The New York City subway in early March. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Reviving the economy means reviving transit. Here are 9 ideas to help

Initiatives like fare incentives, staggered business hours, and real-time crowd data will minimize the risks — and instill confidence.

Eric Jaffe
Sidewalk Talk
Published in
10 min readApr 23, 2020

Some encouraging news: New York, San Francisco, and Seattle — three big coastal U.S. cities hit early by the Covid outbreak — have shown promising signs of reducing the spread of the disease. As these metro areas start to plan ways of safely easing up on pandemic restrictions, their focus will quickly turn to ramping up public transportation. Transit powers these local economies, which together account for 10 percent of the national economy.

Restoring faith in transit is critical to any economic rebound. Buses and trains make up a significant share of all commute trips in these cities: 56 percent in New York, 35 percent in SF, and 23 percent in Seattle, per 2017. If health fears cause significant amounts of would-be riders to drive instead, the result will be massive traffic congestion that drags down the recovery. New San Francisco transit chief Jeffrey Tumlin explains this challenge in a great interview with Streetsblog — though his words apply beyond the Bay:

if San Francisco retreats in a fear-based way to private cars, the city dies with that, including the economy. Why? Because we can’t move more cars. That’s a fundamental geometrical limit. We can’t move more cars in the space we have.

… For San Francisco to come back as San Francisco we have to find ways to feel safe and comfortable in shared spaces or the city doesn’t work.

Economics aside, crushing new traffic levels bring health hazards of their own. A surge in driving would create a spike in pollution that exacerbates Covid (and other respiratory diseases). Street fatalities would rise as well. And a return to pre-Covid traffic levels would make it harder to keep certain streets closed to traffic, once again putting the squeeze on pedestrians trying to practice social distancing on narrow sidewalks.

That’s not to dismiss very natural fears of riding transit right now. Recent weeks have brought alarming and heartbreaking reports of essential transit workers contracting Covid on the job in cities across the U.S. A new study suggesting that New York’s subways seeded Covid across the city has been swiftly and strongly rebutted by further analysis, but it nevertheless represents the type of concern transit systems will need to overcome.

After all, to Tumlin’s point, feelings matter here. It will be critical for cities to reduce health risks, both real and perceived, in shared city spaces — and there’s no city space more shared than a crowded subway. Here are some steps to help get there:

Protect essential transit workers

This step is a given, but it bears repeating. Transit workers should be near the top of the list for personal protective equipment like face masks and hand sanitizers. If a city can’t provide the proper PPE for transit workers, it’s not ready to reopen. Transit workers should receive priority testing, with paid leave and care access to ensure that anyone who feels the slightest bit sick doesn’t put themselves or others at further risk. It’s not too crazy to think that systems should hire surplus staff — to replace sick workers, support internal contact tracing, or distribute masks to riders. Mask use should be mandatory for workers and riders alike to reduce the chance of asymptomatic transmission.

Provide public displays of disinfection

Of all the smells that greet subway riders, the faint scent of bleach should actually be a welcome one. American transit systems have started to increase their cleaning efforts and even deploy hand sanitizers in stations; the City reports that New York City transit has been disinfecting its whole bus and subway fleet every 72 hours and “high-touch surfaces” twice a day since mid-March.

Many international cities set the bar even higher. The Seoul Metro disinfects trains, stations, and platforms daily. The Beijing Metro disinfects common station surfaces (like escalator handrails) every hour; the Taipei Metro does the same every four hours. In an entire post on this subject, transit blogger Alon Levy notes that Singapore cleans its train stations three times a day and bus stations twice daily.

The gold standard here has to be Tokyo’s bullet trains, which can be cleaned by a fleet of 22 workers in just 7 minutes. Though not exactly reasonable for local transit, the point is: it can be done.

Reduce contact points

While the extent of surface (or, if you’re into the epidemiology lingo, fomite) transmission remains unclear, there’s evidence Covid can live on metal or plastic. That makes it all the more important to reduce contact points such as turnstiles, door handles, and fare cards.

Now is the moment to expand contactless entry for transit platforms. Systems that still use metal turnstiles should at the very least clean them often. Better still, they could cut turnstile use in half by opening emergency doors for passengers leaving the platform.

Buses should encourage all-door boarding (a good idea for service as well as health, as it dramatically reduces boarding times). Rear doors could open by default at every stop during this period, to eliminate the need for passengers to push them. And contact-free transit doesn’t need to be high-tech: CityLab reports that Switzerland uses simple tape to designate safe distance between riders and bus drivers.

Spread the peak with fare incentives

The best cleaning program in the world won’t keep riders safe or comfortable if they need to squeeze into a crowded bus or subway car. The best and most direct way to reduce passenger crowding is to run as many trains as possible, especially on key trunk lines during peak hours. Of course, most systems already do this to the extent their budget, fleet, staff, and signal technology allow.

When transit service has reached its limit, fare incentives (often taking the form of free “early bird” rides) have also proven effective at “spreading the peak” — the term for encouraging more people to ride outside of rush hour. Here’s a few examples:

  • Singapore. In 2013, Singapore launched a program to offer free “pre-peak” travel (before 8 a.m.). That effort reduced rush-hour crowding by 7–8 percent, according to one study. Another found that the policy reduced rush-hour ridership into the central business district by more than 3 percent.
  • Melbourne. About a decade ago, Melbourne launched a “Free Before 7” campaign that reduced rush-hour ridership by up to 1.5 percent. That may not sound like much, but it was the equivalent of removing five trains carrying an average passenger load. Better still, the effect was swift: researchers concluded “there is no equivalent measure that could be implemented at such cost so quickly.”
  • Hong Kong. In 2014, the city’s MTR system introduced an “early bird” discount fare that resulted in about a 3 percent decrease in morning rush-hour trips — with more crowded trains finding even larger average reductions.

Subsequent analyses of these programs have aligned around some general best practices. People prefer off-peak discounts to rush-hour surcharges, but the latter are more effective. The price gap between these periods must be significant to have an impact. Pre-peak incentives are more successful than post-peak incentives.

Still, such policies are not easy to pull off. First and foremost, they cost money. In some cases, the system actually gains riders — by freeing up rush-hour space, you encourage more people to ride — which is great for sustainable transport but also leads to more crowding.

Finally, perhaps most important at the current time, passengers with flexible work schedules respond more strongly to price changes. That’s not a surprise, but it also creates the potential of penalizing essential workers who must travel during traditional rush hour. One way around that challenge would be to keep rush-hour costs high for the general public (as a price signal) but cover the fare for essential workers. But more coordination might be necessary, hence the next approach…

Stagger business hours

During the 1918 flu pandemic, New York City kept businesses open but staggered working hours to reduce crowding on trains. The New York Times reports that “white-collar offices” were open from 8:40 to 4:30 during the outbreak, with “wholesalers” starting earlier and “non-textile manufacturers” starting later. That effort helped contribute to the city’s successful health outcomes — with far fewer flu deaths than other big east-coast cities.

There is precedent for such a shift in the postwar period, too. In 1970, the Port Authority commuter system implemented a staggered work program involving more than 220,000 workers from more than 400 businesses that agreed to shift their start times by a half hour, before or after 9 a.m. The result was a “substantial and continuing reduction in congestion” of 26 percent in the peak 15 minutes of the system’s three busiest stations. Changing start times for just a single big business (with a few thousand workers) led to “instant and significant congestion relief.”

Other initiatives found similar success. Ottawa ran a similar program in the mid-1970s and found a much “flatter” distribution of passengers in both morning and evening rush hours. While ridership rose overall, passenger levels fell 21 percent in the morning peak and 29 percent in the evening peak as a result of the program.

Such staggered schedules should be even easier to implement today, given the ability of many workers to remain remote as well as the abundance of travel services available to commuters (more on this below). But they require great coordination between the many agencies involved in a city’s public transportation service and the businesses or large employers that must adopt the campaign.

Integrate fares across services

Even before Covid, there was a rising need for transit options to integrate their fare systems. There remain many barriers to such an effort, including the need to preserve privacy across digital systems and to coordinate public and private trip options. But the outbreak could create an opportunity to pilot fare-integration programs that build toward a more coordinated, on-demand mobility system.

In a simple example, it should be easy for someone to take a bike-share if they recognize that a subway is too crowded. They should be able to make this change without having to pay twice or subscribe to a new fare method. Ideally the type of fare incentives described earlier could stretch across many different modes: it’s great to offer early-bird subway riders a discount, but it’s even better to provide them with the flexibility to ride a bike instead, in case they can’t change their departure time.

Expand real-time arrival data

Real-time transit data — showing exactly when a train or bus will arrive — is another key piece to the puzzle of relieving transit congestion without reducing transit use.

Studies have found that real-time data reduces the amount of time people wait in a station or at a stop (and, by extension, crowding in these areas), because they can leave their home as late as possible and still catch the next bus or train. By reducing wait times — and by making it easier to catch express service — real-time transit data also reduces total travel time, and thus total exposure to crowds.

And because people like shorter wait and travel times, real-time data may also increase overall transit use, too. In one study of ridership in Atlanta’s MARTA system, people took nearly 12 more trips a month after the release of real-time services than they did before this data existed.

Show real-time occupancy levels

Reducing the amount of time you spend at a transit station is great for crowding and general well-being. But it’s also helpful and important to know just how crowded a given train or bus is. To that end, some systems display the real-time occupancy levels of arriving trains to passengers waiting on platforms — guiding people to less crowded cars. Barcelona recently piloted such a system at three of its busiest stations, rating cars on a scale of 1 to 4 from least to most crowded.

For that matter, station design itself can relieve crowding, though that’s much harder to change in short order than service patterns.

Fund these programs as essential public health

These suggestions aren’t meant to be comprehensive. Nor are they weighted for political feasibility or logistical practicality. Nor will they come as news to transit officials, who already know all these things and fight to improve their systems, in these and other ways, every day.

Still, there is a need to improve awareness of such measures for local officials who are in charge of transit budgets but who, too often, don’t actually ride transit themselves and thus can’t see the pain points of the systems that keep city economies going.

The big challenge, of course, comes down to cost. Fare incentive programs, in particular, reduce overall revenue and must be paid for through some other means. Those means are tough to come by in good times; at the current time, with transit systems struggling to survive amid pandemic restrictions, it’s hard to imagine they will find the resources within their own budgets.

There’s no clear or simple solution here. The best hope is that cities find a way to fund programs that ease transit crowding as part of an overall investment in public health and economic recovery. It’s also possible to consider implementing a small “pollution” surcharge on rush-hour car or taxi trips until the pandemic passes — justified by the clear connection between air quality and Covid health outcomes, and made easier on drivers by the extremely low price of gas. (Electric vehicles could get exceptions.)

Over the longer-term, when the economy recovers its footing post-Covid, these are the types of initiatives that a congestion pricing scheme (now delayed in New York) could help support.

Transportation challenges are among the toughest to address in cities, partly given a long history of policy and regulation favoring car travel, but also because any meaningful change requires collective action at a wide scale. That isn’t easy, but our biggest cities have shown the ability to band together during Covid. We know it can be done.

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