On March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. While governmental responses to the spread of COVID-19 throughout February and March 2020 varied by outbreak severity, location and culture, many people around the globe found themselves suddenly facing unfamiliar restrictions on their movements and their access to familiar services. By mid-March, dozens of countries, cities and states had issued mandatory “shelter in place” orders, and millions of people around the globe were ordered to limit unnecessary travel to stem the virus’s spread. Nevertheless, even with millions hunkering down at home, city residents still needed to get to stores, check on loved ones, and in some cases, get to work. In many ways, the pandemic shined a light on the central role that shared mobility options play in supporting essential services, particularly during times of crisis.
This status update will explore how cities and transportation sectors were impacted by the virus and the resulting travel restrictions, as well as feature some of the ways public agencies and shared mobility operators responded to the outbreak in the initial weeks in the spring of 2020. It will also assess some of the trends relating to shared transportation that are likely to emerge in the aftermath of the crisis, and lessons learned for future similar situations.
SUMC will continue to track emerging patterns and responses as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds. Subsequent status updates on the coronavirus’s impact on transit and shared mobility will be published as new information is shared.
Buses, trains and subways all transport many people in close quarters, with several surfaces to touch, and no way to isolate those who are sick from those who are not, as is possible in a hospital. As a result, news of the virus’s rapid spread in the US led to a significant drop in ridership of some of America’s largest public transit systems. New York City’s Metra Transit Authority (MTA), for example, released an Annual Disclosure Statement Supplement noting that the subway system carried 60 percent fewer riders and the bus system 50 percent fewer riders on March 16th compared to the same Monday the year prior. In San Francisco, even before the city’s mandatory “shelter at home” order was in place, the BART system saw 70% fewer riders on March 16th compared to an equivalent day the month prior – a drop that then rose to 90% by the 19th. The Denver RTD similarly estimated a 60% decrease in ridership the week of March 16th compared to the year prior. However, it was not just cities’ systems that saw a drop: Chicago’s Metra and Amtrak trains serving the surrounding suburban and metropolitan area also reported notably fewer rides as concern about the virus grew.
It is important to note, however, that public transit and other shared modes continue to provide essential services as the pandemic unfolds, and it is therefore critical that, moving forward, ridership alone is not the only benchmark used to measure performance during the crisis.
Another way public transit was impacted by the coronavirus’s outbreak was through changes in service hours. Boston’s MBTA drew the ire of healthcare workers when it initially changed its commuter rail timetables in a way that made it difficult for doctors, nurses and other medical staff to get to the area’s many healthcare centers in time for their early morning shifts. The agency also cut service on select busy routes within the city, although some suggested that such cuts could increase the risks of contracting COVID-19, especially among low-income riders who are less likely to be able to work from home avoid crowded transit routes. St. Louis also switched its service to a weekend schedule, while Charlotte cut service but opted to make all remaining service free of charge.
In addition to responding to the lower ridership numbers and encouraging people to remain at home, one of the factors driving this push to reduce service came from staff shortages. As childcare centers closed and staff grew sick or concerned about exposure, the number of available drivers also grew limited. As of March 25th, MTA subway service in New York City had been cut by 25%, and over 50 MTA workers were infected with the virus.
Agencies also responded to the crisis by ramping up efforts to clean public transit facilities. For example, the MTA estimated that its coronavirus-related expenses (such as sanitizing trains and stations) would reach over $300 million.
Significant concerns arose regarding the health and safety of public transit employees. A union representative from the Chicago Transit Authority advocated for making COVID-19 testing available to all employees after a bus driver tested positive for the virus, while the Detroit DOT hired more cleaning staff for its vehicles, and ramped up the frequency with which they were disinfected.
Unlike the sharp decline in ridership experienced by public transit systems, microtransit services like bikesharing and scooter sharing saw a different ridership trend. As awareness about the virus grew – but before cities and states starting implementing mandatory lockdowns – many people turned to micromobility to fulfill their mobility needs. New York City’s public bikeshare system, Citibike, had a 67% increase of ridership in mid-March compared to 2019, while Chicago’s Divvy bikeshare system reported double the number of bike check-outs from March 1st to 11th in 2020 compared to 2019. Much of this increase in use of bikeshare was likely due to people opting to use bikes rather than crowded public transit, as well as the weather warming throughout the Western Hemisphere, making active transportation options more appealing, and local governments actively encouraging use of these modes in response to the virus. People also turned to micromobility services to de-stress by biking for pleasure on trails and in parks.
However, once lockdowns and mandatory “shelter in place” orders were given, micromobility use dropped off. Milan, for example, saw an 80% decrease in the number of scooter and moped trips once the city began to implement restrictions on movement and stores.
Operators managing micromobility services responded to the crisis by implementing new Standard Operating Procedures for vehicle cleaning. Many operators provided their employees with masks and protective gear, and in some instances, even suspended operations to protect employees’ health; Lime, for example, paused operations in 25 states and over 20 countries. For Chicago’s Divvy bikeshare system, extra attention was paid to disinfecting high-contact surfaces, such as handlebar grips and saddles on bikes, as well as handles on vans used to transport the vehicles from warehouses to stations and back. Scooter companies like Lime and Bird also followed CDC and WHO recommendations by increasing the frequency of scooter cleanings and requiring operators to wear gloves in the field.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, during the height of COVID-19 across the US, people were requesting fewer rides with transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft and microtransit services like Via. As residents began to work from home and avoid non-essential travel, demand for such on-demand trips dropped, with Uber reporting 70% fewer trips in the cities significantly impacted by the virus, and the Wall Street Journal estimating a 21% decrease in spending on TNC rides the week of March 16th compared to the week prior.
In an effort to help slow the virus’s spread, both Uber and Lyft suspended shared ride services on March 17th in the US and Canada. Single-occupancy rides – where a single passenger (or party) is picked up by a driver and taken directly to their requested destination – were still permitted. In addition, the Via to Transit first/last mile on-demand program operated by Via in conjunction with Seattle’s King County Metro was discontinued on March 23rd when the agency shifted to a reduced schedule.
Some TNC drivers, however, were concerned for their safety, even transporting just one passenger at a time. Some drivers set up “sneeze-guard” protections in their own cars, or stopped giving rides altogether to prevent getting sick themselves.
Like most transportation modes, carsharing was also impacted by the March 2020 pandemic. Person-to-person carsharing platform Getaround saw a significant drop in use as a result of the outbreak, and began shopping for a buyer. The CEO of another carsharing service, Hourcar, wrote a message to customers explaining how the company’s fleet was being cleaned, that they were adding stickers to each vehicle’s windshield to confirm its last cleaning date and time, and that they had placed sanitizing wipes in all vehicles. Such measures were taken by several operators to communicate their safety measures to customers.
The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) held several webinars on best practices and ways to address concerns, published resources and tools to help public transit agencies respond to the pandemic, and established a dedicated email hotline for agency representatives to submit questions. The International Association of Public Transit shared a factsheet on recommended ways for the public transport sector to manage the outbreak, while the USDOT and the Transportation Research Board also shared valuable resources to help public agencies and cities respond.
The FTA held a webinar specifically on the federal CARES Act and its impact on public transportation on April 6; the webinar presentation is available here.
As a result of orders to limit unnecessary travel, many transit agencies experienced significant declines in their ridership numbers, leading to serious concerns about budget shortfalls. To help fill this gap, US Congress’s $2 trillion COVID response package (CARES Act) allocated $25 billion in mass transit aid, with the Federal Transit Administration apportionment to various urbanized areas available here.
In addition to receiving an influx of federal funding to address revenue shortfalls, several public agencies and organizations took steps to limit the virus’s spread, protect employees’ and travelers’ safety, and ensure access to mobility options. For example:
Other more original programs were implemented as well. The San Antonio School District, for example, began using its school buses to transport meals to students after the schools had been ordered closed.
In order to help support struggling transportation workers, Singapore’s Land Transport Authority quickly passed an assistance package for its transportation services in response to COVID-19. The first tranche of the package included $77 million to help taxi and private hire care drivers affected by the outbreak and was passed in February, while the second tranche included an additional $120 million and was passed in March. The package provided special assistance funding to drivers through September 2020, while the Self-Employed Persons Income Relief Scheme was instructed provide eligible self-employed persons with $1,000 per month for nine months.
The CEO of Uber advocated for making its contract drivers eligible for unemployment benefits in the federal COVID-19 response bill, and in final version of the CARES Act passed on March 27th, on-demand and gig workers like TNC drivers were deemed eligible for paid sick leave. New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission requested that Uber and Lyft drivers who were working less due to the outbreak help to deliver food to homebound senior citizens in the city.
Uber also offered free rides and food deliveries for healthcare workers in the United Kingdom, and pledged an additional 10 million free rides globally for frontline workers and seniors on March 31st. And for its drivers, Uber launched a new paid time off policy to increase eligibility for sick leave during the outbreak.
Another transportation platform, Ride Health, launched a COVID-19 ride tracking program for hospitals nationwide to reduce the spread of the virus between on-demand drivers and passengers using the service for their non-emergency medical transportation needs.
Microtransit services like Via are also working with cities to help reduce the costs of low-ridership fixed routes by temporarily implementing on-demand services, especially for emergency workers; evaluating how to re-optimize routes for essential worker transit, and delivering food or goods using existing vehicles and drivers.
Around the globe, autonomous vehicle testing by companies like Waymo, Uber and Cruise was suspended in response to the pandemic. One autonomous vehicle Modai, was used to deliver essential groceries in Beijing communities amid the outbreak.
In the US, Jacksonville Transportation Authority used driverless, low-speed autonomous vehicles to transport COVID-19 virus samples to the Mayo Clinic.
In the immediate aftermath of the outbreak, there are opportunities and challenges that will likely present themselves to public agencies and transportation operators.
One of the major concerns, particularly for public transit agencies, following a return to normal operations is the shortfalls in revenue resulting from the decreased ridership and additional expenses incurred during the crisis. The New Jersey Transit requested a $1.25 billion bailout from the federal government, and the director of San Francisco’s BART system asserted that the agency was on course to lose $3.5 million per week of the pandemic. In fact, one estimate places the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on US public transportation between $26 and $38 billion annually. Across the pond, London’s TFL projected a loss of £500 million in passenger revenue due to the virus.
There are budgetary concerns for micrombility companies as well. Typically, springtime brings an increase in biking and e-scooting, as the weather makes these active transportation modes more appealing. However, many operators were forced to suspend operations as a result of the crisis; Lime temporarily shuttered its service in all North American markets and in over 20 countries. In Miami, residents were explicitly told by the city not to use shared micromobility services due to concerns about spreading the virus. Due to these companies having to suspend operations at such a critical time for them – with regards both to the weather and to the relatively new position e-scooters hold in the larger transportation system – there are concerns about budget constraints for several operators going forward.
A very short-term outcome of the pandemic was improvements in air and water quality due to decreased human activity and manufacturing. For example, one study posits that the shutdown in China could save thousands of lives due to the decreased pollution levels. Another analysis conducted by Carbon Brief estimated that China’s CO2 output was temporarily decreased by one quarter due to the virus. More anecdotally, swans and fish were spotted in the waters in Venice, Italy – a rarity when the canals are typically full of residents and tourists. However, these environmental impacts are likely to be short-lived as life returns to pre-outbreak activities. In fact, global carbon emissions jumped by 5% due to increased fossil fuel use after the financial crisis of 2008-2009.
In many markets, the process of permitting micromobility operators – and particularly shared scooter systems – to operate locally is still being developed. Many public agencies are still navigating how best to open their doors to these services. The COVID-19 pandemic may end up slowing down permitting processes, as agency representatives focus on other pressing matters. London, for example, took initial steps to legalize e-scooters on the city’s streets in early 2020, but the public consultation process opened by the British government may need to be extended or postponed altogether, given that attention has been directed elsewhere through the spring.
Some e-scooter operators may need to delay or limit planned expansions in service areas due to supply chain shortages. Most micromobility vehicles are made in China or other southeast Asian countries, and it is yet unclear what impact the lockdowns will have on e-scooter production for the later Spring 2020. In a February filing to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Lyft noted that it is expecting delays on anticipated timelines to receive new vehicles and spare parts as a result of the outbreak.
As the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold, subsequent status updates will be published, tracking emerging patterns and responses. Likely longer-term impacts from the pandemic on the transportation sector and shared modes will also be shared, as they become clearer.
Another possible long-term outcome for the transportation sector as a result of the coronavirus crisis is greater attention to employment regulations and protections for contract workers like TNC drivers who were left without work or strong employment protections when the lockdowns began. The aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak may lead to more federal- and state-level focus on how to protect employees during future crises.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused thousands of deaths, trillions of dollars of damage to the global economy, and rampant unemployment. For the transportation sector specifically, the COVID-19 crisis interrupted service, caused confusion and distrust, and wreaked havoc on transit ridership numbers and budgets. However, the crisis was also able to demonstrate to a wide swath of the populace that shared transportation modes can play a role in increasing mobility for all under hardship conditions. When bus services were reduced, people turned to walking or micromobility to help them get where they needed safely, when those modes had never before been options they considered.
One potential takeaway of the pandemic may be a greater appreciation for how the various transportation services offered in a city can complement one another. This greater appreciation could result in more collaboration efforts between parties, resulting in programs where micromobility, carsharing or TNC rides are used in ways that make multimodal trips easier, such as the Via to Transit first/last mile program in Seattle, or the partnership in Pittsburgh where use of the bikeshare system is free with use of the city’s transit fare card. Cities and their residents could prioritize infrastructure developments that serve shared-use modes over those projects that primarily benefit single-occupancy drivers, like investing in protected bike lanes and express bus lanes.