Across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a waterfall of impacts including social/economic disruption, loss of life, and lifestyle shifts (e.g., telecommuting, e-commerce, homeschooling, etc.). The pandemic has led to dramatic effects on transportation and public transit use.

Virus transmission concerns have reduced ridership and farebox revenues, along with routes and scheduling. Public transit operators have implemented heightened sanitation protocols and social distancing measures to manage the spread of the virus. Since early-2020, public transit ridership has fallen in many cities worldwide, ranging from 40% to 80%. Moovit Insights estimates that public transit ridership fell more than 51% in Hong Kong; 74% in New York City and Sydney; 77% in Toronto; and 80% in London between late-January and mid-April 2020.

Predicting what public transit recovery looks like is challenging due to uncertainty about the virus and many social/behavioral shifts including:

  • Waves of travel and business restrictions, depending on the regional severity of the health crisis;
  • Growth of telecommuting, e-commerce, and online consumption that could alter the way people work and consume goods and services;
  • Potential shifts away from urban lifestyles, such as de-urbanization and suburbanization;
  • Growing concerns about social equity and racial injustice; and
  • Possible apprehension to riding in higher-occupancy modes due to virus transmission concerns—both real and perceived.

Although it is too early to forecast how post-pandemic travel and societal behavior will evolve, COVID-19 has refocused the conversation across industries, including transportation.

The road to recovery

Early indicators suggest that public transit ridership may be beginning a long and slow recovery. As of early-August 2020, Moovit Insights estimated that public transit ridership had partially recovered to 47% below pre-pandemic levels in New York City, 58% in Toronto, and 51% in London. In Sydney and Hong Kong, public transit ridership remains at declines of approximately 44% to 48%. Even in the best case scenario with an effective vaccine, it could take many months or longer to produce and disseminate a vaccination. While the health crisis is not likely to resolve itself quickly, neither is the return to a new reality.

During the recovery period, public transit operators are confronted with many competing challenges. How do they address capacity issues in support of social distancing and increased sanitation measures? How will maintaining or reducing routes and schedules impact ridership and farebox revenues? What is needed to increase public trust in riding transit? How quickly will transit ridership return? How will public transit services evolve in different land use and built environments—urban, suburban, and rural? How can operators best serve essential workers and transit dependent populations, while protecting the health of public transit workers? What happens if travellers return to public transit faster than anticipated, creating overcrowding when social distancing cannot be maintained?

Opportunities for data connectivity to help public transit with COVID-19 recovery

As riders return to public transit, it is critical to monitor ridership patterns and identify situations where it could be challenging to maintain social distancing. Smartphone data obtained from trip planning and mobile ticketing apps, for instance, could be leveraged to monitor and help manage capacity constraints.

For example, in Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is piloting real-time information on crowding to keep riders informed during the pandemic. MBTA provides crowding information on more than 30 bus routes through their website, digital screens, and Transit App. Based on social distancing standards for their fleet, MBTA provides the public with three types of crowding ratings: 1) Not Crowded, 2) Some Crowding, and 3) Crowded. In New York City, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is considering implementing a policy in which riders can reserve space on a bus or train in advance of a trip to prevent overcrowding and help maintain social distancing. Taiwan has already implemented a reservation policy on suburban and intercity trains to prevent overcrowding.

Rebuilding rider trust in public transit use

The availability of real-time actionable crowd information, contactless payment, and personalized alerts could also be helpful in building rider trust. These alerts and payment services might encourage riders to return to public transit, allowing them to actively manage their use by voluntarily shifting trips to less crowded transit vehicles and routes.

Additionally, traveller connectivity could be key to enhancing convenience and reducing touchpoints along a traveller’s journey. BAI’s April 2020 five-city survey (n=2,483), conducted in New York City, Sydney, Toronto, Hong Kong, and London, found that 85% of commuters think their current public transit payment and ticketing process reflects delays. On average, commuters were spending 7.5 minutes a week (pre-pandemic) on payment and ticketing processes. The integration of trip planning, booking, and fare payment into a contactless interface presents an opportunity for public transit agencies and travellers to enhance convenience and minimize physical touchpoints along their journeys.

The use of personalized information and rider alerts could also be helpful in rebuilding confidence in riding public transit, while also providing important safety reminders to wear a mask and maintain social distancing. The same BAI survey also found that 91% of rail users (across four generations—Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z) would be at least somewhat comfortable receiving personalized alerts along their usual public transit route.

Potential for contact tracing

Finally, contact tracing could be a strategy to identify and notify individuals who may have been in close proximity to someone infected with the virus. Notifying travellers they may have been exposed to the virus and should monitor their health for COVID-19 symptoms could be helpful in curbing the pandemic. With contact tracing, public transit agencies and health officials have the potential to identify possible exposure and encourage impacted individuals to get tested and self-isolate, particularly from more vulnerable individuals, such as older adults and people with pre-existing health conditions. However, the use of contact tracing is not without controversy and could raise civil liberties and data privacy concerns.

Planning for connected public transit riders Post-COVID

Prior to the pandemic, Mobility as a Service (MaaS) and Mobility on Demand (MOD) platforms – a marketplace where travellers can plan, book, and pay for transportation services over a digital interface – were frequently noted as emerging mobility trends. Rather than delay MaaS and MOD platforms, pandemics and disasters reinforce why travellers need access to real-time information, trip planning, and payment features, and why public transit agencies need connected travellers. Before COVID-19, these services were primarily focused on enhancing traveller convenience and increasing ridership. However, the pandemic has emphasized the need for real-time information to better understand how many individuals are on-board a transit vehicle or at a transit station, communicating service delays and disruptions, and sharing information about cleaning procedures. For public transit agencies, transit workers, and travellers, data and continuous connectivity can be important tools to help strategically increase travel as communities recover from the health and economic crisis.

It is important to note that increasing reliance on digital services could be a barrier to vulnerable populations who may not be able to afford or may lack data plans to access these services. Others may be resistant to adopt advanced technologies due to lack of familiarity or privacy concerns. Programs to expand access to disadvantaged communities and alternatives, such as digital kiosks and telephone services may help to overcome these challenges. Data privacy management strategies, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (or GDPR)—a European Union law focused on data protection and privacy—and mobility training could be helpful in addressing privacy and social equity concerns, respectively. In the future, connected traveller services have the potential to increase ridership and convenience, help travellers bridge gaps in the transportation network, and make transfers more convenient by providing routing instructions to public transit and other modal connections.

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About the authors

Susan Shaheen, PHD was invited by BAI Communications to examine and comment on the findings of the Connectivity outlook report 2020. This blog was written together with Adam Cohen.

Susan Shaheen, PHD is an internationally recognised expert in mobility and the sharing economy. She codirects the Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC) of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. BAI Communications invited her to examine and comment on the findings.

Adam Cohen is a mobility futures consultant and transportation researcher at the Transportation Sustainability Research Centre at the University of California, Berkeley. Since joining the group in 2004, his research has focused on shared mobility, automated vehicles, urban air mobility, smartphone apps and emerging technologies. He has co-authored numerous articles and reports on shared mobility in peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings. His academic background is in city and regional planning and international affairs.

About the Connectivity outlook report 2020

BAI Communications surveyed more than 2,400 rail users in five global cities: Hong Kong, London, New York City, Sydney and Toronto. Respondents were asked how they saw the state of transport, connectivity, and its role in the future of their city.

Our data shows that the benefits communications infrastructure enables, such as 4G and 5G wireless, personalised services and connected public spaces, are critical to innovation, opportunity and wellbeing.

You can access the findings as captured in the Connectivity outlook report 2020 here.