The Fence

Paul Comfort on COVID-19 and public transport

Paul Comfort is the author of The Future of Public Transportation and host of the world’s top public transportation CEO podcast, Transit Unplugged. He is also currently the VP of Business Development at the Trapeze Group.

Based in Baltimore in the US, Paul was previously the CEO of Maryland Transit Administration, and Director of Operations at MV Transportation.

So here’s a US perspective on just what has happened to public transport (or public transit as it’s called Stateside) in this pandemic, and ways in which the sector could adapt and emerge strong on the other side of this crisis.

What are the main effects or changes due to COVID-19 that you’re seeing right now in public transport?

Hard hit:

Public transportation has taken a gut-punch from the Coronavirus. After three quarters of 2019 showing the promise of increased ridership here in the US, now demand for public transit appears to have dropped by about 70%.

Commuter trains and buses have taken an even larger hit with systems like Long Island Railroad only operating with 10% of their normal passenger counts and privately owned passenger trains like Virgin Brightline in south Florida simply shutting down.

Transit leaders act:

I have spoken with over 25 top public transit leaders around North America and during this pandemic they are responding with creative solutions such as using autonomous vehicles in Jacksonville, Florida to transport testing samples from drive-through testing sites to the hospitals or in San Antonio, Texas placing paratransit vehicles with wi-fi at apartment complexes without wi-fi so students there can do their schoolwork online. Many other agencies are using drivers to deliver meals on wheels and supplies.

Transit workers are being recognised as heroes on the front lines of this battle against the Coronavirus and Washington, DC has responded with a $25 billion stimulus package for public transit agencies in the US to help them deal with the increased cost and reduced fare and other revenues that this pandemic leaves in its wake.

What changes would you like to see in the transport sector when the world rights itself post-pandemic?

Several possible options are being discussed to help transit recover riders more quickly:

  1. Maintain high cleaning protocols of buses, trains and stations and note the time cleaned on bus destination signs and other electronic signs.
  2. Make transit experience as touch-free as possible. Such as usage of contactless fare cards and e-faring.
  3. Improved marketing messages using local heroes (bus operators and cleaners) noting transit is safe, clean, good for the environment and an essential service.

Transit is being touted as an essential service and we need to ensure we retain this status as we recover riders and revenue to continue providing mobility to all.

And what changes do you think will happen in transport post-pandemic?

It will take a while to recover the confidence of the riding public after political leaders have been telling folks that public transit vehicles are a petri dish for the virus. Commuter services may never recover completely as business choose to allow more telecommuting for many professional workers.

However, regular transit will be more necessary than ever to keep our atmosphere clean, a move to electric or other Zero Emission Buses will remain a top trend. Fare boxes will be phased out as agencies move to low touch solutions like e-faring and contactless cards and wearables or other account-based systems.

Transit services will continue to adapt with the addition of micro-transit, autonomous vehicles and app-based Mobility as a Service options continuing to aggregate mobility services for urban areas.

Like this interview? Click here to see the rest of our interviews about the effects of COVID-19 on the transport sector.

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