mind when planning transit, Lind says, especially since 9 to 5 commutes are likely to be the last transit trip type to rebound. “Single-purpose transit is fragile,” he says. “Diversity is strength.”
COVID has opened up some unexpected possibilities. Russ Stark, chief resilience officer for the City of Saint Paul, notes that COVID and the shift to teleworking significantly reduced vehicle miles traveled (VMT) across the city—even exceeding the city’s Climate Action and Resilience goal of 2.5 percent reduction in VMT for 2020.
With COVID changing how and why people travel, Stark says now is an opportunity for the city to push transit, bike sharing, and even electric vehicle programs while reducing use of single-occupancy vehicles.
“It creates a new dynamic in terms of how people are moving around town,” Stark says, “which we hope to be able to take advantage of.”
Overall, COVID has exposed many of the strengths and weaknesses built into the US transit system. Christof Spieler, vice president and director of planning at Huitt-Zollars, says that a good transit system serves as a way of providing connectivity and freedom to everyone in a metro area and must meet certain requirements such as reliability, legibility, and inclusivity. However, transit system quality varies across the US.
Transit planning, Spieler says, should start with the need rather than the answer. Climate resiliency should be kept in mind, detailed data needs to drive decision-making, and the inherent injustices built into the system must be questioned and addressed.
“COVID doesn’t change the problems we had before COVID,” Spieler says. “We have lots of things we can do better.”
Writer: Sophie Koch