Keeping public transit running during the coronavirus pandemic could prevent civilization’s collapse, claims urban planner Jarrett Walker. “Buses, trains, and subways make urban civilization possible,” wrote Walker of Portland, Oregon, in CityLab on April 7.
“The goal of transit, [during the coronavirus pandemic] is neither competing for riders nor providing a social service for those in need,” he stated, “it is helping prevent the collapse of civilization.”
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In cities, “transit is an essential service, like police and water,” believes Walker, author of Human Transit, a 2011 book from Island Press of Washington, D.C. Without transit “nothing else is possible,” he added.
Despite providing an essential service, including getting key workers to and from their jobs, transit companies around the world have been hit hard by the current pandemic. Ridership has collapsed. San Francisco’s BART system, for example, has lost 93% of its customers in the space of 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 revenues are dramatically down, and there are additional expenses including deeper cleaning of transit vehicles, especially hard surfaces such as handrails, which need to be regularly disinfected to remove any traces of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Now an Israeli company has come up with a tech solution to get furloughed transit fleets back on the road.
Urban mobility app Moovit—which describes itself as the “Wikipedia of Transit”— knows from journey planning data culled from millions of actual transit journeys that usage of public transit across the world has plummeted since the start of the pandemic crisis. Its solution is an Emergency Mobilization On-Demand service.
Created for transit agencies, the service can turn road-going vehicle fleets into an on-demand service to get key workers to their destinations.
“Alternatives to traditional modes of transportation must be introduced to grapple with the dramatic shift in getting around,” says a statement from the company.
Moovit says its technology converts unused fleets into an on-demand transit service, while adhering to local health regulations. The platform is said to be adaptable and can be rolled out in just days.
Riders, using Moovit’s smartphone app, request an on-demand or pre-scheduled ride, as well as selecting pickup and dropoff locations. Algorithms then create a journey allowing multiple riders to share the ride, with dynamic routing and scheduling.
Yovav Meydad, chief growth and marketing officer at Moovit, said the Emergency Mobilization On-Demand tool can transform “existing resources into an altered form of transportation.”
On-demand solutions have been welcomed by the Brussels-based International Association of Public Transport (UITP).
“Due to the strong reduction of demand in the context of COVID-19, public transport operators have to reduce the supply but must also ensure service continuity, in particular for transporting healthcare personnel,” UITP secretary-general Mohamed Mezghani told me.
“On-demand services offer the needed flexibility to optimize the use of bus fleets and the occupancy of vehicles while keeping social distancing.”
He adds: “Combining the experience of a public transport operator with the expertise of an urban mobility app provider is very helpful.”
UITP—which has more than 1,800 member companies in 100 countries—has been keeping its members updated on the virus crisis with a COVID-19 factsheet.
Across the world, governments have been stepping forward to protect transit operators impacted by the coronavirus lockdown. In the U.S., the federal CARES Act includes $25 billion in emergency funds for transit agencies while bus operators in England have been provided with a £167 million emergency fund from the Department for Transport.
The U.K.’s Covid-19 Bus Services Support Grant—to be paid over the next three months at a rate of up to £13.9 million a week—is being provided on condition that bus operators maintain services. They must also allow adequate space between passengers on board to minimize the risk of the virus spreading.
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’s vital we do all we can to keep the sector running.”