Case Study: Status Update, April 8: COVID-19 Crisis Impact on Transit & Shared Mobility

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.

 

Impact During the Initial Weeks of the Outbreak

Public Transit
Ridership Declines

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.

Reduced Service

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.

More Cleaning & Safety Precautions

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.

Photo of Chicago Transit Authority employee cleaning turnstiles

Source: Chicago Transit Authority

Micromobility
Ridership Changes

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.

More Cleaning & Safety Precautions

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.

 

Ridesourcing & Microtransit
Ridership Declines

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.

Uber & Lyft sticker on car with skyscrapers reflected on windshield

Uber and Lyft stickers on driver’s windshield

Safety Precautions and Concerns

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.

 

Carsharing

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.

 

Public Agency & Operator Responses to Pandemic

Federal Agency Resources

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.

 

Public Transit Policies and Programs

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.

Diagram of transportation industries impacted by federal CARES act

Source: USDOT

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:

  • Reducing contact between passengers and drivers: Charlotte waived bus fares to reduce contact between passengers and drivers and to speed the boarding process. Other agencies – including New York’s MTA – encouraged boarding and disembarking through rear doors rather than the front doors on buses, and blocked off seats closest to the driver.
  • Increased cleaning of vehicles and facilities: On Tuesday, March 17th, Detroit DOT drivers found their buses inadequately cleaned, and felt that they were not provided enough gloves and hand sanitizer; by that afternoon, the city had shut down service. In response, the city’s mayor ordered increased cleaning of vehicles and distribution of protective gear, and service resumed the following day. Many cities increased their cleaning of facilities, in addition to the cleaning of vehicles. Chicago’s CTA workers, for example, were instructed to pay special attention to disinfecting areas that are touched most frequently by customers, such as turnstiles, handrails, escalator railings, seats, and ticket machines.
  • Service reductions: Another step some agencies took was to adjust service in order to limit non-essential travel. Many changed service to weekend schedules or reduced frequency of busy routes, and Washington D.C. publicized that it reserved the right to close transit stations near its popular cherry blossom clusters in order to limit trips for tourism-purposes only. However, as some cities quickly learned, agencies needed to remain conscious of certain sectors of the public that still needed to travel. Boston, for instance, had to adjust its initially-reduced schedule so that healthcare workers commuting from the suburbs could still make their 7am shifts.
  • Discounts for healthcare workers: Chicago’s suburban commuter rail Metra and Pace Suburban Bus permitted healthcare workers to ride for free by presenting a work ID to conductors or operations.

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.

 

Micromobility Policies and Programs
  • Agencies encouraging micromobility operators to fill public transit gaps: The way many public agencies and cities approached micromobility services and their operators during the outbreak suggests a growing acknowledgement of the important role such services can play within the larger transportation network. In Detroit, for example, micromobility operators were encouraged to fill gaps in the transportation network when public transit service was temporarily paused. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority took a step further and categorized e-scooters as an essential service to the city, and suspended some of its usual requirements regarding vehicle distribution, making it easier for the companies to continue to operate during the crisis. However, only Spin continued operating on San Francisco streets, while Lime, Scoot and Jump all paused local operations.
  • Agencies encouraging use of micromobility modes and expanding supporting infrastructure: In addition to easing regulations for operators, some cities actively encouraged residents to shift to shared modes of transportation like scooters and bikes rather than public transit. The mayor of Buenos Aires encouraged residents to prioritize use of bikes to “avoid close contact with others and leave more space for those who have no other choice for travel,” and Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City, encouraged people to bike to work in a tweet prior to the city implementing a lockdown. Meanwhile, Bogota expanded its micromobility infrastructure by turning car lanes into protected bike and scooter lanes, and the city publicized an information campaign that encouraged use of micromobility services as a safe way to get around.  Mexico City followed Bogota’s example and temporarily increased micromobility infrastructure, and there is the possibility that some such expansions may remain in place after the pandemic passes. One micromobility operator suggested that this was a trend largely seen in cities that already recognize micromobility as a central component of the transportation network.
  • Agencies and operators implementing discounts: Cost and access to vehicles can be major barriers to adopting micromobilty modes, and cities took steps to alleviate those barriers during the outbreak. In Chicago, the city’s public bikeshare system implemented a temporary plan that capped rides at $1, and waived fares for front line workers like healthcare staff, while Boston’s Bluebikes bikeshare system provided a code to grant healthcare workers a free monthly pass. Paris also offered free rides on its shared biking system, Velib, for healthcare workers. Scooter companies are also providing free rides for front line workers, with both Lyft and Spin offering free scooter trips for healthcare workers in Denver for the month of April.  In Portland the Bureau of Transportation is reducing the fees to use Biketown in an effort to provide an affordable mode of transportation for people to purchase groceries or prescriptions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Operators exploring new partnerships and business models: Another way micromobility operators responded to the crisis was by trying out new models. Some scooter operators, for example, experimented with providing longer-term rental options. For example, instead of just renting scooters for short, per-minute intervals, companies also promoted the option of renting scooters for periods like a week or a month for flat fares. As a result, a customer could have their own “private” scooter for the month, thereby enabling them to commute to work or run their errands as public transit service was reduced in their area. This method also likely put some customers at ease, knowing exactly where “their” scooter had been recently. EV moped-sharing service Revel worked to expand its service area in New York to better serve major medical centers, and offered discounts to frontline workers. Another micromobility company, Gotcha, offered use of its bikes to local restaurants in Syracuse, NY for food delivery services after it was forced to suspend regular operators due to the state lockdown.
Carshare and Carpool Programs
  • In southern California, Green Raiteros, a volunteer transportation network serving the agrarian community of Huron, typically provides rides to residents who lack auto or other mobility options. During the COVID-19 epidemic, however, volunteer drivers also used the organization’s vehicles and their own cars to transport meals to seniors in the community. For more on Green Raiteros’ typical operations, see SUMC’s case study here.
  • In the United Kingdom, carpooling app Faxi expanded its service and adjusted its software to enable drivers to more easily bring necessities and supplies to vulnerable residents during the lockdown.

 

Ridesourcing & Microtransit Policies & Programs

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.

Autonomous Vehicles

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.

 

Likely Short-term Outcomes of COVID-19 Pandemic on Shared-Use Mobility

In the immediate aftermath of the outbreak, there are opportunities and challenges that will likely present themselves to public agencies and transportation operators.

Budget shortfalls

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.

Impacts on the Environment

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.

Delayed Micromobility Roll-Outs or Expansions

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.

 

Potential Longer-Term Outcomes

Public Transit:
  • Debt and Service Cuts: According to a March 20th estimate from TransitCenter, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on US public transportation will fall between $26 and $38 billion annually. While the $2 trillion COVID-19 response package passed by Congress did allocate significant funds to bolster the transportation sectors, these funds will not be sufficient to cover the total revenue loss agencies will face. Budget shortfalls could result in agencies having to implement cuts to their service routes, which could limit mobility options for riders.
  • Decreased Ridership: Even aside from potential service cuts, there is a possibility that the COVID-19 outbreak will lead to a decrease in the use of public transit. Many employees may begin working from home more often after the lockdown ends (thereby cutting down on total commute trips), and others may opt to continue using micromobility modes they tried out to avoid packed platforms during the crisis.
Micromobility:
Photo of scooters parked in a designated scooter coral (box painted on the street)

Credit: Arlington, VA

  • In general, one likely outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a greater acceptance of micromobility modes. People who may have otherwise avoided biking or e-scootering turned to these modes to avoid crowded public transit, introducing them to an alternative transportation method – one they may choose to continue using long after the outbreak has passed.
  • Scooter share company Gotcha’s willingness to partner with local restaurants in Syracuse during the COVID-19 crisis could serve as an example of a new type of partnership available to micromobility operators. When Gotcha was forced to suspend operations due to the mandatory lockdown, the company offered its vehicles to restaurants and food delivery operations in the area to help them meet the increased need for delivery orders. Such a model could prove increasingly common, particularly as large segments of the population may have become acquainted with food delivery during the crisis when their travel was restricted.
  • Increased investments in bike/ped/scooter and transit infrastructure on city streets.  Cities including Philadelphia, Bogota, Mexico City and New York City all took steps to close down some roadways to cars and open them up to scooters and bikes to facilitate greater use of these modes during the pandemic. Going forward, experts urge cities to keep some of these temporary changes permanent, and to prioritize active transportation infrastructure to increase mobility for all – and potentially help prevent future outbreaks. [NPR].
Ridesourcing:

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.

Conclusions

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.

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