Transit Survival in the Age of Covid-19

Two installments ago, I described alternative roles motorcoaches could play to make important contributions to the current pandemic, and which would keep drivers, mechanics and vehicles at work, and operating agencies and companies, manufacturers and suppliers in business. In the last installment, I described how to put motorcoaches back on the road in traditional roles. In this installment, I will outline some ideas for getting fixed route transit buses and passenger trains back to work, consistent with safety for both drivers and passengers.

The ideas focus on NYC’s transit system as a model, since the challenges facing this system are the nation’s most severe. As new facts and fiction emerge daily, please keep in mind that this piece (like other NATIONAL BUS TRADER installments) was written six weeks before the first NATIONAL BUS TRADER reader gets his or her hands on a copy.

Principles and Practices

These ideas are hopefully based on realistic assumptions, despite the mix of optimism, protests, politics, prayers, lies, shenanigans and other activities which may suggest otherwise:

  • Without the measures suggested, and particularly at the passenger rail level, large urban transit systems are veritable petri dishes for keeping the virus alive and spreading.
  • Without anything near the degree of testing necessary, public transit will continue as this incubator until vaccines are available and widely administered.
  • If our nation’s testing acumen is any indication of our organizational prowess, the wide- spread administration of a vaccine will occur months or years beyond its emergence.
  • Even forgetting the irreversibly-damaged U.S. economy, major cities cannot function at all without active participation in many business sectors by countless workers with no alternatives to public transportation.
  • Irrespective of the mode, vehicles cannot safely be shared to the extent they have been for years to come.
  • If each infected person infects fewer than 1.0 other individuals, we may eventually recover.
  • If each infected person infects more than 1.0 individuals, our society will disintegrate, and eventually, far fewer of us will be left.

The measures cited below are not a menu. Unless most or all of them are employed, major cities will continue to foment a stream of infections and deaths for years, even if the peak of the first wave (or any subsequent wave, flattened or otherwise) has been reached. Otherwise, the risks of riding large shared-ride vehicles can only be minimized if capacity is deliberately underutilized – resulting in a spacing that reflects “social distancing,” strict use of personal protective equipment for drivers and passengers, and a number of vehicle modifications (most of which are, at least, not very costly).

Interestingly, self-preservation has effected much of this reduction already. As this piece is being written, 30 percent of subway service in NYC has been cut. Ridership has decreased by 93 percent on that share of service which remains. Boston has experienced similar statistics: Subway ridership has decreased by 90 percent, and bus ridership by 80 percent.

Of course, these decreases are not economically sustainable forever, even while they will likely last for years, to some degree, in a country with practically no Q-tips and an embarrassing skeleton of a healthcare system – just for starters – despite a squadron of courageous healthcare workers willing to operate at great risk. But the sluggish pace at which we are addressing the problems, coupled with the dramatic increases in illness and death, suggest that patronage on shared-ride services must continue to be sparse for years to come.

The ability to continue to afford these services, at these levels of usage, is largely a political issue which lies beyond the technical issues discussed in this installment. To place this challenge in perspective, New York City’s transit system had been recovering a mere 35 percent of its operating costs from farebox revenues (one-way full-fares for adults are $2.75). Yet NYC’s fare recovery ration is the nation’s highest. Regardless, the fundamental technical issues are clear if we are to survive the operation of transit services medically. And because so many workers and others rely on it with few or no other reasonable alternatives, the medical consequences of our failure to render these services largely safe will only decimate our economy further.

Restructuring for Re-entry

No single article can identify all the changes that must occur for the transit industry to survive, much less the country to survive. But a few basic changes must absolutely occur. That so few of these changes have even been mentioned reflects a startling lack of leadership at the local level.

Alternative Work Schedules. Given the reality of “transit dependence,” we cannot escape the viral broth that will naturally come with work patterns centered around peak hours. This is true both with transit and with work (and other) activity in general. We must greatly spread out these hours, including (where possible) assigning workers of many types to “night” and “owl” shifts (according to transit jargon). Such shifts will clearly not be possible for many types of work. And even where they are possible, late evening and early morning shifts will be less possible in late fall, winter and early spring months, when the hours of daylight shrink noticeably.

Of those alternative work hours possible and realistic, some “sub-peaks” will likely be needed so that supervision can be coordinated, and the hours for those who must work together can overlap. As an expert in alternative work scheduling, I know of no studies which explored, much less defined, any sub-peaks. (Pre-school and kindergarten hours are a rare exception.) We will have to develop them. And we will have to develop them quickly.

Vehicle Modifications. With motormen and trainmen operating largely in phone-booth-size compartments, the most costly modifications for passenger rail are already in place. This is less true for bus drivers: Where protective barriers exist (apart from the floor-to-ceiling “modesty panels” behind the driver’s seat), aisle-side barriers must be enhanced to completely separate drivers from passengers (consistent with heating, ventilation and air conditioning reaching the drivers). Fare collection should not be a problem, particularly as transit systems had pioneered the automation of this activity as part of the overall need to economize long before the emergence of Covid-19 (see “Drivers v. Robots, Part 5: Collecting the Fares, Skimming the Passengers” published in NATIONAL BUS TRADER, February, 2020).

Protecting the passengers has its own set of solutions. Some practices, like rear-boarding, began in a few systems months before the virus emerged when systems like the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (recovering only seven percent of its operating costs from farebox revenues) eliminated fares altogether. Otherwise, rear boarding, seating and alighting must be employed as a standard practice.

Separating isolated-seated passengers rows apart can be enhanced by far-less-costly shields than the near-bullet-proof Plexiglas needed for drivers. Five-millimeter sheets of mylar (commonly found in art supply stores) can easily be cut to provide floor-to-ceiling extensions of forward-facing seatbacks – although sheets this thin will be harder to clean and disinfect. Many commercial facilities are using plastic sheets the quality of dry-cleaning covers. More formidable hinged-swinging shields could be affixed to the aisle-side of aisle-side seats – although the costs for such installation will be substantial. But it would encourage the distancing needed to keep the passengers safe. Further, passengers must use only window seats, distancing themselves from fellow passengers walking by them in the aisle.

Dwell times for boarding and alighting must also increase, where applicable, so that passengers do not bunch up walking from or to the doors. To ensure they do not, bus drivers will have to abandon their reckless “white line” habits and ensure that all boarded passengers are seated before zoom- ing away, and that alighting passenger have plenty of time to walk to the rear door (and middle door of articulated buses) without getting knocked off their feet.

Another helpful device which will increase dwell times are “thermometers-on-a-chain:” So that we spare drivers from doing this, passengers must take their temperatures before boarding, and the information must immediately be made available to drivers. This precaution will not screen out every- one infected, since many infected individuals are asymptomatic (i.e., “carriers”). And one’s temperature is only a crude screening criterion beyond through which many infected passengers will pass. But it will identify many infectees. As a footnote, one’s temperature varies by roughly 1.5 degrees through each 24-hour period (or sleep/wakefulness cycle).

No human being alive in the history of our species has ever maintained a temperature of 98.6 degrees (or any other temperature level) throughout his or her cycle. So a readout of 99.8 degrees, for example, means nothing. But modern, quick-readout infrared thermometers finding boarding passengers with temperatures above 101 degrees at least indicate some caution – even while many with such temperatures may not have Covid-19. But in this era, we cannot afford to let them use shared-ride transportation unless they have proof of recovery or immunity. Unfortunately, we are far from the ability to determine either. And we do not know how long either will last.

Needless to say, passengers will need a serious level of PPE (or PPG), although not the quality needed by healthcare workers, much less astronauts or deep-sea divers. This requirement will necessitate intelligible policy-making as the availability of this equipment is prioritized.

While we seem incapable of producing Q-tips (enhanced or otherwise), we are making strides in face masks and face shields: As of this writing, MIT has been machining 100,000 face shields per day. Competing with one another, states, cities, hospitals and all manner of entities and businesses are slowly obtaining them from all over the World. One’s internet browsing is already saturated with pop- ups advertising fashionable face masks, with the number and variety exploding. When latex gloves, shop coats and shoe coverings become available, passengers will be well-protected in the context of the other changes noted.

Mode Split. Shared-ride vehicle’s passengers need to be thinned out as much as possible. If NYC, for example, did not squander 11,000 vehicles of its Uber- and Lyft-decimated taxi fleet to deliver food, and if we deputized every small passenger vehicle’s driver to supplement the taxi fleet, we could thin out bus and subway ridership significantly. This is particularly true as traffic levels have shrunk dramatically as so many individuals work from home, and so many no longer work at all. Further, this mode split will provide a considerable number of jobs.

Wheelchair handling and securement present a much-greater challenge. Ideally, wheelchair users should mode-split from transit to paratransit or accessible taxicabs. Of course, we do not have nearly enough of either. Some wheelchair users can transfer out of and back into their chairs, which can be stored in a sedan’s trunk or an SUV’s hatchback. Walker users, who should also board and alight buses via the lift or ramp (but who are rarely accommodated this way) can more easily transfer into and out of a sedan or SUV – albeit with considerable close-contact passenger assistance. Frankly, we need every exclusive-ride vehicle we can muster to transport people. But untrained motorists rarely have the skill to provide passenger assistance to wheelchair or walker users boarding or alight- ing from non-accessible vehicles. Clearly, both drivers and passengers must be well-protected.

While costly, personal cars can be outfitted with taxi-like shields. But far thinner plastic separators can be easily configured to accommodate all types and sizes of sedans and SUVs. Half-millimeter-thick Mylar is sturdy enough to be cleaned and disinfected. But dry-cleaning-bag-quality plastic is plentiful, and between passengers, it can be disposed of and replaced.

Interestingly, apart from its safety implications, this mode split will immediately address unemployment, although it will hardly vanquish it. With a tilt toward fairness, taxi fares should be more heavily-subsidized than those vehicles unsaddled by “medallion fees.” But while most U.S. cities have decimated their taxi fleets to accommodate Uber (and other short-term pretenders), we currently need all the Ubers and their cousins we can find and afford. Otherwise, to the degree this mode split can accommodate the travelers, costly rail and bus services can be reduced. Their operators can be put to work chauffeuring their otherwise passengers in their personal vehicles on an exclusive-ride basis.

Finally, mode-split need not pertain only to vehicles with wheels. With so many workers operating from home or unemployed, the broad seat spacing on the Staten Island Ferry already resembles the approaches needed for buses and (particularly) subways outlined above. If not, there is no reason our moderate-sized armada of small boats cannot be deputized. During a nine-day period in late May and early June, 1940, 850 small boats rescued tens of thousands of British soldiers from Dunkirk. Our coastlines and lakes are lined with exponentially more boats of all sizes.

Fleet Size and Schedule Adherence. The notion of increasing dwell times (for boarding and alighting) likely sends shivers through transit agency officials whose bus schedules are notoriously so tight that “recovery time” is a myth, and safety compromises of all types are rampant (see, and “Safety Compromises, Parts 1 – 12”  in NATIONAL BUS TRADER, September, 2017 through November, 2018, and “Tight Schedules, Parts 1 through 6” in NATIONAL BUS TRADER, February, 2019 through July, 2019). However, increased dwell times will be largely offset by a combination of (a) fewer stops (because of greatly-lessened ridership), (b) less traffic (as many employees work remotely), and (c) the suspension of fares and fare collection.

Apart from the time and cost issues of thinning ridership, getting more buses has obvious advantages, at least in theory. Borrowing buses from other cities is a well-worn pattern: We do this during every Olympic Games. Because virus conditions are likely to last for several years, now is the time for the FTA and Congress to begin replacing the near-mothball-quality fleets of many transit agencies as fast as they can. If we get ahead, we can ease up in the coming years, as costs shrink, ridership thick- ens, and we need to save money to offsets our extraordinary recent and rising debts. In the meantime, more buses mean more jobs. Quite simply, we cannot make buses fast enough. We need them now. We can pay for them later.

Also, transit fleets can be augmented with school buses. New York City has 9,000 –more than its 5,725 transit buses. The nation has half a million. Even fully-used, they are deployed only a few hours a day, five days a week. And as I will address in future installments, we will not require as many school buses if school even resumes this September. That is because, for school to begin, classroom sizes much shrink much the way transit capacity must. If one fifth of the students can attend school live once a week – an approach that will at least accommodate social distancing as the majority attend class via Zoom – fewer school buses will be needed, even if the passengers must be spaced further apart, as in the transit approach outlined above. And we will need even fewer school buses for home-to-school trips because many were not filled to capacity before the virus. A substantial shift to alternatives work schedules, and to a lesser degree school schedules, will grant us still more flexibility, and make greater use of our combined bus and coach fleets, for more hours, despite using less of their individual vehicle capacities.

I strongly suspect that full school attendance will not be practical by September simply because we are so hopelessly behind in testing. And a subset of parents will be skittish about sending their kids to school, and many of them will be able to monitor their Zoom students as they either work at home or remain unemployed. As a result, much of community’s schoolbus fleet will be free to supplement its transit fleet.

Even with their ridership greatly thinned out to accommodate schoolchildren or other passengers, school buses will have to be modified similarly to transit buses, as noted above. But with only single front doors, drivers will have to be thoroughly encased by wraparound shields, and dressed practically like astronauts, to keep them safe. At least, school buses do not involve fare collection. But they also do not have rear doors. So the costs of protecting drivers operating school buses will be much greater. And without the partially-encasing shields of most transit buses, school buses must effectively start from scratch with these modifications.

Finally, cities can augment their fleets with the nation’s 33,000 motorcoaches, most of which (particularly in the tour and charter sectors) are currently collecting dust. For this particular crisis, these vehicles have advantages other passenger vehicles do not – particularly their restrooms – even while they have only a single front door. Like school buses, those motorcoaches without existing partial shielding for drivers may have to begin from scratch. And other than for elderly or disabled passengers, assistance up and down the stepwell may have to be abandoned – liability notwithstanding. (Frankly, it is rarely provided by transit drivers, whether needed or not.) But as replacements for transit buses, at least fare collection will not be an issue.

Parking. If fleet size increases, so too will the need for parking. This is actually one of the simplest problems to solve. With fewer people actively traveling to work, those families with multiple cars can park many in the suburbs or countryside. This practice will likely require some incentives mixed with some hard-core policies and their enforcement. Otherwise, as smaller vehicles replace buses, parking will be less of a problem.

Cleaning and Disinfecting. I suspect that union rules which typically prevent drivers from cleaning or disinfecting their vehicles can easily be set aside. Frankly, passengers could help perform this task as well. In some societies, like Japan, spectators clean sports arenas after the matches have concluded. In the Age of Melting and Burning, parts of the New America will need more fire extinguishers as well as more fire fighters. But it also needs more soap and water, and more workers to apply them.

The Solution: More Vehicles, More Jobs

Regarding vaccines, the shortest time on record to develop a vaccine was the four years it took to tame the mumps. Current progress at Oxford may indeed delivery a miracle – while one could be foolish to plan on it. I grew up with fellow elementary students who spent years as “polio pioneers.” Racing along too quickly, one might recall thalidomide, the results of which emerged in 1962. At European bus exhibitions in the 1990s, I observed countless adults with fingers growing out of their shoulders and all sorts of other deformities which likely made their lives a living Hell. Hoping, wish- ing, dreaming and praying are swell. But as we know, dreams do not always come true. Countless Americans in the Age of Covid-19 are finding that prayers do not always come true.

The contributions of traditional public transit to years of incubation and contagion are obviously compounded by a wide array of other factors. One I have not even heard discussed involves the affects of public transit on “opening the country,” and the pressures likely to result from this on transit riders and those affected (or infected) by them. Going back to work in an economy based largely on increased consumption and excess will not simply flip the switch. Even beyond a nation of individuals with few of no savings, even those with moderate savings are likely to emphasize saving for years to come. To expect activities like car sales, fashion, entertainment, attendance at sporting events, din- ing, travel and vacations to reach their previous levels is hopelessly naïve. These are just the starting points for what lies ahead. Years of vast unemployment and underemployment lie ahead with the country “wide open.” Just maybe not at golf courses and country clubs.

Then there is the cost of debt. One can print only so much money before its value noticeably declines. Otherwise, it is hard to fund other much-needed activities as we fall deeper in debt to those willing to lend us money. Those providing these funds face risk. This risk drives up the interest rates on the loans. Our grandchildren inherit the responsibility for paying them off. Most Americans recognize all this.

Much-needed activities clearly include far more than the skeleton of a healthcare system we obviously have. Yet we will be more hard-pressed to afford this system, even as it has been recently been strengthened in many parts of the country. This reality is not political, although means of addressing it clearly are. Instead, it is unavoidably economic, irrespective of politics.

One theme that naturally emerges from these approaches is the reality that they create jobs. And lots of jobs. We saw millions of jobs emerge as a result of 9-1-1. Certainly, workers could have done more productive things than provide security which was almost unneeded before that event. Yet that single event created jobs. And because of the risks involved, they were, and still are, meaningful jobs. Frankly, open or shut, life will be tough on haberdashers and tailors. But we need hoards of drivers. Luckily, many more adults can drive than can sew. The New America cannot expect to have the same types of jobs as did the Old America. But if we solve our problems intelligibly, we may get close to hav- ing the same number of jobs.

If we think intelligibly about public transportation, we should realize that we need it. It is unfortunate that it has become so undersigned, poorly-organized and unproductive as it has grown over the past several decades. This is particularly true as robots have replaced live earthlings, driver salaries have shrunk dramatically, driver shortages have become routine, and management has thinned out. Now, public transportation must be restructured. But like many other things, it should not lead to unemployment. Instead, intelligibly-restructured transportation will create jobs. And if enlightened and responsible decisions are made, it will lead to the production, sale and maintenance of more vehicles – and more jobs making, selling and fixing them.

These dynamics will not apply to every industrial sector. But some unemployed can be shifted to those sectors which need personnel. Healthcare workers. Testing and tracing personnel. Delivery workers. And public transportation drivers. Now it not the time to whine for money for laid-off transportation workers. And now is not the time to replace drivers with robots. Now is the time to put drivers to work doing things we sorely need. If we are to reinvent some semblance of a viable economy and a rational society, public transportation must be a part of them.

For decades, much of public transportation has been a disgrace. Transit and paratransit, in particular, have been inexcusably wasteful. As noted, New York City experienced the highest fare recovery ratio in the country at 35 percent. Transit has become so inefficient that fare collection was being abandoned months before Covid-19. This must change. But this change must begin by recognizing the contribution public transportation must continue to make in order to help sustain our economy. Particularly in the short run, it must change by implementing measures like, and including, those noted above.

I am not optimistic that we can do this. I only know that it is possible. And I know that, in the past, this nation has accomplished far more challenging things. Public transportation can become a role model for contributing to our recovery, helping to sustain our economy, and creating jobs. If it does not accomplish these things, public transportation will become a role model of our failure.

The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NATIONAL BUS TRADER, Inc. or its staff and management.