Using technology as a tool to overcome post-pandemic challenges
There is no denying that 2020 created incredible challenges for public transit systems around the world.
In the United States, an estimated 2.8 million workers in essential industries relied on public transit to commute to work.  Nurses who worked double shifts on COVID-19 wards counted on the bus to get them to the hospital and back home to their families.
At the same time, the Coronavirus forced approximately 70% of agencies to reduce capacity to keep passengers safe. As a result of a major drop in ridership – 50% in some cases – agencies are considering cuts to service to close funding gaps.
Given those challenges, transit agencies are in a tough spot, which is why coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic will be such a critical time for investment and optimization. Fortunately, there’s support for investments in modernization of public transportation infrastructure. Roughly 74% of Americans support that investment, according to APTA’s 2020 annual report. And recent news from the new administration points toward that investment becoming a reality.
The recent advancement of emergency funding via the budget reconciliation process is promising  for transit agencies in serious need of assistance. Even with an infusion of federal funding, many agencies will be looking at low ridership levels, lower staffing levels and a vast amount of uncertainty about what the future holds. Despite all the unknowns, agencies can plan for what is within their control in order to deliver services to riders.
One key part of that planning is being flexible. Of course, that can be applied broadly, but a specific area where flexibility could have an impact is with routing and vehicle management. Fixed routes need to be thought of as “in place for now” and not “fixed forever.” There are certainly routes and corridors in every city that will need fast, frequent and reliable service, but the ability to move buses to different routes to adjust for variable demand will be critical to meeting riders’ demands in the future.
The other key to success coming of the COVID-19 pandemic will be to provide predictable, reliable service to riders. Even as agencies need to move buses and alter routes, riders still need to know when the next bus is going to arrive at their stop. An early bus or a late bus is an added layer of stress that folks do not need.
Technologies like relative and conditional signal priority control are easy ways for agencies to be more nimble and predictable. These tools give transit planners and managers the ability to move buses to different routes, while still maintaining efficient movement via signal priority, including faster travel times and less delays at traffic lights. These are things that can be done right now, but investments need to be made with an eye to the future, not just fixing immediate problems.
To do this, taking advantage of the fact that most buses and trains are connected via cellular communications will be key. Specifically, telematics data, such as transit vehicle location, speed, direction, estimated time of arrival, transit vehicle (and driver) performance, etc., will need to be pushed to a Smart City cloud to be analyzed both in the moment for immediate actions and over time for comprehensive system optimization.
Will technology fix everything? No. We still need smart, motivated people to look for solutions to problems and find ways to make improvements using the technological tools at their disposal. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the use of technology to provide flexible, reliable transit will be a key initiative for agencies as the COVID-19 pandemic fades and life returns to a new normal.
 Who still needs public transit during the pandemic? Essential workers, minorities, and seniors | Center for Urban and Regional Analysis (osu.edu)
 ETA transit coronavirus survey 2020
 COVID-19 Pandemic Threatens Public Transit Jobs and Service (kinstacdn.com)
 Biden’s American Rescue Plan includes $20 billion for transit industry | Mass Transit (masstransitmag.com)
 APTA Applauds House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Budget Reconciliation Title Providing $30 Billion of COVID-19 Emergency Funding for Public Transit – American Public Transportation Association