Public transportation during a pandemic – How tech solutions keep us apart

Public transport planners and operators are faced with a number of new financial and logistical challenges due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. How to comply with social distancing requirements? How to react to declining riderships? And how to win back those passengers who switched to private transport?

Public transportation during a pandemic | Photo by Lisanto, Unsplash

Tech-driven approaches to transportation during the pandemic

Since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has experienced significant declines in passenger numbers, and most experts in the transit industry believe the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic to continue to be felt. With 88% of transit agencies reporting decreases similar to that of New York (source: Mass Transit survey, Executive Summary: Impacts of Covid-19 and Smart Transit Trends, Dec. 4, 2020.), winning back these passengers will be of paramount importance across the industry. To make the challenge even more difficult, people’s confidence in public transportation during the pandemic has deteriorated. This is in part a reaction to the health risk from all the physical touch points, the unavoidable passenger interactions, and the need for agencies to maintain an efficient, i.e. mass, transportation service.

By now, most public transportation systems worldwide have implemented new safety policies specifically in response to the coronavirus. Alongside such efforts as face masks and regular disinfecting, technology is also expected to play a greater role in preventing the spread of infections within our transit systems. For example, investments in the thermal screening of passengers are expected to nearly double, and it is estimated that the use of electronic monitoring of passenger behavior will more than double (source: Mass Transit survey, Executive Summary: Impacts of Covid-19 and Smart Transit Trends, Dec. 4, 2020.). The transition to a “smart” transit system is now a high priority across the industry.

These smart services begin with the implementation of contactless and/or automated fare payments. Formerly considered a “nice-to-have,” this technology has become a necessity in light of the need to minimize interaction between public transport personnel and passengers – with the goal of protecting the safety of both.

For passengers, one solution may be the mobility apps already installed on their smartphones, which can be enhanced to deliver real-time updates. Passengers can then arrive at their stations or stops shortly before their chosen vehicle is due, avoiding congestion or long lines where social distancing might not be practiced.

For operators, possible solutions include automated systems to monitor passenger loads and thus enable social distancing on board buses and trains. Coupled with this is dynamic scheduling based on real-time and/or predicted demand, which not only facilitates social distancing but also enhances the customer experience.

Which smart technologies are already in use?

Of course, these technologies are not new, and many have been fully developed and already implemented by various transit agencies around the world. Fortunately, passenger predictability solutions, originally designed to streamline networks, can easily be adapted to support public transportation during a pandemic. They are also relatively easy to integrate and offer a fast return on investment.

First and foremost among these, Automatic Passenger Counting (APC) systems record the number of passengers boarding and alighting at each stop. Because APC systems form the basis for passenger load data in real time, an increasing number of transport authorities are providing this information to their riders. This is usually by way of another common technology, Passenger Information Systems (PIS), indicating current loads, wait times, and even which cars or buses are less crowded, offering more space for social distancing.

During the current Covid-19 pandemic, this data allows people to plan their trips and alter their travel habits accordingly. Furthermore, APC systems enable transport planners to identify overcrowding patterns and adjust the service to distribute the passenger loads evenly – altering the number of trips and vehicles accordingly, especially during peak service periods.

How can APC systems facilitate public transportation during the pandemic?
Photo by Mika Baumeister | Unsplash

How can APC systems facilitate public transportation during the pandemic?

  • Reliable determination of passenger loads
  • Flexible adjustment of vehicle capacities
  • Optimization of vehicle routes and frequencies
  • Effective passenger information using real-time data

Find out more about how operators can benefit from APC during the pandemic here.

With the aid of artificial intelligence (AI), the data supplied by the APC systems can be analyzed to provide operators with insights into people’s movements. This facilitates the management of passenger loads – as well as the distances between them -- across the entire transport network. Only by considering the network as a whole, can transit managers understand the relations between people, processes, and vehicles, and therefore determine the optimal way of ensuring social distancing.

New York’s public bus transportation during the pandemic – A case study

While plastic screens and contactless payment systems, such as MTA’s proprietary MetroCard, may help protect bus drivers from infection, passengers have to quickly decide whether to board a vehicle or not, unaware in advance of whether social distancing will be possible once inside the bus, for example.

This is why, in July 2020, the MTA launched a new capacity-tracking feature on its website and MYmta app that allows people to check the number of passengers on a bus before it arrives. The objective of this new feature was to

reduce overcrowding by showing travelers which buses are already reaching their socially distanced capacity limits,

allowing them to choose between waiting for the next bus or making alternate travel plans. “With this MYmta pilot, bus customers can choose to space themselves out a bit more where capacity allows,” explained Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit.

The real-time passenger numbers are determined using IRMA MATRIX sensors supplied by iris. These have been fitted in 2,500 buses so far (approximately 40% of MTA’s total fleet) since the project began in 2017.  The APC system consists of a real-time modem on board the bus that communicates via the cloud with a central computer, relaying the data from the sensors. These are placed above the bus doorways and make use of infrared and 3D image pattern technology to count the number of people boarding and alighting.

In addition to the many other safety precautions in place on New York City Transit, such as wearing masks and using hand sanitizer, the passenger load numbers give riders the tools available to maximize their social distancing. Craig Cipriano, president of MTA Bus, sums it up thus: “As we continue to navigate through this pandemic, we know how important it is to provide the safest and most efficient service we can.”

How can transit operators improve public transportation in the new normal?

Safe passenger distancing will rely on the ability of transit managers to not only monitor passenger loads and thus densities via APC, but also to take pre-emptive action to ensure social distancing is actually practiced. By understanding crowd density and passenger flows, managers can also improve regular procedures, such as disinfection processes, and move from a scheduled cleaning plan to a needs-based one. They can equally take decisive action across the network – limiting entry to busy subway stations, advising of empty areas along the platform, and directing passengers to less crowded buses or railcars. Another advantage of this enhancement is shorter connection times for passengers.

Once Covid-related restrictions are lifted, there is unlikely to be a rapid return to pre- pandemic public transportation numbers. This is partly because many people will continue to work from home, but also because passengers will need to be reassured that it is safe to travel on public transport. Reinstating people’s confidence will be key to the recovery of mass transit. One way to achieve this is by empowering passengers to make more informed travel decisions.

Once again, APC systems can supply the necessary data. Fed in real time to dynamic displays and mobile apps, this information allows passengers to see which subway stations are less crowded before they travel. While on the move, they can get updates on line lengths, the best place to wait, and which vehicles are less crowded. By communicating the period since the last cleaning and other preventative procedures, operators can also demonstrate their commitment to providing a hygienic travel environment -- further boosting traveler confidence in public transit.

How will APC technologies help in the future?

Of course, many public transport agencies were already using APC technologies prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, to help monitor passenger flows and loads, as well as in their planning. As ridership numbers rise again at different rates, agencies may see large anomalies in passenger loads -- even within the same network, where large metropolitan areas are concerned.

Those agencies already using APC sensors and analytics programs to gain a real-time overview of numbers, flows, wait times, and passenger loads will reap multiple benefits from these technologies following the pandemic. This is because planning based on passenger behavior analytics – schedules, routing, staff rosters, maintenance, and cleaning, for example – can all be quickly adjusted to reflect changing travel patterns and demands.

Protecting passengers by way of social distancing will remain part of operators’ duties for many months to come. Only with an understanding of passenger numbers, movements and dwell times, based on real-time data, can agencies have any hope of regulating load factors, minimizing congestion, and keeping their customers safe.

Thankfully, with the right technology in place, operators can ensure social distancing, prevent commuter crush, and plan for smarter, safer public transport journeys in the future.

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