Pandemic a time for transit innovation, panel says

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Transit systems are going through rather dynamic times during the COVID-19 pandemic, a panel of experts said during a webinar on innovation this month.

While ridership is down, officials said, it’s a great time to adapt and change how transit works to rebuild the public’s trust in transit.

Hosted by the Eno Center for Transportation, the webinar featured discussions with Alice N. Bravo, P.E., Director, Transportation and Public Works Miami-Dade County, Florida; Gary C. Thomas, President/Executive Director, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART); and Tina Quigley, Waycare Advisory Board, Former CEO, Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada.

The pandemic has driven ridership down, Bravo said, but it has also spurred the department to try things in a new way. In Miami-Dade County, one of those new ways is replacing night-time routes with Uber rides to allow the department to clean buses.

“Certainly before the virus hit our ridership was rebounding… With COVID, our ridership plummeted. I absolutely think this is a time for innovation. The public is concerned, but they still rely on us for transportation,” she said. “Because of the COVID, we moved to replace our night-time route with an Uber partnership. We can partner the private sector for a lower cost and still be able to provide services.”

As part of that partnership, passengers needing transportation in a low-impact service corridor are directed to call or pull up the Uber app. The passenger is given a voucher code, and the Uber driver picks them up and takes them to their destination along the corridor.

Bravo estimated that an average of 60 people a night use the service.

For Thomas, the pandemic has shown how crucial transit is in communities.

“This period has emphasized how important transit is,” he said. “For our agency, we’re about 50 percent down. But the 50 percent that are riding are those who absolutely look to transit to get to where they are going.”

Thomas said his organization is now looking to be able to pivot so that it is providing customers with the trips they want to take, rather than having riders go where the transit system wants to take them.

In Dallas, however, this isn’t their first outbreak situation. Thomas said his organization was able to be better prepared.

“Ebola wasn’t quite as contagious, but it was more deadly,” Thomas said. “And it hit just as we were going into a bus procurement state. We actually purchased all of our buses with UV Light Filtrations systems or Ionization filtration systems.”

What they learned from the outbreak was that the entire organization needed to understand what the standard of cleanliness was.

“One of the things we had to correct – the definition of cleaning was different throughout our organization. What cleaning meant to different people was very different – so we had to come up with a standard across our system and communicate that to our people,” he said.

Quigley said she felt it was an exciting time to be in transit.

“We’ve lost people, and we don’t know whether or not we’re going to get those riders back. But, we already knew that transit was stuck in our grandfather’s time. What this is forcing us to do is pivot,” she said.

Being able to gather and use data could be a game-changer, Quigley continued.

“We have access to data now like no other generation has ever had, and we’re just in the beginning of it. Get real true up-to-the-minute information on their important real-time trip,” she said. “While we should still be including the community in our decision-making, we should be using data to figure out which routes are not productive. We have got to make these decisions based on metrics. You are still stewards of taxpayer dollars, and you have to make the decisions that make sense as a financial steward of taxpayer money.”

In Miami-Dade, Bravo said, using that data in practical ways is helping its drivers manage their routes. By using real-time data, supervisors can tell drivers if they should skip a stop that may have more riders waiting than the bus can handle while sending another bus behind it to pick up those passengers. The system is more efficient, she said, and prevents bus drivers from having to tell riders they can only take half of those waiting.