Radically Remaking the Future of Transit Industry Post COVID

The Issue

Literature about the future of the transit industry published by insiders and thought leaders in the past four months (July 1-October 15, 2020) is not overwhelmingly different from opinions published in an earlier period, March 15 -June 30. This is somewhat surprising as authors of these more recent reports, articles and forecasts had the advantage of a fuller exposure and experience with the first wave COVID experience upon which to offer forecasts.

The key similarities and differences in the content of the two periods of forecasting can be summarized as this:

Similarities: Both Periods Differences Seen In Recent Content
The majority of the literature focuses on mitigation rather than adaptation or transformation solutions More attention to remediation at international transit operating authority activities
There is little detailed public dialogue about science regarding  low infection rate risk within Canadian and American transit properties More attention to research on air quality and COVID
There is little evidence that the “new normal” post COVID transit system of the future is something radically new More survey and media evidence that fear of infection on transit among consumers will outlast the pandemic
The belief that there needs to be substantial taxpayer monies available post-pandemic to support massive retrofit More attention to link of transit to green economy, zero carbon emission futures, and economic recovery

This blog addresses three questions:

  1. How have transit system executives made or attempted to make transit safe for riders and employees?
  2. How can management improve the technology and processes that agencies have today to be better prepared for the future?
  3. Is the “new normal” post-COVID system of the future a throwback or something radically new?

COVID Impacts upon Transit

Transit has traditionally been an essential service that is undergoing profound COVID related changes that demonstrate deep public and passenger support challenges. Transit plays a vital role in COVID response because it connects essential workers – such as health-care professionals, long-term care workers, delivery workers, and grocery clerks– to their jobs. Some two months into the second wave COVID, we’re looking at people avoiding transit or transit having reduced service because we all reacted to an immediate and ongoing crisis. Over the long term, experts are not certain that we are going to see a substantial return of riders to transit, or, along with that, a demand for better transit.

Here’s what has happened in the past eight months:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significantly reduced ridership numbers as people practice physical distancing.
  • April in particular was a dismal month for the country’s largest metro system, with New York City ridership down over 90 percent, and over 130 MTA worker fatalities associated with the disease.
  • Public-transport use in many communities has dropped by around 75 percent.
  • During lockdown, at the height of the wave-one epidemic, all-mode traffic volumes in several major European cities were reduced by between 70% and 85%.
  • Social-distancing rules in COVID wave two continue to radically decrease mass-transit capacity in major Canadian American and European cities. 
  • The streets and air have been clearer and cleaner. While emissions are slowly creeping back up as lockdowns ease, in the UK, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels were still 30 percent below normal as of 1 July.
  • The spread of the coronavirus has had a devastating impact on mass-transit systems all over the world, particularly in large cities like New York City, Paris, and Tokyo
  • During COVID wave one re-opening, transit ridership was estimated to be below normal by between 52 and 62 per cent in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal.

Legacy Conditions or Factors Affecting Transit Planning

Making substantial adjustments to transit are difficult for various reasons, including fixed rail and street patterns and the composition of the subway, bus, and taxi fleet.  In the years leading up to the pandemic, the pattern of growth in urban, suburban, exurban and rural communities has had a major impact on the types of transit offered. COVID has been the colossal accelerator of certain legacy practices and management decisions that were already happening such as:

1. Suburbanization shaped by an earlier pandemic:  After the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic, urban residents abandoned American cities, particularly in the East Coast, lured by factors like mortgage policies, cheap housing and car culture in places like Los Angeles. Developers sold the West Coast “car suburb” to newcomers as offering an escape from disease-ridden cities. The results included:

  • (a) the growth of the nascent or early auto industry;
  • (b) public monies allocated to highway constructions;
  • (c) reduction in household population densities in cities; and
  • (d) ongoing racial residential segregation we see today.

2. Poor man’s modal choice:  For those who do not own a car, it’s not possible to start walking or cycling for weekly grocery shopping or a jaunt to the nearest urban entertainment destinations. Transit was key. For two generations, those who chose to ride transit were predominantly lower-income individuals who couldn’t afford a car or single family home – often minorities, immigrants, urban aboriginals, and people of colour.

3. Auto dependency:  To be sure, since Spanish Flu times, road use/driving has been essentially subsidized by factors like highway construction and oil prices. Trends on transit have reversed to some extent. Urban rail transit launched a comeback starting in the 1960s, and cities have since been revitalized with strong demand for housing. Consumers, however, by and large saw the upsides of driving, not the downsides of increased traffic, pollution, transportation costs, suburban isolation and lost open space. U.S. national ridership had been slumping since 2014 as evidence that Americans were choosing other forms of transportation even before the pandemic, though the drop off began to reverse last year.

4. Limits to infrastructure and operational funding:  Some jurisdictions have inherited a public transit funding model originally relying on fare revenues that makes expensive transit systems vulnerable and non-resilient. Modern transit agencies have been facing significant challenges for years to effectively grow and serve their ridership—from finding the necessary funding to competition from private rideshare companies. The legacy is a dangerous spiral–today’s lower transit ridership numbers will spark service cuts, leading to more ridership declines, thereby derailing plans for new construction and service expansion – and locking in lower ridership for years to come.

Forecasts COVID Responses—Adaptation and Mitigation Actions

Some of the current literature discussing transit responses to COVID is from passionate insiders (pro transit, pro green, pro biking in inner city) and much of the rest comes from consultants or academic-industry-government collaboration. Governments and transit executives have taken many actions that paint parts of a picture of what various modes of travel might or will look in a post-COVID-19 world. Sustainability strategists speak of adaptation and mitigation strategies. The terminology isn’t widespread in the literature dealing with transit industry futures but I’ve used the dichotomy to organize this review of the various actions taken and proposed for this sector:

There are a great number of adjustments that transit authorities have been making to fight and survive COVID. Adaptations outnumber mitigations. Specific prominent adaptation category actions which were documented are few:

1. Pandemic proof the fleet:  Limiting the number of riders onboard at one time and ensuring personal distancing is a key in fighting COVID on-board vehicles. The ways to address safety in the fleet includes:

  • (a) mandatory mask wearing;
  • (b) using non-invasive handheld or infrared thermometers to screen all riders;
  • (c) test, trace and quarantine as necessary;
  • (d) designating certain seats as available to ensure physical distancing protocols are followed; and
  • (e) clean the vehicles and stations often and well. Taipei in Taiwan is said to provide perhaps the gold standard

The benefits include:

  • (a) address infection risk due to over-crowding;
  • (b) tackle grime and dirt; and
  • (c) encourage the use of ambient seat warming technology to heat individual passengers. (Instead of using hot air and circulating it around the vehicle to keep passengers warm, something that could spread the virus).

2. Use state-of-the-art disinfecting protocols and products:  Many transit agencies have adopted new re-cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing protocols to continuously clean their vehicles throughout the day. Technology such as Germicidal UV-C or 405nm lighting can be employed in vehicles to disinfect surfaces at various times during the day or at the end of a route—when the bus is unoccupied—in order to create a safer, cleaner environment for both riders and drivers. While the extent of benefit of these types of lighting on COVID-19 are in debate, they have proven to be successful in killing norovirus surrogates, bacteria and other viruses.  Some analysts call this “hygiene theatre” – worth doing, but on the understanding that such actions soothe anxiety rather than actually reduce COVID risk.

3. Transit officials and advocates need to address the public’s fear:  Research and knowledge-based communications strategies might help defeat unwarranted levels of fear of transit. “Mortality salience” is the documented fear that people have of being in congregate spaces that threaten their health. For many, this will extend not only during but also even beyond the end of the pandemic. In general, virus spread seems to be more acute in places like nursing homes and prisons and among families living together, not via transit. The evidence on viral spread via transit is incomplete and mixed at best. On its face, we’ve seen outbreaks in places with heavy public transit use, like in New York City, so the public and some scientists have superficially connected transit ridership with disease spread. Recent studies however in Paris and Austria showed no spread from transit. And looking at geography, it’s hard to see a connection between COVID and transit:

  • Hong Kong with heavy transit use has recorded one-tenth the number of cases as Kansas
  • In New York, car-heavy Staten Island has had higher infection rates than transit-dependent Manhattan
  • Cities in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan have had little infection compared to suburban parts of the US or Italy, where outskirts of Milan were hit harder than the city itself.

More numerous modification actions to address wave one COVID include:

1. Use multi-modal, real time, mobility apps:  Many transit properties have embraced mobility on-demand information technology that involves giving patrons more real-time information linking familiar (buses, trains) and new modes (bicycles, ferries) of travel directly via smartphones into their public-transportation network.  Such technology:

  • (a) gives passengers information on where their bus or train is, how full it is, and more;
  • (b) enhances the ability to more effectively manage physical distancing needs;
  • (c) reduces congestion; and
  • (d) empowers rider decision-making with a click of a button.

2. Promote non-traditional multi-modal vehicles:  This action involves promoting shared bikes and scooter, including increased the number of bike stations near transit hubs. Riders in China and Europe have started to reshape their cities by embracing non-traditional public transport vehicles — such as shared bicycles and scooters— as their lockdowns have subsided. The benefits include:

  • (a) more rider choice in how people get around;
  • (b) seamless switching between whatever modes of transport make sense in the moment;
  • (c) the ready use of contactless cards — including bank cards — to rent a bicycle or scooter; and
  • (d) eliminating mobility limitations that are present today.

3. Adopt convenient contactless payment systems:  Investing in contactless payment systems—pass technology for transit—reduces the need for person-to-person handling of cash or tokens or transfers, and helps provide safe travel for commuters. As a result, riders are able to choose from a range of transit options using their existing payment cards and mobile wallets — in other words, the same products and devices they use to pay for a coffee — while receiving receipts, tracking and balances in real time.

4. Pursue “micro-transit” planning:  Micro-transit refers to small-scale ride sharing (shuttles, vans) services that offer fixed schedules or on-demand transportation on a small scale. Municipalities have been mixing and matching various such mobility enhancement experiments such as:

  • (a) subsidizing ride-sharing trips;
  • (b) partnering with private ride-sharing services;
  • (c) using small neighbourhood shuttle buses and vans;
  • (d) using existing, trusted private contractor personal carriers for semi-regular personalized trips to a pharmacy, food store, or medical clinic;
  • (e) specialty shuttle services (like airport and university).

The benefits of micro-transit include:

  • (a) reducing parking requirements at rail stations;
  • (b) delivering the same service at a lower cost than one or more new bus routes;
  • (c) it is a smart way to serve a low-density community;
  • (d) it boosts non-single-occupant vehicle alternatives to transit.

5. Enhance scheduling or demand management:  Demand mitigation initiatives include:

  • (a) staggering commute times;
  • (b) road-space rationing to reduce transportation-related emissions; and
  • c) working with large employers or companies to create incentives for flexible work-from-home schedules.

Experts say the effects include:

  • (a) significantly decreasing traffic congestion;
  • (b) reducing, traffic deaths (which average about 37,000 in the US per year);
  • (c) less pollution, and
  • (d) supporting various public air quality, public health, equity, and climate goals.

6. Permit flexible use of the fixed-route system: This traffic operational management initiative involves creating or authorizing shorter, more flexible, alternate bus transit routes where necessary. The benefits are:

  • (a) passengers are confined for less time and with fewer people;
  • (b) it keeps service running;
  • (c) it maintains and increases overall ridership, while prioritizing rider safety.

7. Stagger start times for schools, universities, offices, and public services:  Municipalities notably in Denmark and the Netherlands have acted systemically to negotiate with public workplaces, schools, offices and universities to spread commute times over the day.

8. Variable time of use pricing: These strategies widely implemented in English and French cities include:

  • (a) flex fares;
  • (b) surge pricing;
  • (c) increasing ticket prices at peak times;
  • (d) reopening subway lines at differing rates; and
  • (e) suspending entry to certain stations at certain times.

9. Boosting cycling in self-selected cities:  Zero-carbon bicycle promotion plans involve:

  • (a) transforming road space to dedicated bike lanes;
  • (b) planning and building new bike paths;
  • (c) annexing parking areas and motorist lanes; and
  • (d) encouraging public and private electric bike or scooter rentals. Such low and slow tech solutions focused on the socially distanced bicycle are noted in Canadian and Italian cities.

10. Pedestrianize large parts of downtown: Experts see car-free/reduction zones in cities as a long-term answer to providing personal space in ageing cities with narrow roads — such as London, Oslo, Paris, and Milan. They allowing only buses, cyclists and pedestrians to use what were once some of the city’s busiest roads. Components of such a plan can include:

  • (a) reduce the number of car lanes;
  • (b) widen pavements for terrace space, urban architecture and newly planted trees;
  • (c) promote free bike rental kiosks; and
  • (d) offer city-dwellers up to 500 euros ($570) towards purchase of a new bicycle.

11. Promote high-efficiency buses and electrification: Electric buses are said to be five times cheaper to repair and maintain than vehicles with internal combustion engines, and electric cars are twice as cheap to “refuel.” Investing in electric buses and charging systems in cities such as Brampton and Mississauga involve (longer term) replacing of all rail transit with far-cheaper and more efficient automated, electric bus-rapid transit lines (ARTs, LRTs) on the dedicated lanes of former rail tracks. This helps modernize transit and achieve environmental goals, but doesn’t help with recovery of ridership, nor keeping people safe from COVID.

Post-COVID Transit Forecasts:  Areas Of Agreement And Disagreement

Based on the literature from COVID wave one studies, the future of transit as safe, modern, green, and reliable can no longer be automatically assumed. Major COVID-specific challenges include:

  • increases in the extent of home-based non-commuting work,
  • lower ridership projections due to “mortality salience”,
  • less-readily available public taxpayer monies for transit investment,
  • reduced growth in downtown employment, and
  • consumer preference of “safer” private over public vehicles.

As a consequence, commentators, advocates, scientists, and forecasters are conflicted—they will agree on some “new normal” post-COVID forecasts but not others.

Areas of agreement include:

1. Social distancing measures reduce systems capacity:  Mass transit isn’t a natural solution to pandemic planning. So long as social-distancing rules remain in place, transit capacity and fare revenue generation are greatly constrained. In countries such as the Netherlands, and cities like London, the 1.5-meter distancing rule is severely reducing capacity on the metro, trams, buses and trains to around only a quarter or one-eighth, respectively, of pre-pandemic levels. Whether entering into or leaving lockdowns, this means greatly lower fare revenues.

2. Natural coalition of stakeholders continues:  Public authorities such as transit, local government, schools, and universities aren’t about to go out of business any time soon. This bodes well, say many thought leaders, for long-range, collaborative, cross-stakeholder recovery planning in and between these public sector services. By comparison, privately owned and managed restaurants, hotels, and automakers have less direct input or ready support from government than do streetcar, subway, train and airport authorities

3. Future-ready cities:  In the past few years, certain cities like Orlando and San Francisco have put a lot of resources into positioning themselves to be future-ready cities that are focused on not only mobility but also some combination of green economy, renewable energy, zero-waste solutions, and the like. What intrigues most planners is this promise of developing autonomous, connected, electric, and shared mobility solutions that are critical not only for public health but also for climate-change strategy and overall sustainability. Transit benefits from this linkage relationship.

In some thought-leaders’ minds, however, no combination of tweaks to prices, technology and schedules will be enough to mitigate the monumental shake-up of urban mobility amid COVID-19.

Areas of disagreement among experts include:

1. Controversy over prospects of ridership recovery:   With the remote working revolution keeping more than a third of Europeans and an estimated forty per cent of Canadians away from the office, wave two of the pandemic could reinforce a permanent shift in commuting culture that threatens transit’s future in the long term. A large portion of the public may continue to work from home permanently, or for portions of their work week.  Of those who do return to full-time in-person work, sceptics believe a fear of enclosed spaces filled with strangers will decimate demand and lead to an inevitable ridership decline short and long term. The drop off in demand would come just as many transit supporters have begun to enjoy the investment users have been crying out for since automobiles became less popular in the `90s, when major urban renewal emerged alongside environmental concerns.

2. Transit futures differentially depend on culture and geography:  There is evidence that North Americans and Europeans are more skeptical about supporting mass transportation and more accepting of transit social controls than Asians. For example, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Seoul are populous Asian cities where ridership this year fell less than elsewhere, and total cases in the cities remained relatively low through wave one COVID. In other words, riders on some of the world’s busiest transit systems did not propel the spread of virus but getting that message out to western audiences may be difficult or impossible. In a June Statistics Canada survey, even among people who felt fine about heading back to work post COVID, three-quarters were concerned about using transit.

3. Link air pollution and threat COVID:  Exposure to pollution in metropolitan areas already account for around 4.2 million deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization. Certain scientists in India, England and the United States are investigating a direct link between poor air quality and an increased threat from COVID-19. People living in places with poor air quality were more likely to die from the novel coronavirus. If links between the virus and pollution levels are solidified, the future of urban transit will be challenged by the need to combine low emissions with extra space for commuters.

4. Bicycling advocacy versus pandemic fighting properties:  One  signature trend of urban retrofitting around cities in Canada and Europe is the substantial extension of cycle path networks as part of a long-term trend to zero-carbon personal mobility. Thought leaders debate about the degree to which bicycles represent an aggregate potent response to fighting the pandemic, especially because, with the pandemic, more Canadian households are relocating from cities to smaller satellite communities. Some forecasters feel that this new ex-urbanization and suburbanization pattern of employment and living is inconsistent with cross-municipal-border bicycling or mass transit.

Scenario Development and Testing: Transit Futures

Transportation planning is a well-established discipline that encompasses a number of multi-modal demand and supply forecasting planning models, several of which include air quality, public health, equity, and climate goals. As EthicScan blog “COVID Adaptation Scenarios— Transit Industry (26 June 2020) documents, there are ethical approaches to assessing transit solutions – for example. the Do Good, Do No Harm, Minimize Harm triangle.

EthicScan: Harm Triangle

Using the assessment approach described in the EthicScan Knowledgebase, the publicly available, recently-published thought-leader literature would have to be assessed as focused on minimizing harm, with few actions that are higher intentioned.


Transit isn’t a natural solution to pandemic planning and both public and industry insiders attitudes to its possible post-COVID future are polarized. Wave one COVID-19 showed us that transit can act quickly with implementing mitigation—but few systemic adaptation—changes. As a consequence,  transit’s business model in many jurisdictions faces many fundamental “new normal” challenges. Unfortunately, Canadian municipal politicians and transit executives would seem to have done a poor job in using either available data or commissioning new knowledge-based evidence to counter attitudes that transit isn’t inherently unsafe during this pandemic.

Further Reading

Interac Newsroom – How will Canada’s public transit systems adapt after the pandemic?:

Grist – Boom or bus – How will public transit change post-COVID, Five experts weigh in:

The Abbotsford News – COVID-19 might speed up, not slow down transit use: advocates:

EthicScan Blog – COVID Adaptation Scenarios for the Transit Industry:

Busride.com – 3 questions for the future of transit in a post-COVID-19 World:

CGTN – COVID-19 and the city: What does the future hold for urban transit?:

Mass Transit Magazine – Why COVID-19 should make transit rethink the fixed-route system:

Time – COVID-19 Has Been ‘Apocalyptic’ for Public Transit. Will Congress Offer More Help?

Ethan Elkind – What Is The Future Of Public Transit In A Post-COVID World?

Metro Magazine – Prepare Today for a Pandemic-Free Future:


Axios – Watch: The future of transportation in the era of COVID-19:

Union of BC Municipalities – Public Transit, Post-COVID:

Scientific American – There Is Little Evidence That Mass Transit Poses a Risk of Coronavirus Outbreaks:

David Nitkin
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