City Transportation Changes as COVID-19 Pandemic Continues

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As city leaders across the country are working to ensure that residents are practicing physical distancing, they are also trying to balance a difficult task: ensuring that transportation options remain open for those who need them, while safeguarding transportation systems from spreading the virus. NLC talked with city leaders and transportation providers to get a better idea of what is happening to the transportation landscape right now, what the challenges are that cities are wrestling with, and what comes next as the nation’s city leaders continue to fight COVID19 in their communities.

During these difficult times when so much is uncertain, there is one transit reality that has not changed: essential workers, such as healthcare professionals, grocery store employees, and pharmacists need to get to work and they need transportation options to get there. City leaders are thinking about how to provide transit options for those that cannot self-isolate at home, while ensuring that more people do not get infected. Cities are not the only actors in this space, as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), such as Uber and Lyft, and micromobility providers, such as Bird and Lime, are also part of the city transportation landscape.

Here are some examples of what cities, towns and villages are doing to ensure resident safety and provide transit options:

  • In Chicago, Illinois, bus and rail service are running on a normal schedule with increased sanitization efforts and the Metra commuter rail is running on a reduced schedule.
  • Anchorage, Alaska has temporarily made the bus system free, is requiring rear-boarding to protect the health of operators and has limited the number of passengers to nine per bus to ensure proper social distance can be maintained.
  • Berkeley, California is operating vehicles as normal but has temporarily made rides free and is encouraging riders to maintain proper distance.
  • Seattle, Washington is working on retrofitting buses to increase the safety of both drivers and riders.
  • Both Santa Clara and San Francisco, California have suspended light rail service and are focused on maintaining buses, as they are more nimble and able to change and expand routes to reach more residents.
  • In Atlanta, Georgia, bus service has been reduced by 30%, fares are waived, and riders board through the rear door. Trains and streetcars are operating on a Sunday schedule until further notice.

International Transit Responses

Cities who have had more time to adjust and problem solve when it comes to COVID-19 have all taken different paths:

  • London is still running the Tube but is observing a reduced schedule and asking residents not to utilize the trains unless absolutely necessary.
  • Milan, Italy has reduced metro service by 75% and while they are still seeing more crowds in the morning during rush hour, the afternoons have significantly calmed. This has been a point of tension between the city and regional governments: the mayor of Milan has said that many residents do not have access to other forms of transportation and so the metro is necessary for essential workers to do their jobs, while the region has continued to push for a full closure.
  • In Wuhan, China, the buses, ferries, and metro were all shut down on January 23rd and were recently reopened on March 24th.

Private Sector Transit

Private sector actors have also taken different routes during this crisis.

In the micromobility sector, Lime, is pulling out of most US cities amid the crisis, Bird has pulled out of all European cities and is starting to remove scooters from many US cities, and Spin has moved in the opposite direction by responding to calls from cities asking for scooters to fill transportation gaps as other modes are closed or decreased.

TNCs are also making swift changes in the face of the crisis. Both Uber and Lyft have suspended pool options to decrease exposure and limit the number of persons in vehicles. Uber is implementing a wide range of initiatives to support cities during this time, including:

  • Creating a rapid-response protocol that can be deployed with city transit agencies to get residents to medical facilities. Cities interested in learning more can contact their local Uber point of contact.
  • Waiving delivery fees for UberEats to help connect local restaurants with residents.
  • Rolling out a data portal where cities can track Uber rides upon request.
  • Ramping up safety procedures including providing drivers with sanitation supplies to clean their cars between riders and a commitment to providing financial assistance for 14 days to drivers who fall ill.

Looking Ahead

City leaders continue to serve at the frontlines of the COVID19 epidemic and are being forced to make tough decisions every day, particularly when it comes to transportation. While every community is making strategic decisions about how to protect residents and provide vital transportation options, each example will look a little bit different. Bringing the right experts to the conversation and listening to the needs of residents are what our cities do best. NLC will continue to highlight and share these stories as decisions evolve. Share your thoughts and questions with us at covid19@nlc.org.

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About the Author: Brenna Rivett is a principal research associate at NLC’s Center for City Solutions.