Home View from Underground Guest Post: Cleaning Up and Reducing Crowds are Key Steps to Prepare for a Post-COVID City

Guest Post: Cleaning Up and Reducing Crowds are Key Steps to Prepare for a Post-COVID City

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

Displays showing train car passenger loads could help riders better plan their trips in the age of social distancing. The one shown here is in use in London along the Overground.

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.

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Michael549 May 15, 2020 - 3:35 pm

I’m sorry but there are times when real practical “do-able” measures have to be suggested.

a) For example on the current MTA buses traveling about the city – riders have to sit close to each other simply because there is no other room on the bus. In this case the “physical distance” approach is simply not “workable.” The idea that there will be a sudden increase in the frequencies of the buses is an utter pipe dream! Or even the frequency of the subway trains.

b) What on a 60-foot subway car will the capacity be limited to 10 riders? Or only 12 riders allowed per 75-foot long subway car? When train or bus frequencies are low – suggesting “take the next train or bus” is not a workable solution nor should it involve the risk to one’s life.

Notice the diagram included in this article, the crowded car is on a train 9 minutes away, implying that the next train could be 6-13 minutes away after that. When your daily commute is an hour or easily an hour and a half on a good day – what rider would WANT to increase that amount of travel time?

A Real Workable Suggestion:

c) How about suggesting that each of the riders wear plastic gloves as well as masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and as well as the information about the daily subway cleanings. How about “hand santizing stations” about the subway platforms to assist the riders. That is “workable and do-able.” As well as providing waste bins and trash cans to throw away those coverings at the end of a journey, to put on new coverings.

d) Many riders will simply not have jobs (if they still have them) where staggered hours or working from home is applicable. Yes, some workplaces may be able to stagger there work hours, and have some employees work from home. During the city-wide shut-down the numbers of folks who could work from work – because their workplaces supported such arrangements – has been established. It is doubtful that there will be a new hidden cache of such stay at home workers. Plenty of folks will still need to travel to work as the city opens.

e) Notice this statement, “Other cities around the globe monitor crowding by subway car and advise passengers where to stand to get seats.” Public transit in NYC is geared around the idea that the majority of the folks riding – WILL NOT HAVE SEATS! Reflect on the recent discussion of train car designs on this forum and the ideas of REMOVING seats, more standing areas, etc. The New York City is not commuter rail! Even on NYC region commuter rail there are plenty that have to stand!

f) Usage of cars. On one hand NYC is embarked on the idea of giving folks more walking space by closing down city streets to cars, etc. On the other hand NYC is embarked on the idea of “congestion pricing.” On the other hand there could be rise in the number of cars about the streets because that is a very safe way for many folks to “physical distance” as they go about the city as the city as a whole opens up.

g) Yes, the current efforts to clean up the subways – by closing the systems at nights (1am to 5am) were also about removing the homeless and the unsanitary conditions they help to create. Every one in transit policy circles know that keeping the subways closed from 1am to 5am nightly is not sustainable – and will end. Having the subways closed from 1am to 5am nightly over the long-term would conflict with the staggered work hours suggested above, as the city opens up.

h) The other day the MTA was shown placing X-marks in blue tape on the floor of the 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue subway of the E and M lines, one of the most highly crowded subway stations during normal usual times.

The bottom line – is that real workable suggestions and approaches are needed, and helpful.

SEAN May 15, 2020 - 6:37 pm

Michael is right. There is no way this idea of social distancing on trains can be applied without operational & financial impacts. It’s a pipedream & the alternatives are even worse. Increased bus services? More private cars? Uber/ taxis? As they say, forgetaboutit.

ChrisC May 28, 2020 - 11:05 pm

Gloves are not advised for general use as they spread rather than control the infection (that’s any infection not just covid). They give a false sense of security that you are somehow clean and safe when you are anything but.

Say someone puts on a pair of gloves and leaves home. They’ve likely touched dirty keys and door handles.

You touch your dirty Metro card as you take it out of your dirty wallet or purse so you can swipe it. You hold onto the pole or touch the seat and so on and so on.

You’ve basically spread it even more because your clean gloves were dirty within minutes of you putting them on.

Erik Engquist May 16, 2020 - 2:11 am

Let’s start with this: Six feet of separation is not necessary to avoid Covid-19, so let’s not pretend we need to achieve that on mass transit. Physical separation is one of many factors affecting transmission rate. If two people are wearing proper masks, they can be closer than six feet apart without significant risk of transmission. Rule No. 1, no mask, no ride.

The virus survives longer on hard surfaces, so transit systems should consider wrapping poles and bars with fabric or some other material the coronavirus cannot abide.

Variable pricing reduces crowding. Charge higher fares during the busiest travel periods.

Air flow is important. To the extent it can be adjusted/controlled on trains to minimize the risk of infection, that should be done. Whatever airplanes do seems to be working. The accordion-style (open gangway) trains, allegedly on the way to NYC, should help a lot.

All transit wonks should bone up on how the virus spreads. Erin Bromage’s blog post is a great place to start. https://www.erinbromage.com/post/the-risks-know-them-avoid-them

Queuing is important. We can avoid packed platforms by retraining platform workers to do something besides wave flashlights at each other and provide virtually no useful information to riders. Some stations have mezzanine levels that are usually empty. Riders could queue there to avoid a crowded platform, but this would require active enforcement.

Singing and yelling produces far more virus than basic breathing by a Covid-positive person. The MTA must get rid of subway singers, preachers, solicitors, candy sellers and other vendors, and acrobats. Trains can only be for riding.

OLDER AND WISER May 16, 2020 - 3:02 pm

Also, how about making constructive (for a change) use of the train’s PA system. Frequent announcements warning riders not to converse or interact with other riders at all, especially with masks lowered, not even within a group of friends traveling together.

If every rider ever becomes willing to just breathe silently into their mask, the minuscule amount of vapor projected into the car would be hard pressed to survive an airborne journey of six centimeters, let alone six feet.

LockedInPzzedOff May 16, 2020 - 3:35 pm

Yes, I’m sure that everyone TPTB have just released from Rikers and upstate, plus those released on no bail no jail plus the far greater number of fine, rule-respecting New Yorkers who were allowed to continue with a little stickup here, a little menacing there will be just fine with coughing and spitting into an hot, humid mask held against their face.
Just to be really helpful, why don’t you volunteer to get in their face and tell them to mask up, with the mask over mouth and nose, not over their chin. And shave their thick beard, ‘cuz the mask is useless with that.
Please come back and let us know how that works out. We appreciate your public service.

LockedInPzzedOff May 16, 2020 - 3:17 pm

Think like an air and touch transmitted virus… or a disease spewing rat. NYC looks like Heaven, Switzerland look like Judgement Day.
None. You can’t fix NYC’s filth, the population will revolt.

Well, there’s -almost- no solution.
Neutron bomb NYC, then take off to space and proton beam blaze for 666 hours. It’s the only way to be sure! Then give it back to the Indigenous People of NYC, aka The Homeless and the Mafia.

OLDER AND WISER May 16, 2020 - 3:24 pm

And that goes for cell phone usage as well. It’s amazing to see people shouting through masks into their phones in close quarters, apparently believing they aren’t projecting any vapor.

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