Maintaining public transit during the coronavirus pandemic could prevent the collapse of civilization, says an urban planner Jarrett Walker. “Buses, trains and subways make urban civilization possible,“wrote Walker of Portland, Oregon, in CityLab on April 7.
“The purpose of transit, [during the coronavirus pandemic] neither competes for riders nor provides a social service to those in need,” he said, “it helps prevent the collapse of civilization.
In cities, “public transit is an essential service, like the police and water,” says Walker, author of human transita 2011 book by Island Press from Washington, D.C. Without transit “nothing else is possible,” he added.
Despite providing an essential service, including transporting key workers to and from their jobs, public transport companies around the world have been hit hard by the current pandemic. Traffic has plummeted. San Francisco’s BART system, for example, lost 93% of its customers in just two weeks.
Most transit companies are still running services — often on a weekend schedule and with social distancing measures in place such as blocking off some seats — but revenue has dropped significantly, and there are additional expenses, including more thorough cleaning of transit vehicles, especially hard surfaces such as handrails, which must be regularly disinfected to remove all traces of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Now, an Israeli company has developed a technological solution to get furloughed transit fleets back on the road.
The urban mobility app Moovit, which describes itself as the “Wikipedia of public transit”, knows from trip planning data from millions of real transit journeys that use of public transport around the world has fallen since the start of the pandemic crisis. His solution is an on-demand emergency mobilization service.
Created for transit agencies, the service can transform on-road vehicle fleets into an on-demand service to get key workers to their destinations.
“Alternatives to traditional modes of transport must be introduced to cope with the radical change in travel,” said a company statement.
Moovit says its technology converts unused fleets into on-demand transit service, while adhering to local health regulations. The platform is meant to be adaptable and can be deployed in just a few days.
Passengers, using Moovit’s smartphone app, request an on-demand or pre-scheduled ride, as well as selection of pick-up and drop-off locations. Algorithms then create a route allowing multiple passengers to share the ride, with dynamic routing and scheduling.
Yovav Meydad, director of growth and marketing at Moovit, said the on-demand emergency mobilization tool can transform “existing resources into a modified form of transportation”.
On-demand solutions have been well received by Brussels society International Association of Public Transport (UITP).
“Due to the sharp reduction in demand in the context of COVID-19, public transport operators must reduce the offer but must also ensure the continuity of the service, in particular for the transport of healthcare personnel”. UITP General Secretary Mohamed Mezghani told me.
“On-demand services provide the flexibility to optimize bus fleet utilization and vehicle occupancy while maintaining social distancing.”
He adds: “Combining the experience of a public transport operator with the expertise of an urban mobility application provider is very useful.”
UITP, which has more than 1,800 member companies in 100 countries, is keeping its members informed about the virus crisis with a COVID-19 Fact Sheet.
Governments around the world have taken action to protect public transport operators affected by the coronavirus lockdown. In the USA, the federal CARES Act includes $25bn in emergency funds for public transport agencies, while bus operators in England have received a £167m emergency fund from the Department for Transport.
The UK’s Covid-19 Bus Services Support Grant – which will be paid over the next three months at a rate of up to £13.9million a week – is provided on the condition that bus operators maintain Services. They must also leave sufficient space between passengers on board to minimize the risk of spreading the virus.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “Buses are a lifeline for people who need to travel for work or to buy food – including our emergency services and NHS staff – and it is essential that we do everything we can to keep the sector going.”