APTA report makes recommendations regarding post-pandemic travel

Nov. 10, 2021
The report examines how to apply lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic to improve mobility.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released a new report at its 2021 TRANSform Conference and EXPO in Orlando, Fla., examining potential changes in demographic, employment and travel trends that could impact the transit industry.

“Throughout the pandemic, public transit agencies across the nation kept our communities running, from providing transportation to connecting community members to food to even setting up bus Wi-Fi hotspots for students,” said APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas. “In this time of crisis, our industry provided vital services and reliable mobility for millions, with public transportation employees continuing to prove their abilities to adapt to the swiftly changing needs of their communities. Now, as the industry looks to the future, we can take the lessons we’ve learned and apply them to improve mobility in the coming years.”

The report, On the Horizon Planning for Post-Pandemic Travel, collected data from operators, deployed staff to conduct a nationwide survey and conducted detailed case studies of five agencies (Regional Transportation District in the Denver, Colo., Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, Pa., GRTC Transit System in Richmond, Va., and Spokane Transit Authority in Washington State).

In response to falling ridership, staff retention issues and fiscal concerns, most public transit agencies were forced to cut services. However, the report found that not all agencies responded this way. Some agencies eliminated fares and reoriented service to prioritize essential workers and social equity, and/or split shifts to provide social distancing for employees.

Port Authority in Pittsburgh, Regional Transportation District in Denver and the GRTC Transit System in Richmond expanded or reoriented services to underserved and low-income communities that depend on more frequent service. Spokane Transit Authority reassigned paratransit vehicles to help older adults better access health care, recreation and other needs. To keep the public informed of these changes, transit agencies also had to expand communication efforts with the public. For example, Los Angeles’ Metro system reinforced its social media campaigns and signage, while monitoring customer feedback in real time.

GRTC CEO Julie Timm explains the system’s transit dependent riders not only continued to ride local bus routes, but needed to ride more often to access jobs, groceries, child care and healthcare. Timm notes GRTC eliminated fares at the start of the pandemic as a safety enhancement, but the transit system found going fare free not only helped promote safety but was protecting the economic health of the community. GRTC local bus ridership has returned to pre-pandemic levels and Timm says the transit system is exploring ways to bridge the funding gap by going zero fare.

Emphasizing employee and rider safety was one shared step transit agencies took during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as they adapted to the challenges of the health crisis differently. Improving cleaning protocols, working with unions to develop programs for sick employees, securing operator space on buses and providing free masks were among the safety enhancing steps taken. APTA points out more than 85 percent of public transit agencies were requiring masks by July 2020, while the federal government began requiring riders to wear masks on transit in January 2021. More than half also developed a recovery plan that included new safety precautions for riders and employees.

With the information collected for the report, its authors provide four recommendations that the public transit industry can incorporate into planning and operations as it looks beyond the pandemic to ensure its ability to provide equitable access to mobility. The recommendations are:

  • Institutionalize Best Practices from the COVID-19 Period
    • Develop partnerships with existing labor and ramp up hiring for more operators and mechanics.
    • Improve community engagement to both share and gather information.
    • Establish efforts to address potential material shortages.
    • Expand sanitation measures for both public health and ride quality.
  • Plan and Operate More Effectively in Prioritizing Social Equity
    • Redefine transit success beyond ridership measurements.
    • Identify people and communities with inequitable access to opportunity.
    • Reallocate resources toward underserved neighborhoods and essential workplaces.
    • Consider adapting services to different needs on different days of the week and different times of the day.
    • Harness these lessons to improve capital planning programs.
    • Realign existing services to best meet the needs of the travelling public.
    • Provide opportunities for meaningful involvement in decision making by all.
  • Leverage Opportunities to Expand Ridership
    • Focus on opportunities to make transit a good choice for everyone.
    • Expand education on how to pay for transit and consider identifying new fare discounts to expand ridership.
    • Increase efforts to link transit service with equitable transit-oriented development.
    • Develop engaged, long-term relationships with other government entities.
  • Keep Abreast of Changing Trends
    • Respond to telecommuting trends and increases in automobile traffic.
    • Plan for changes in market demand central-city areas.
    • Anticipate increased development in suburban communities.
    • Respond to concerns about spreading infections from COVID-19 or future pandemics.

Skoutelas lauded the transit industry’s response to the pandemic, as well as the response of the five systems that were used as case studies in the report. He noted one of the value elements of the report is the inclusion of various ways transit systems successfully dealt with the challenge of the pandemic.

“It’s not cookie cutter; everything doesn’t apply equally to every system and we’re seeing great innovation and adaptation,” said Skoutelas.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.