How COVID-19 is Affecting Public Transportation Around the U.S. : A panel discussion

On Friday, May 8 a diverse group of panelists in the transportation arena discussed their agencies’ responses to COVID-19 on an online panel, “How COVID-19 is Affecting Public Transportation Around the U.S.,” presented by the Bloustein School and the Bloustein/New York City Alumni Group.

How COVID-19 is Affecting Public Transportation Around the U.S.

Madison Welch
Hi everyone, thank you so much for waiting. We are waiting for one more panelist. But just before we get started as a reminder, if you’re calling in with the toll-free number, please mute your audio, and if you log in using WebEx, you are automatically muted when you log in. And please keep your mic off. There will be an opportunity for Q&A at the end of the panel discussion. There is a Q&A chat feature at the bottom right hand of your screen, and use that to submit your questions during the panel. But please know that they won’t be answered until after all the panelists have spoken.

Does anyone– Matt–Do you know if Jennifer is having connectivity issues?

Matt Kirson
I see her as an attendee but not as a panelist, so we’ll just have to switch her over. But why don’t we get started? I’ll kick it off and we’ll try to get Jen on and we’ll reshuffle the order if needed, as we figure this out. But thanks, everyone, for joining today. And I appreciate seeing that there’s a lot of interest in folks attending this panel. So before I introduce the panelists just want to set the stage for our discussion today.

Public transit agencies deliver a vital service every day. And as we’ve seen during this crisis, they’ve provided critical mobility options for millions of frontline health care, public safety, grocery, and restaurant workers fulfilling essential roles. But public transit faces a crisis over the coming months that could result in revenue losses, threatening the viability and availability of transit services in the near and long term. As Americans stay at home transit ridership and fare revenues have fallen by more than 90% in many agencies. In addition to these fare revenue losses and cost increases, we expect that state and local sales tax revenues will decrease with a slowing economy. This will undercut a key source of transit funding and agencies that rely more on sales tax funding for their core non-fare based revenue. Some public transportation agencies are already suspending or dramatically curtailing much of their service, limiting mobility options for essential workers and disrupting services for this crisis.

Fortunately, the Federal relief package provides much-needed immediate funding for local transit agencies that will help mitigate the worst and most immediate impacts of COVID-19. The stimulus package includes more than $25 billion in funding for transit agencies throughout the U.S. However, these funds will likely not stabilize transit or cover the anticipated losses beyond the summer. By fall the predicted recession will cut into the public transit sales tax funding base, which the new federal stimulus funding will likely not cover. At some point, our economy will reopen, and there are uncertainties as to what transit demand will look like, and what riding a train or bus might look like. Our panel today represents a diverse group of transportation professionals who are tackling these various issues in their day to day work. They work for public transit operators, a metropolitan planning organization, in consulting and academia.

I’m going to introduce our panelists in the order that they will speak. I’m glad to see Jen’s able to get on. So first we have Jennifer Dougherty. She earned her Master of City and Regional Planning at Bloustein in 2004. Jennifer works in the strategic planning and analysis department at SEPTA, where she serves as liaison with municipalities, planning commissions, and community organizations. She also provides project management, analysis, and data on various large planning efforts, including the cycle transit plan, trolley modernization, and comprehensive bus network redesign. Our second panelist, Dr. Michael Smart is an associate professor at the Edward J Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers. His research interests include the influence of social and spatial phenomena on an individual’s transportation decisions, with a particular interest in built environment effects on alternative modes of travel, such as biking and walking. He received his Ph.D. from the department of urban planning at UCLA in 2011, as well as a master’s degree in planning from the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, and a bachelor’s degree in German from Yale in 2000. Our third panelist, Craig Cipriano earned his Master of City and Regional Planning at Bloustein in 2007. Greg was appointed acting president for MTA Bus Company, and acting Senior Vice President for New York City Transit Department of Buses in June 2019. He is responsible for managing the largest bus agency in North America, with over 2 million daily customers. He also manages the largest paratransit operation in North America with over 150,000 registrants.

Our fourth panelist, Sara Gutschow, earned her Master of City and Regional Planning at Bloustein in 2011. Since 2015, she has been the senior transportation planner at the Puget Sound Regional Council in Seattle, Washington, where her work primarily focused on Federal transit funding and regional bicycle and pedestrian planning. And lastly, my colleague, Ulrich Leister. He believes that scarce resources we have need to be invested wisely. It is his life goal to contribute his passion and expertise to better plan our rail systems, design attractive service, and clearly identify the most effective investments. As Vice President and Head of Consulting at Deutsche Bahn Engineering and Consulting USA. He leads a team of consultants on many projects to do exactly that. Ulrich received his Master of Transportation Systems Engineering and a Bachelor of Science and Civil Engineering from the Berlin Institute of Technology. He worked in Switzerland before relocating to the U.S. in 2015. So that’s our panel today. We’re going to have each panelist speak for about five to seven minutes. I’m excited that I think everyone will bring up a bit of a different perspective to this conversation and to the topic. So with that, I’ll kick it off to our first panelist, Jennifer.

Jennnifer Dougherty
Thanks, Matt. Hi, everyone. Good afternoon. My name is Jen Dougherty when I went to Bloustein my last name was Barr, so I’ve changed my name since I was in New Jersey. I’ve been with SEPTA for the last seven years in the Long Range Planning Department. I think I was asked to really speak to, well how do you do long-range planning in a time of crisis? And I don’t know that I have a good answer to that yet, because everything is changing so quickly.

I think that there’s not a lot of precedent for this. We don’t know how we’re going to come out on the other side. And I think just being aware of that, and knowing that the world is changing, and we don’t know precisely how and being aware of that change is a really healthy thing to have as you’re doing long-range planning. So you can’t just go back to your comfort zone and act as if the world will return to 2019. You have to think about all the different possibilities. Think through scenarios, think through different funding scenarios. Think through different ridership scenarios. Think larger than your organization, because this is going to be bigger than something that just a transit authority can address, I think if we’re going to need larger policy direction. So the most we can really do at this point is recognize that we can’t just go forward with our projects as we were imagining our projects were going to go forward three months ago.

And that actually took us a little while to kind of come to that realization. And right now, I think like a lot of transit authorities we’re in crisis mode. Everyone is mobilized to be responsive and try to be responsive as quickly as possible, including the Long Range Planning Department. We are a small department. There’s only, basically, four and a half of us. And we have all been repurposed in some way, shape, or form to help with communications issues, to help with scenario planning, to help with recovery planning. I can tell you that some of our projects might be a little bit more, kind of, crisis-proof than others in terms of how we might need to rethink them. So for instance, one of the large projects I worked on is trolley modernization. Philadelphia has a very large light rail system. Not everyone is aware of that. Our light rail system is not currently ADA accessible. We do not foresee even coming out of this crisis that our light rail system will not be a light rail system, they use a subway tunnel. And so it’s just not likely for them to become busses. It’s not you know, Who Framed Roger Rabbit scenario we have in Philadelphia. So at some point, those vehicles will have to become ADA compliant. And how we serve the communities, the on-street and the subway stations will have to become ADA compliant. So maybe that project has a little bit less of an effect with COVID-19 and other projects. But bus network redesign, for instance, I just saw IndiGO put their rollout of that new plan on hold.

We had just put out an RFP on the street, right as this all was unfolding. And I think we know that the data that we would provide our consultants would be 2019 ridership data. And right now, we don’t have much data at all because of rear door boarding. So we don’t really have good passenger count data either from our automatic passenger counters or from our farebox. So what data do we provide our consultants? And what scenarios do we have them think through? And those kinds of things weren’t in the scope that we put out for the RFP. So I think there’s a lot of questions for my department to think through. And I think there’s a lot of collaboration that has to happen. In my personal point of view, I feel that in order for public transit to make a strong comeback, we’re going to have to have strong policy leadership, from municipalities, from the local government saying, we appreciate clean air. We appreciate that transit is a service as an essential service. And our idea of who are essential people has changed, in the sense of, we now think of people who work at supermarkets as being essential. And a lot of those people are transit-dependent. So what kind of space is transit going to have when this crisis starts lifting? So, if we’re stuck in congestion, if buses are stuck in congestion, for instance, or people are afraid to take transit because of health reasons; you know, how are we going to be helped by larger entities and society as a whole? How are we going to reprioritize our values, and then how does transit fit into that? I think we need to have a conversation that’s just beyond what’s in most transit authorities’ control. And what is the public’s vision for mobility and public space?

Matt Kirson
Thanks, Jen. Let’s pass it off. Our next presenter is Dr. Michael Smart.

Dr. Michael Smart
Great. Thank you. I’m very happy to be here. This is the topic I’ll be talking about — travel behavior and what we might expect from the pandemic itself, and in the aftermath of the pandemic on travel behavior. It’s a topic that I am very interested in and do a lot of research on the sort of around this issue. So how might the Coronavirus pandemic influence travel behavior? I think there are sort of two major routes through which changes are going to occur. First is the virus itself, it’s really radically altered our travel behavior already. And it will have consequences for the future as well for the medium and I think also the long term. Secondly, we’re almost certain to see a prolonged economic upheaval that is causing some pretty, I would say predictable effects on travel behavior, both in the short term as people are losing their jobs and earning less. And also in the medium term as hopefully, rapidly we come out of this recession that we’re sure to enter. The recovery or changes for travel behavior can be slow.

So we talk first about the virus itself. Fear of infection is a big part of this. So transit, flights, or really any sort of transportation that involves being in close quarters, has taken a big hit for many different reasons. And it will likely continue to do so because of fear of infection. This fear of infection will last at least as long as the pandemic continues, and likely, I think for years afterward. In the short term, and we’ve seen evidence of this from China and other countries that are further along than we are, this probably means that people who do not own a car but can afford one will very likely buy one. So we’re likely to see an uptick in automobile ownership in this country. We’re almost at saturation as it is, but there’s still that little bit further than we can go, whether we like it or not.

Secondly, I think that those who have cars but use transit for certain trips, like the journey to work will be more likely to drive when they start commuting again. Or, you know, many people, of course, still are commuting. So the car becomes a lot more attractive when transit has a larger element of fear attached to it. And both of these things that I mentioned, create “path dependencies.” So, once a person owns a car research shows again and again that they’re very, very likely to use it for almost all of their trips. There are, of course, exceptions to this. But, you know, in the main, car owners use their car for just about every trip. And then secondly, for those who did use or have been using transit for particular trips, research suggests that once a habit is broken and a new habit is created, i.e. people stopping using transit for those trips and driving instead, it tends to remain, it’s a relatively sticky phenomenon. Again, there are, of course, exceptions to this, but again in the main people do tend to follow their new habits once an old habit is broken.

So the second element I mentioned is the economic downturn. We’re seeing unprecedented unemployment right now. The New York Times posted a very clever graph today of unemployment numbers, monthly unemployment numbers going back many decades. And they did it in such a way that you had to scroll for a very long time. To see the end of this current, you know, April’s unemployment numbers, they’re so far in the red. We also see the loss of wages, we see just sort of disruption in the labor market, disruption in distribution, and disruption in consumption. All of this is going to mean really big changes in transportation. Given our focus here, our interest here in public transportation, I’ll focus largely on the labor side. We know from previous recessions that unemployment and lower wages mean lower transit ridership, at least in the short and medium-term. A longer recession or a particularly brutal recession could partially reverse that, for reasons that we don’t like, as people become increasingly unable to afford the essentials in life, they’ll be forced to switch to transit. We’d like people to switch to transit because they like it, not because they’re forced to. Also, we’ll see, and we are seeing less VMT. You know, economic activity is highly correlated with vehicle miles traveled. So of course, we’re seeing much less of it. Of course, social distancing, and all the other measures that are in place are playing a large role in that as well. It’s possible, I don’t know how this will shake out. I don’t think any of us will, that there might be some interest in public infrastructure spending as a stimulus package, and of course, how we spend those dollars will be of massive importance for achieving transportation goals that we on this call might have. And then I’ll talk just very briefly about what we’re seeing in the New York City metro right now. I know others will speak in more detail about it.

Transit ridership is down massively. I’m sure we’ll hear more about that in just a moment. I think the numbers are something like over 90% reduction in transit ridership. On some of the commuter rail lines, there’s now an unofficial fare free ride, the tickets are just not being collected. Vehicular traffic is down as well, but not as much. And then sort of a very interesting thing that we’re seeing in the New York City region is that bike share usage is down, but not down very much. And it sorts out in a very interesting way that subscribers–the yearly numbers–the people who pay that annual fee to have cheaper access at the margin, their usage is down. And it’s particularly down in wealthier neighborhoods. And you may be read or heard stories about, you know, these wealthy neighborhoods in Manhattan are depopulated because everyone went to their second homes, and I think that’s probably part of it. On the other hand, daily users are up across the board. And anecdotally, what we’re hearing is that people are afraid to take transit. And so some of them at least, are using CityBike bike share to you know, do the activities that they need to do.

So to wrap up, what does this mean for transit agencies, obviously, we’ll hear more about this. A definite short term loss of ridership. A very probable, I would say long term loss of ridership, the magnitude of that is anyone’s guess, I would say. So this also means, obviously, a short term, very severe farebox crisis, a budgetary crisis, and some sort of state or local assistance is going to be required for many, if not all agencies, I would say. So I think I’ll wrap up there. Thanks, I’m happy to be here and to answer any other questions and speculate about what all this might mean for transit.

Madison Welch
Mike, you so much. Our next speaker is Craig Cipriano

Craig Cipriano
Madison, if you wouldn’t mind just sharing the presentation. This is a presentation that we did on a panel with other peer transit agencies. In fact, it lasted about 30 minutes, but I’m gonna try to condense this real quickly into 5-to-7 minutes. I just want to share the experience of MTA, specifically MTA buses, with the group here. Just a little bit of a context to start off, the bus system here in New York is the largest in North America. Just some stats, you know, we operate about 6000 buses. Pre-pandemic, we were serving 2.2 million daily customers on a typical weekday. We have about 18,000 employees. And again, I’m sure everyone knows that but I just wanted to share some context.

So New York City has really been the epicenter of the COVID pandemic across the United States. Some stats here, 178,000 confirmed cases. At the MTA, meaning not only buses but subways, commuter rail. Across our agencies, we’ve had 3700 confirmed cases, about 1800 are still currently quarantined. And unfortunately, we’ve had 109 fatalities, of which 37 are bus fatalities. At the height of the pandemic in buses, quite frankly, about a third to a quarter of our employees–about 4000 employees–were either out sick or quarantined. So, you know, really it’s been a challenge for us to continue to maintain a level of service to meet the demand, although our customer needs are way down. You know, Michael had mentioned I think 90 overall. It’s 90 on the…sorry, 90 on the local; that we’re down about 400 to 500,000 people, but with the social distance requirements it still been a real challenge. Next slide, please.

So here’s a chart of our bus ridership. As you see, pre-pandemic, we’re about 2.2 million on a normal weekday. As you see there is a little bit of a trend of an uptick since the month of March and into May. So we’re currently at about a half a million people per average weekday. But with social distancing, it’s a real challenge. What we’ve had to do, quite frankly, is lower the amount of buses we put out, the amount of trips we do, based upon not only the ridership but the availability of employees. And there are two aspects to that. Number one is, quite frankly, we just didn’t have the employees because they were either sick or quarantined. But another aspect we were trying to solve for is to always have a subset that we could count on that would be healthy, and keep them away from the exposure, so that if we needed to, we could rotate them in and out. So next slide, please.

So currently, we’re operating about 70% of our service. And we’ve implemented a number of measures to protect customers and bus operators alike. I’d like to just go through some of them. So we were disinfecting every vehicle on a 72- cycle. Since this past Wednesday, and the governor’s edict, as you know, the subways have shut down overnight. Similarly, on the bus system, we’re disinfecting every 24 hours. Which means every 24 hours we have to disinfect 3,000 buses. It’s a massive operation. It requires about 450 people a night, mainly on overtime to do that. We’re also testing some other means–electrostatic sprayers, some UV light, which is currently in the pilot phase. We’ve distributed PPE, namely masks, KN-95, and N95 masks to all bus operators and also to our internal workforce, along with gloves and some hand sanitizers. We went to rear door boarding back in March; we’ve chained off–you’ll see a picture at the top there–where we’ve chained off six feet behind the driver, only allowing our ADA customers that need to use the front of the bus in the front door. Because quite frankly, the farebox is right over the bus operator. And although off 4700 local buses do have barriers, the barriers only halfway because of the glare issue. So, there was exposure between the customers and the bus operators. So to keep our bus operators safe, we went to rear-door boarding and again, as Michael said, we haven’t collected fares for quite some time. Looking ahead, that’s really something we need to solve for, because of the need to go back and collect fares. Next slide, please.

The plan to unpause New York, you know, there are a number of things we need to do as we move ahead. We need to get our employees back, we need to make sure that we have enough capacity on a bus. Although we don’t anticipate full ridership coming back, we know that we anticipate somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 to 80 being really optimistic. But we need to have that capacity on the bus to not only carry them but also socially distance. So, you know, we know we need to open up the front of our bus, that’s one thing that we’re really working hard to do. And in order to do that, we need to have more protective barriers for the bus operator. We’re working hard on that. Next slide, please.

A little bit more planning. So I talked a little bit about on the bus. But you know, what’s equally important, if not more important is that, you know, all our bus depots–28 of them–are really industrial type facilities. And as we know, as we’ve seen, you know, there is a big risk of COVID spreading in an industrial facility. We’ve seen that in the meat industry and others, so, we’re really working hard on social distancing practices in and around our facilities, and also around PPE and changing basically our back-end business processes to facilitate that. You know, just quickly, you know, a typical bus swing room would have, you know, dozens if not 100, bus operators congregating together, drinking coffee, playing pool, when they’re not on the bus. You know, all that has to change and we’re working hard on providing that. Also, you see, we’ll be taking temperatures to make sure that our bus operators are healthy as they come to work. Next slide, please.

So long term, I’m not going to hit this–Mike hit this better than I could ever do–so in the interest of time, I’ll pass on this one. Next slide.

A little bit about the implications that Michael touched on. So, the current CARES Act, or the original CARES Act appropriates $3.9 billion just for the MTA Natchez buses. Recently, as of this morning, I know our chairman CEO, went out with, in conjunction with 32 other agencies asking for, I think I saw, $32 billion to take us through not only 2020, but into 21. Quite frankly, we haven’t collected fares, as Michael said, and we’re in a real precarious financial crunch. You know, besides the lack of cash flow, it’s costing us a lot of money, namely to disinfect buses, and to continue to provide the service. You know, on the bus driver already upwards of $10 million, just on the cleaning side alone, let alone everything else that we’re doing. So you know, really going to need to get that federal funding. We’re going to need to find alternative funding streams. Up to now, I know we’ve gone out and the MTA has borrowed some money to keep us solvent, and the $3.9 billion has been appropriated. Next slide, please.

So I think that was it. I think I hit it right at the seven a little bit more. So I’m going to stop there and you’ll take questions when the time comes. Thank you, everyone.

Madison Welch
Thank you, Craig. (pause) Okay, thank you very much, Craig. Our next panelist is Sarah Gutschow.

Sarah Gutschow
Thank you. Good morning. My name is Sarah Gutschow. I’m a senior transportation planner for about four years at the Puget Sound Regional Council or PSRC, which is the Metropolitan Planning Organization for the four counties of the Seattle region. So I’ll be talking today about how the pandemic has impacted our regional transportation planning in both the near and longer-term. First I’ll provide a little background on the public transit structure of our region. In the Seattle region, the state role is limited, as transit is considered a local responsibility. We have a regional transit agency called Sound Transit, which mostly provides light rail, heavy rail, and bus rapid transit as well as five local transit providers. Our local transit providers mostly focus on ferry and local bus services. The majority of transit funding agencies come from state and local tax revenue, mostly sales tax. So among our other roles at PSRC, we help coordinate and integrate the various transit services provided by these different agencies. To do that, usually, we are able to hold many in-person meetings with our regional partners, but during this time we’ve had to hold virtual meetings to bring the front transit agencies and local jurisdictions together to learn about how the pandemic has impacted them and also help with cross-collaboration on their responses.

So what we’ve learned so far over the past couple months about the impacts of the pandemic is that on average, the transit agencies are operating at about 30% of ridership during weekdays and that ridership has been even lower, reduced from normal levels on weekends. Several agencies have suspended fares or entirely suspended some services like the Seattle monorail. Many have limited the number of riders per vehicle and put in place other restrictions based on different public health guidelines, some of which have already been mentioned by other panelists. Agencies have experienced major losses from these service reductions and ridership losses. There’s been reductions in fare and sales tax revenue from the lower ridership and the economic downturn. Our region has received about $540 billion in federal transit funds from the CARES Act, which has helped agencies continue operations, but they are still experiencing major revenue losses.

On the capital side, many capital construction projects have been forced to stop temporarily at this time. And when they do resume construction or the ones that never stopped construction, the agencies need to incorporate many new safety protocols for social distancing at their worksites, which may end up changing their project timelines. I also want to highlight some of the innovative new services that our regional transit agencies have been using to help with the pandemic response. Some of those examples include, they’ve been realigning their special needs transportation services to be used for meal deliveries to vulnerable populations. Some have been providing on-demand transportation services to help essential workers access their jobs. And some agencies have been deploying buses, their regular buses, with WiFi at key locations to create community hotspots for school children that need it at this time.

So in thinking about the longer-term impacts of the pandemic on the region, and all the different considerations for how this could impact our regional growth management, PSRC has a new regional long-range plan called Vision 2050, which is set to be adopted this month. Our current regional population is 4 million people and 2.2 million jobs. In our new plan, we’re projecting that by 2050, we will grow by about 1.8 million people and 1.2 million jobs, which is pretty substantial. And our new plan’s primary strategy for accommodating all of this growth is to aim for more growth near transit. So part of our plan is that we are just starting work on updating our regional long-range transportation plan out to 2050 based on this framework. And as we’re starting this work, we’ve already received many questions about the impacts of the pandemic on the new plan. Our current consensus is that it’s too soon to tell the long term impacts of the pandemic and we’re waiting to see whether the current crisis will alter any of our projected growth or regional needs. But as we start the update will be engaged in continuous review of the data we’re gathering to see whether we’ll need to make adjustments to our plant approach. However, I can say that our regional transit agencies are already talking about realigning their investment priorities with the reduced revenue and the lower ridership and traffic levels. Our current long-range plan has about $200 billion in investments and preservation expansion of our transportation system by 2040, which will go to about two-thirds to transit and one-third to highways, cities, and counties. And some of our agencies have already started looking at delaying their planned capital expansion projects and reducing their future service levels.

I also wanted to note that the pandemic has had different impacts on different transportation modes. Under the Washington stay at home order, socially distance walking and biking are considered essential activities for physical and mental health. But most of our large parks and trails have been closed and residents have been asked to exercise close to home. We’ve noted, and our planners in the region have noted, an increase in recreational usage of our trails and other facilities that have been available. And to encourage walking and biking close to home, some cities have temporarily been closing streets to traffic. Seattle just announced they are permanently closing 20 miles of residential streets to most vehicle traffic. We’ve been talking to our bicycle and pedestrian planners in the region at PSRC, and we’ve learned a few things about how it’s impacted them. They have been talking about how the crisis has helped demonstrate the importance of urban green space and also bicycle and pedestrian facilities for community resilience and then also providing physical and mental health benefits. At the same time, all of this increased usage of our facilities has drawn attention to some of the major needs of the current network, like facilities with network gaps or walkways with widths that are too narrow to accommodate social distancing of six feet. So in response, our bike and pedestrian planners are looking at ways to favorably position themselves for future funding to improve facilities. We’ve also been talking about when people start commuting again if people want to keep going distancing transit riders and carpoolers may be switching to single-occupancy vehicles. So we’re looking at ways to encourage them to use bicycle commuting as a socially distance alternative. So to wrap up, as Washington State begins lifting some of our state home restrictions, we will be continuing to monitor how the pandemic has altered the transportation landscape and how we can best respond as a region.

Madison Welch
Sarah, thank you so much. Our final panelist is Urlich Leister.

Ulrich Leister
All right, I think I can share my screen. All right. I hope you can see this now.

Madison Welch
It’s up.

Ulrich Leister
Perfect. Thank you. All right. Yeah, thank you very much. I would like to start actually with just a basic but important element first. Talking about public transportation, and railroads specifically, and what we can do to hopefully get out of the situation now stronger than we went into. With all the challenges ahead, I’m not gonna focus too much on those, but what can we do? First thing is, now just need to get this to work here, to keep in mind a basic element. While we are using road and automobile infrastructure directly, we’re using the freeways, the roads, and so forth, this is not the case for public transportation. In public transportation, we always have to think about this middle layer, the actual public transportation service. And that service needs to be designed carefully and with the customer in mind. We’ll make it obviously more successful. However business, as usual, did not always get it right. Business as usual in the past did not always readily include careful so service design and continuing business as usual will, in my mind, be very risky in California, with commute markets expected to take a long time to recover. So I think network integration is important, in the past it has been very limited. And the lack of connectivity throughout services has really decreased the utility of those services.

Also in March, we saw service cuts being rushed into implementation, really cutting down the usefulness of the service further, and I think posing a real risk to pushing public transportation and California further to the margins. Because here, private automobile, to be honest, is a very strong competitor, obviously. These curves that you see here on the charts, they’re just indicative, but indicative scenarios to guide planning that we’re conducting at this point with various agencies here in California. Keep in mind recovering from the last recession, which seems to be mild compared to what we’re looking at right now, took more than five years. So we think in order to survive and to come back stronger, the response really needs to focus on the integration of services and modernization. This isn’t new at all. But I think it just became a whole lot more important in this current situation. From my point of view, agencies need to work together, get over the egos to some extent in areas where they have overlapping service areas, and raise efficiencies collectively. There is no time to go into detail here and now today, but this is a field where I believe the U.S. generally is actually far behind and there is a lot of low hanging fruits, complicated interpersonally sometimes, but not technologically or in terms of what the solutions can be.

So I think services need to form a network and be useful for many trip purposes, including leisure, personal travel, shopping, and many more things beyond commuting. These markets have a huge untapped potential, especially in California, where it came as a surprise a few years ago that people actually do take the trains to get to the beach on weekends, for example. It’s not just Metrolink, for example. It’s not just a commuter rail service. It is and it can be a lot more. So, when it comes to–one second, navigating two screens is difficult–when it comes to service design, we now need to do two things really to go forward. Link services to form one network. Of course, we want direct trains. But we also need to make sure that wherever we cannot offer direct services, we need to offer at least a connection.

So trains and services wherever they come together need to provide transfers. Ideally, from anywhere to anywhere. Of course, this isn’t easy, but there are ways to do this. And one cornerstone is to make services repetitive. In California, we started to call this “pulse timetables” where we run on a clear, repetitive pulse. Pulsing services, maybe once an hour, maybe every 30 minutes, or maybe just every two hours. Because that’s a key to provide connections consistently, throughout the day. We call that connections by design as opposed to by coincidence. And you see one indication here of what this can look like if you are at the station. In this example, at Los Angeles Union Station, what it used to be was services all over the place and what it could be, and this could be thinned out of course a little bit as well. But still, a clear structure throughout the day that is attractive and useful for a more diverse set of trip purposes beyond commuting.

So for Southern California, the planning is already well underway, and concepts have been developed following these principles. What you see in front of you here is a, it’s called a net graph. It’s really a combination of a line map and timetable because the numbers in this graph represent the departure and arrival times of those repetitive services that run every hour. So when you see a number here, it typically means that a train runs once an hour at this departure time. I think we can…and what you see here is actually something that we have done the planning on already and we know that we can roll it out over the next 12 months. We already developed now in response to the crisis now, a– and I’ll skip over this–a scaled-back version, where it’s the equivalent of some of those rushed-like emergency plans that were put in place. To run an essential service that is still useful to commute to work, but also for many other purposes. So in this case here, we were able to put something together that can be implemented immediately; it is in discussion for implementation, where you can still serve almost all origin-destination pairs, hourly, or at least every two hours. It’s possible to further reduce fleet and crew needs. And in effect, it’s useful for many more trip types than just commuting. And that’s, I think, a really important component because Metrolink, for example, has seen that there still is a peak, so to say, but a peak in the afternoon outbound of Los Angeles. Nobody knows why this is the case. So the last thing I want to show is (unintelligible) just which gives you an indication of what those principles connected, integrated services can provide as an outcome. And on the very right-hand side, green is better. Just a consistently better service even with lower train miles. Thank you.

Madison Welch
Thank you to all of our panelists. So now we’re going to open it up for the Q&A. I will say there were a couple of questions submitted ahead of time. So we’ll start with those. There’s one directed for Jennifer and for Craig, and then we’ll open it up for the Q&A chat in the WebEx.

All right, Jennifer, so this first question is, how does this impact any of your long-range planning? What’s changed and what hasn’t changed?

Jennnifer Dougherty
So let’s say at this point, none of our long-range planning has changed, because we just haven’t had time to alter. At this point, we’ve been so focused on current operations and communications, I have mostly really been trying to keep up our relationships with outside partners and being responsive to them in terms of data, in terms of commenting on their projects. At this point, I would say right now, a lot of our long-range planning is just kind of on hold while we see how things pan out.

It’s a really hard world to imagine, I think in some ways, the only analogy that SEPTA has to this is we had a major strike in 1983, that coincided with kind of the end of an economic downturn and you know, increased automobile ownership, and also the dissolution of kind of the traditional railroad system. And that really had long term consequences to our ridership. And out of that, we discontinued service on quite a number of our lines and we changed modes. And that’s kind of the worst-case scenario. And I don’t think, I don’t think we want to see that happen but I think there’s a fear about that. And I think having at least that experience in SEPTA’s back pocket is something that we can turn to and still be hopeful at the same time. Where we want to make sure that transit survives. That we are making the right decisions in the short term that set us up for long-range planning and for transit to be a major part of people’s lives because it is an essential service. Not only in terms of mobility, but also in terms of our environment, and our quality of life. And I think that’s really important for us to communicate. It is interesting to see what is happening in Europe, where cities and countries are saying we don’t want to return to air pollution. We don’t want to return to congestion. If there is a silver lining that has come out of this, it is that we want to re-democratize our major public space, which is our roadways. So that’s my hope. And that’s where I really think that that we can really be pivoting and working with partners on long range planning is less in our silo of public transit alone. And then, what is the vision that Americans in general have–not just Philadelphians–what is their future coming out of this? What can we make of this and how can we make the world better after this? Maybe that’s just because I’m a planner. I think planners are naturally very positive people. But that’s my point of view. And that’s what I’m going to be taking to long-range planning going forward.

Madison Welch
Thank you, Jennifer, so much. The next question is for Craig and this was sent ahead of your presentation. If you have reduced service during the pandemic, how would you prioritize when and where to restore it? Taking into account possible budget or staffing constraints?

Craig Cipriano
Okay, sorry.

Madison Welch
Sorry!

Craig Cipriano
That’s all right. I keep doing it. Now that I’m on conference calls all the time I keep repeating myself and talking to myself anyway. That’s all for me now. But anyway, so as I said, in the presentation, we have reduced service about 70% of a normal weekday. We do see some, you know, ebbs and flows, depending on boroughs, specifically, areas of Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, where we are getting some overcrowding. And we’re trying to respond right now by putting what we call sort of as assigned wildcat buses that the road operations folks can insert there in that schedule. As we look ahead to the reopening of the economy, specifically, we’re going to watch the industry’s first, because depending on the industries, I think it’s going to tell us something about where we need to add service. You know, an example would be, you know, I had heard recently that the construction industry, the essential construction industry would start it off. So, to me, that means that, you know, early morning trips, out of some boroughs an express service, we would need to bolster up, we need to have more capacity on those trips to help, you know, satisfy the social distancing as those construction workers come back.

But, quite frankly, as we reopen the economy again, when we take a look at the existing fleet, we recognize that we’ve already cut off the first third of the bus for rear door boarding and for the bus operator safety. We’re going to need to provide full service and still be able to maintain the social distancing on our buses, even at 60% or so ridership coming back. So that’s really the challenge. We’ve been looking and trying to work with health officials on some guidance in regards to social distancing guidance. I know in some other agencies across the world, they’ve used something along the lines of two to four people per square meter. Again, you know, we’re just going to have to watch it, we’ll have to set some policies and, you know, at this point, we’re looking to provide full service to customers as they come back.

Madison Welch
Thank you, Craig.

Okay, this next question can kind of be open to the floor. Have any of you found any silver linings for public transit? Does anybody want to take that?

Craig Cipriano
Okay, so I’ll give it a shot. I’ll give it a shot for sure. And I’ll hand it off to Ulrich, I see he chimed in (laughing). I mean, for me, the silver lining, quite frankly, has been, I can’t say enough about the tremendous partnership and collaboration that I’ve had over the last 8 weeks with my union partners. For me, specifically in New York, you know, I have 11 unions, specific unions, that I deal with on a day to day basis to provide bus service. And, you know, going into this, quite frankly, and we’ve seen this I mean, the CDC guidelines have changed over time, health officials have changed all the time, and we’re still learning. So it really was about a partnership and a collaboration. And I’ve been on daily conference calls with all my labor partners in regards to ideas and ways that we could keep our employees safe and keep the bus system moving. So I would say that’s my silver lining. That we’ve really established a fantastic partnership with our labor unions here in New York towards our mutual goals of keeping our customers and employees safe.

Ulrich Leister
Just briefly to add maybe a potential silver lining, I think our capital plans and recovery programs. And I mean, there is high uncertainty around this but also there is is a probability that there are going to be investment programs to get out of the economic issues that are caused by the public health crisis. And that could be a huge opportunity for modernizations that were are long overdue. What I can see in Germany is that actually, just the response of Deutsche Bahn and the continuation of service and being there, even though the people demand was also down 75, 85%, had a very positive impact on just the brand recognition and the relevance. I’m seeing that just a few days ago that overall the media coverage has been a lot more positive and it has been an opportunity to just say, show to the public that the system is reliable and is there. There were like these headlines, the trains run and run and run and run. And I think that was, yes, a tiny silver lining. But, there is one.

Madison Welch
Thank you so much. Another question, I think, and correct me if I’m wrong, this could be directed at Sarah. How do you think cities, regions, and states will raise funds to keep public transportation viable and efficient?

Sarah Gutschow
That is a hard question, I don’t know if I’m the best to answer that since most of our regional funding comes from the federal government. So that’s one of the reasons that looking at the regional level right now has been a little less stressful. But a lot of our cities and in the agencies in the region are in the process of furloughing staff. We already had a bit of a budget crisis for funding. So, going forward, I’m not quite sure how to answer that question.

Madison Welch
That’s okay. Thank you. Okay, another question. In the current situation, should transit agencies reduce the frequency, or increase the frequency of their buses, trains, etc.

Craig Cipriano
Thanks. So again, you know, from my perspective, again, you know, we need to provide full service on our bus system and still have a very large challenge to socially distance our customers. Again, when you look at in New York or you know, 2.2 million people. And again, you know, no one expects the 2.2 million to come back. But even if half of those customers come back, you’re really going to have a large challenge to social distance. And, you know, the 6000 buses across 28 locations, we don’t have the fleet, nor do we have the storage facility, even if we could increase that fleet in a short timeframe. Some things that have, you know, been brought up have been using either school buses or private carriers. And again, I’m not saying no–you know, again, during a pandemic, you know, anything’s on the table—but in the environment that we operate with, you know, the very heavily unionized environment it would really be a big challenge to be able to think outside the box that way with our labor partners to do some of those other things, to bring on some of those other resources.

Madison Welch
Thank you, Craig. We’re going to do one more question since we are getting close to three. With Bike Share companies laying off staff is there a chance that local transit/transportation agencies will take over private Bike Share systems.

Anybody? Another question? Maybe? Alright, does this crisis give us more time and flexibility to plan and implement the electrification of transportation?

Craig Cipriano
So I’ll take that a little bit. So here in New York, we have already started to dip our toe in the water in regards to electric buses. We have 10 buses on loan, or at least I should say, another 15 electric buses on test. So we had $1.1 billion dollars in the 20 to 24 capital programs specifically dedicated to our electric bus program, which would have included–which does include–500 new electric buses and infrastructure across eight depots. What I’m concerned about right now, quite frankly, is the competing priorities for those dollars. Right? As most folks probably heard, you know, we’re ready to go into the largest MTA capital program at $51 billion funded primarily by the congestion pricing and central business district tolling program. Right now, all the capital programs have been placed on hold. We’ve been able to use that, quite frankly, some capital program dollars to fund the operating side to keep us solvent. But again, I think that’s going to be an ongoing discussion in regards to how fast and to what extent we’re going to use, what dollars to fund operating and capital. I could say that, you know, our commitment to a 2040 all-electric fleet has not been taken away or we’re not going back on that. But to how fast we get there over the next 20 years, at least in the short there might be some questions in that regard, for sure.

Ulrich Leister
I’d be happy to add to this if there’s time.

Madison Welch
Sure.

Ulrich Leister
I think honestly, I think there is less time to plan for these things and not more time for modernization and electrification. Less time because, if there is a likelihood we get capital plans, spending this money will be a rush process. And there is high risk then, that the money is being spent on the wrong things. So the planning, now, needs to really start now even so we need to dig ourselves out of this hole; in parallel, we need to do the planning, and much of this has been done already too. But refine it to to get this done as quickly as possible and I could–if you give me presenter rights and I get 30 more seconds, I can share these two pictures from previous work in California. Where we were looking at vehicle designs and interior designs. And just, we’re showing what the effect of modernizations could be because I think this becomes a lot more important now, where people will be focused on clean appearances, services that are being claimed also visibly frequently, that have a modern, healthy, and hygienic feeling. And this is for example, here in California, the cafe car on the Pacific Surfline as it looks now, and a modernization that is being discussed and that actually, the agency did get funding for now of the cars, could bring designs that look, for example like this–just a modern, clean, fresh interior that will also be a key factor in bringing people back onto a transportation mode. Where you need to be in the same space with other people. If it feels dirty, if it feels outdated, it’ll be so much harder than if we can use this crisis now to really get some important modernization steps in place.

Madison Welch
Thank you very much. So I think we can wrap up unless the panelists have any last minute things they want to add.

So I didn’t get a chance to do this in the beginning. I just wanted to say thank you so much for joining us. This is our first virtual alumni event. So thank you for your patience. Our goal was to find a way to stay connected and keep you guys engaged. So, thank you so much. We have Over 120 participants on this. Thank you to Matt Camp and Matthew Kirson, our New York Regional Alumni Group co-chairs. You guys did an awesome job of putting this together. And thank you for being the first. I also want to thank my colleague, Amy Cobb, who’s our Director of Engagement in Special Projects, for helping me navigate this new world of virtual engagement. After the event, there will be a survey that pops up if you don’t mind just giving us some feedback. So we know what to do for the future. And this panel has been recorded. So in a few days, it’ll be posted on the Bloustein website if you would like to view it again. So thank you so much. Stay safe, and we’ll see everybody very soon. Thank you.

Ulrich Leister
Thank you!

Public transit agencies deliver a vital service every day, especially during times of emergency – providing critical mobility options for millions of frontline health care, public safety, grocery and restaurant workers fulfilling essential roles during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the coming months, public transit agencies face a crisis that could result in catastrophic revenue losses that threaten the viability and availability of transit services in the near- and long-term.

Our panelists spoke on a range of topics including how the current global pandemic has and might impact travel patterns, service, operations, ridership, and local and regional planning initiatives that they are engaged in.

Panelists included:

Craig Cipriano, MCRP ’07, Acting President for MTA Bus Company and Acting Senior Vice President of New York City Transit (NYCT) Department of Buses

Sarah Gutschow, MCRP ’11, AICP, Senior Transportation Planner at the Puget Sound Regional Council in Seattle, WA

Jennifer Dougherty, MCRP ’04, AICP, Manager, Long Range Planning, Department of Strategic Planning and Analysis, SEPTA

Ulrich Leister, Vice President and Head of Consulting at DB Engineering & Consulting USA, Inc.

Michael Smart, AICP, Associate Professor of Transportation Planning at the Bloustein School

To find out more about our Alumni Groups or get information about starting one in your area, visit https://bloustein.rutgers.edu/alumni/join-alumni-groups/.