Jun 5, 2020 - Economy

Cities are retooling public transit to lure riders back

Illustration of a giant wrench turning a small tire

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

After being told for months to stay away from others, the idea of being shoulder to shoulder again in a bus or subway terrifies many people, requiring sweeping changes to public transit systems for the COVID-19 era.

Why it matters: Cities can't come close to resuming normal economic activity until large numbers of people feel comfortable using public transportation.

  • "If we don’t figure out how to get these mass transit systems going again, so people feel safe and comfortable, we're not going to get cities back up and running," said Deloitte Consulting mobility expert Scott Corwin.

Driving the news: New York will begin a phased reopening next week, and as it does, some subway and bus service that had been suspended since March will be restored.

  • Riders and employees will be required to wear masks, available from station vending machines or from Metropolitan Transit Authority personnel.
  • Some stations will have hand sanitizer dispensers and floor markings on subway platforms to try to keep waiting passengers six feet apart.
  • Other cities are adopting similar measures, but all recognize that social distancing is challenging in any mass transit system.

San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system has one of the most detailed plans for service resumption.

  • It's making trains longer to limit passengers to 30 people per train car — the ideal number it determined to allow 6 feet between passengers.
  • As demand increases, it will run trains more frequently — every 15 minutes, up from the current 30 minutes — to prevent overcrowding.
  • It will offer hand sanitizer at every station, and sell $5 personal hand straps for riders to use and take home for cleaning after each trip.

Expanded cleaning procedures are also part of the campaign to win public trust.

  • Many transit agencies are touting their use of "hospital grade" disinfectants in stations and on trains or buses, while making sure cleaning personnel are visible wiping down surfaces during the day.
  • At night they're also using electrostatic foggers to spray a disinfecting mist that clings to surfaces and are exploring new cleaning techniques using ultra-violet light.

Contactless payment systems and other technologies are also being introduced.

  • Apps already in use in Europe and Asia, for example, tell riders how crowded the approaching train or bus is, so they can decide whether to board, or choose another way to get to their destination.

Between the lines: All these extra measures are expensive for transit agencies whose budgets have been decimated by the sharp drop in ridership during the pandemic.

  • Transit agencies are asking for nearly $24 billion more in federal help, on top of the $25 billion they received under the CARES Act, because their revenues have dried up.
  • Seattle, for example, says it might have to cancel or delay planned expansion of bus and rail lines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending commuters use other forms of transportation, and urges employers to incentivize workers for walking, biking or riding alone in a car to work.

  • Transportation officials criticized the CDC guidance, calling it "unworkable" for many lower income residents and bad for cities.
  • "Gridlock and polluted skies are not the mobility future we want emerging from this crisis," said Paul Skoutelas, CEO of the American Public Transportation Association.

The big question: Can the public be convinced it's safe to use mass transit?

  • More than 20% of respondents who regularly use buses, subways and trains said they would stop doing so, and 28% said they would use them less often, according to an IBM study of consumer behavior.
  • "Public transit is the big loser" in a post-coronavirus world, Frank Reig, co-founder of Revel, an electric moped startup in New York and D.C., tells Axios.
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