Don’t be surprised if Covid-19 spells the end of fixed-route, big-bus systems, to be replaced by autonomous vehicles and more flexible “demand-responsive” operations, transportation experts say.
Joe Garza has worked construction jobs for most of his adult life. At 61, with the wiry physique of someone half his age, the longtime Fort Worth resident intends to keep on working, and that means taking the bus to get to his job site. For Garza and thousands of other Texans like him, reliable mass transit is the difference between employment and joblessness.
“If I don’t have the bus, I can’t get to work,” Garza said. Losing his bus route “would really disrupt my life because it’s the only transportation I’ve got.”
So far, so good for Garza. Fort Worth’s Trinity Metro has no plans to cut the transportation service he depends on. But with great swaths of America now working from home, shopping from home and even socializing from home on videoconferencing apps – all thanks to Covid-19 and its knack for contagion – it’s not hard to envision a revised future for urban mass transit, one in which buses, train cars and other vehicles have evolved to accommodate a permanent, more disinfected, more socially distant reality.
Contending with that challenge would simultaneously complicate efforts to battle climate change, since transit is a crucial element in plans to decarbonize urban transportation to help avoid its most severe impacts.
The new world of pandemic-influenced transit might also be defined by potentially smaller systems running fewer routes, carrying fewer riders and leaning more heavily on demand-responsive arrangements, as work-from-home situations become permanent for some. Others seeking personal separation may find that they can walk or bike to the office, while some who are now used to doing everything from the house may develop a long-term fondness for their new lifestyle.
“People are becoming habituated to working from home and maybe taking part in fewer activities in general, like after school sports for your children,” said Kara Kockelman, professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.
“They may be bringing those [ridership] numbers down for work and school and maybe some other activities if they shift to home. So, I think you could lose 50 percent of travelers in general, not because of Covid fears so much, but just not a need for as much travel,” she added.
“Of course, eating and drinking out, those kind of luxuries, may be less common in the future due to a recession triggered by Covid, or due to people becoming habituated to cooking at home and knowing how to do that now that they’ve been sort of forced to.”
Across Texas, big-city transportation teams already are scrambling to adjust to dramatically lower passenger loads, reduced revenues and a hazy future that makes planning difficult – all the while taking extraordinary measures to protect the health of riders and transit workers.
Coronavirus has knocked Texas metropolitan transportation for a loop. The North Texas Council of Governments, representing 7.6 million residents in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area, reports that year-over-year urban transit ridership in the region fell by an average of about 27 percent in March, 60 percent in April and recovered slightly in May to minus-55 percent.
The state’s other large urban areas have charted similar year-over-year declines, with Harris County METRO (Houston) and Capital Metro (Austin) both down by about 50 percent, and VIA Metropolitan Transit (San Antonio) showing a 47 percent decline, all from May 2019 to May 2020.
Then came June and July, and with them another big spike in coronavirus cases nationwide. Texas was among states especially hard hit, and some health experts are warning of a possible, though not inevitable, second wave of the pandemic in the fall. Texas’ urban mass-transit leaders have responded to these unstable, hard-to-predict conditions with commendable speed and are now operating in a state of constant adjustment.
“We acted quickly to respond to Covid conditions, following CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control], state and local guidelines, and will continue to add health and safety measures as needed and available for as long as Covid or other emergency conditions are present,” said VIA Communications Manager Lorraine Pulido.
Those measures include enhanced cleaning protocols, limiting bus capacity to ensure social distancing on board, mandatory face masks for riders and operators, and retrofitting driver cabins with transparent plastic barriers – adaptations that other major Texas transit agencies also have made, along with temporary free service and reduced frequency on some routes.
The public’s newly heightened awareness of disease transmission and prevention may have changed rider expectations irreversibly. “Looking ahead, several of these protocols could become long-term and/or permanent steps VIA and other transit agencies maintain to ensure continued safety for transit workers and the traveling public,” Pulido said.
We’ve been here before.
Just over a century ago, during the 1918-19 flu pandemic, the deadliest in recent history, Americans were warned to wash their hands frequently, social-distance, wear face masks in public, stay at home and avoid crowds. Like many public services, urban mass transit took a hit as ridership dropped, routes were scaled back, and transportation workers got sick. Municipal leaders who failed to bring their transportation systems into line with disease-fighting protocols were called out, as in this Oct. 15, 1918, appeal from the Toledo News-Bee in Ohio:
If public meetings and gatherings are to be prohibited in an effort to prevent the spread of influenza, the street car situation should not be overlooked. If the coughing or sneezing of a victim of the disease is likely to spread infection, what place is more dangerous than a crowded street car?
No such admonitions were required in 2020 to spur Texas urban transit agencies into action. All appear to have dropped everything to get ahead of the pandemic in the interest of public safety.
Dallas’ DART, for example, “has aggressively expanded agency-wide cleaning and safety protocols in response to the novel coronavirus,” said Gordon Shattles of DART External Relations, while Trinity Metro reports taking “extra steps to increase the cleaning frequency of high-touch areas such as door handles, railings, seats and benches with disinfectant throughout each shift.”
But while transportation systems rebounded after the 1918 pandemic, the forecast for a similar rally 102 years later is cloudy. Even in economically supercharged Texas, recently reduced tax revenues from weakened or permanently closed businesses have combined with sharply reduced fare collections to keep transit agencies on edge.
Monica Russo of Harris County METRO said it’s still too early to tell how Covid-associated shortfalls might impact future operations. “Should revenue-related restrictions exist, adjustments will be made to mitigate the impact of the restrictions and continue to provide safe, clean, reliable, accessible and friendly public transportation services to our region,” she said.
Transportation representatives statewide have expressed both gratitude and relief for multimillion-dollar cash infusions they’ve received from the CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security] Act, which has helped systems continue running smoothly during the turbulence that the pandemic has stirred up. Overall, the bipartisan CARES legislation set aside $25 billion to help public transit systems across the U.S. offset Covid-19 challenges.
Uncertainty and opportunity
Even with the federal government largesse, budgets have been upended, and some systems in other parts of the country are sounding the alarm. “Unless the economy comes ripping right back, and there’s a vaccine, and social distancing is eliminated, we fall off the financial cliff in 2023,” Jeffrey Tumlin of San Francisco’s city transit network said in a New York Times report.
While his concern may be well-founded, Texas transportation leaders tend to be a bit less worried, at least when addressing the public. “We are hopeful that we’ll be able to maintain current service levels with the help of additional federal funding through the CARES Act,” said Dottie Watkins, chief operating officer of Austin’s METRO transit system.
As the state’s transit agencies ponder their next move, UT’s Kockelman says the situation presents a golden opportunity to accelerate a shift toward “right-sized,” demand-responsive (call or text for pickup and drop-off) people movers, and to begin stepping back from large, route-based vehicles like 40-passenger buses.
Nationwide, urban buses tote an average of only about nine people per mile, and in Texas, ridership is even lower than that, she said. “It’s not a very flexible mode. It’s this one huge whale traveling through this lane that’s going to use a lot of capacity of that lane regardless of how many people are on [the bus],” Kockelman said.
On-demand transit, which has been around for years as a means of transporting disabled riders, is now showing up in Texas cities as a first mile/last mile connection to longer-route buses and trains, as well as providing localized transportation around designated parts of town.
Trinity Metro’s ZIPZONE uses Toyota Sienna minivans to move people around Fort Worth’s Medical District and Near Southside, as well as some outlying communities. A few miles away in Arlington, long known as the largest city in the U.S. without a mass transit system, the 100 percent demand-responsive Via transport network is filling the void by hauling riders around downtown, UT-Arlington, the Entertainment District and the TRE regional rail station.
The idea is catching on nationwide as well. “Talking to the leadership of our metro system in my home city of Los Angeles, there’s no question that they’re looking at getting away from, ‘We provide the routes and you will ride on them,’ to a system where they respond to where the consumer demand is, and change more rapidly,” said Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board. “There’s some really exciting work going on in that area, and I think it’s going to be the solution for these agencies in the future.”
Her remarks came during an Aug. 4 webinar, “The Impact of Covid-19 on Transportation Patterns & Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” sponsored by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.
With self-driving technology having progressed close to the point of safe deployment on city streets, autonomous vehicles could begin nudging their way into the Texas urban transit scene in the near future. Kockelman describes these systems as “just so much more nimble and demand-responsive,” saying they will undercut the cost of operating bus fleets. “Our transit agencies already are subsidizing your and my travel on buses and trains at a higher level than we will need to pay to cover all of the cost of our going in right-sized, autonomous vehicles. So there’s going to be a huge shift,” she said.
For those right-sized transit vehicles that will be the workhorses of on-demand (and possibly autonomous) systems, removable barriers between passengers could be configured to help block a future pathogen from drifting nefariously around the cabin. Strangers might feel more secure being walled off by that sheet of Plexiglas, while a passenger load of family members would likely prefer to take the shield down. “Those retrofits are definitely being looked at,” Kockelman said.
Ironically, Covid-19 itself may not to be a reason for people to avoid urban mass transit altogether. According to a new study from China, the chances of contracting the disease on a bus or train now appear to be low for those who wear a mask and social-distance on trains with reduced passenger density.
“The masking is really taking the risk down so much that that the bus driver who’s there all day on an eight-hour shift is staying healthy,” Kockelman said, noting that the benefits of mask-wearing have long been recognized and socialized in Asian countries that endured the SARS epidemic nearly two decades ago.
Whatever changes lie ahead for Texas urban mass transit, our metro areas will continue to require systems that ensure the efficient movement of large numbers of people daily, some of whom have no other transportation options. Harris County METRO’s pledge of “providing essential workers with a means to get to essential jobs” is a commitment echoed by officers of the state’s other big transit agencies as well, and represents a future that construction worker Joe Garza would welcome.
“It’s what I depend on,” he said.
John Kent, a contributing editor of Texas Climate News, is a Fort Worth-based writer specializing in transportation and environmental topics.