Today’s post is an op-ed piece from Mysore Nagaraja, Bob Previdi and Howard Sackel, a trio of New York City-area transit veterans. These post reflects their views, opinions and recommendations. If you would like to contribute your voice to Second Ave. Sagas, you can always contact me here.
The post-COVID 19 world poses a very particular challenge for transit: How do we meet the challenge of balancing the physical capacity of the transit system and its trains and buses with the new safety guidelines calling for proper social distancing?
As the economy slowly reopens and transit riders return, wearing masks in public and keeping six feet of separation will remain in place for the foreseeable future. The MTA must figure out how to manage rush hour and its historic crowding. The solution should include not only maintaining equipment and stations to a new standard of cleanliness but also working cooperatively with riders and businesses to stagger work hours and flatten the peak rush hour curves to meet the social distancing guideline.
Governor Cuomo recalled the challenges posed by the post September 11th and Hurricane Sandy periods and how New York was able to successfully meet these challenges. He suggested a plan to “build back better,” finding ways to use this tragic situation as a means to change how things are done and make them better than before. Nobody likes rush hour crowding, and perhaps NYC can use this situation to eliminate crush loads which would certainly be met favorably by the public.
Key to the return of both customers and employees is giving them confidence that their return is being safely managed. Deploying wash trains, more visible cleaning of stations and buses as well as a broad customer information program to continually reinforce the public awareness of these proactive actions will provide customers and employees with the confidence that they can still get where they need to go, with reliable service, in a healthier environment and with real time information about service status.
Data collected by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council shows that 1.1 million people travel into the Manhattan Central Business District between 7:00 and 10:00 a.m. using public transit trains and buses and the same number leave in the evening. To be able to adhere to the six-foot guidelines without doubling the number of train cars or buses (which is not possible) will therefore require using the existing fleet of buses and trains more efficiently.
The UITP, the International Association of Public Transit, reaffirmed the guidelines for social distancing and is actively advising their members to ask the public to change the time they travel to reduce peak volumes. As the MTA expects 60% of riders to return by September, there is no time to lose.
The interagency task force for transit put together by the governor should use this time while ridership is still only 10 to 15% of normal volumes to work closely with the business community and employers to reduce the passenger load during the morning and evening rush hours, by finding ways to stagger the rush hours to allow a reduction in peak congestion.
Other cities around the globe monitor crowding by subway car and advise passengers where to stand to get seats. The MTA is already testing similar technology on a few Staten Island Express buses. The MTA is also looking into technology that would report crowding conditions in a real-time way so that riders can make their own decision to stay away if crowding is becoming an issue. Working with technology leaders, solutions should be developed now to better monitor patron loading and crowding and provide real-time information to the MTA’s customers.
Another way to inform the system’s patrons about crowding and foster reduced loads is to provide information using social media and entry-point real-time information using existing monitors and new video screens above entrances to enable customers to make adjustments in their trips. Simultaneously feeding this information to social media and all media outlets can allow for real-time updates of conditions, informing customers where to enter the system or where to avoid unsafe conditions.
Transit must find a way to manage its way out this crisis or New York City risks overwhelming traffic if even some people choose to drive instead. According to US census data, 57% of those working in NYC use public transit and only 27% drive. With two million people making work trips to Manhattan each day, New York has to find a way to make transit adapt to this new world where less crowding is paramount. There is no perfect solution here, and the issue should not just be the MTA’s to solve, but the MTA can determine what level of ridership they can manage safely given the new distancing guideline. Using data about rush hour travel to help the business community and riders reshape how crowded the trains and buses get could be a long-term benefit from this horrible crisis.
About the Authors:
Bob Previdi is a transportation planner, and former Superintendent of Subway Car Assignments at NYC Transit.
Mysore Nagaraja is a transportation consultant and the former president of MTA Capital Construction and Senior VP, Capital Programs at NYC Transit
Howard Sackel was senior VP at PACO Technologies and a former director for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.