How Mobility Messaging Can Inject Confidence Into a COVID-Changed Society


Welcome back to the second article in our series on transportation recovery during and after COVID-19. If you missed our introductory article, you can read it here.

COVID-19  and the devastation it has caused has made people uneasy about spending time in shared public spaces like buses and trains. And by continuing to go out in public during the pandemic and perform face-to-face work, transit employees, like all essential workers, are risking their lives and health to keep society functioning, a selfless act illustrated by sobering statistics.

But despite stereotypes that buses and trains are akin to petri dishes, research findings regarding how transportation systems might affect the spread of disease are mixed.

For example, while an MIT economist’s working paper uses data on known infections to make a case that New York City’s subway “seeded” that region’s Coronavirus outbreak, a George Mason land use researcher posits that the New York outbreak spread primarily through car travel in a rebuttal supported by the same data. Also, while researchers observed that patients among a cohort of 138 people in Nottingham, England were more likely to have a respiratory infection if they had recently used buses or trams, a survey of nearly 6,000 people in Britain found that people who don’t use transit are more likely to catch flu.

There is scientific evidence, however, that transit and other forms of sustainable mobility bolster health and prevent disease in numerous other ways:

Underlying this is public transportation’s superior safety: transit riders are ten times less likely to die in a crash than an automobile occupant.

Given all this information, as society starts to reopen how can transit agencies articulate a message that 1) respects the virus’s threat and honors employees’ sacrifice and 2) reassures the public that transit is a safe, preferable option?

Transit agencies – alongside their industry allies – can build on communication strategies they’ve used both before and during the pandemic, including:

  • Emphasizing rider and employee safety
  • Providing straightforward, up-to-date service information
  • Integrating complementary transportation options into their brands.

To back up that messaging, transit agencies must provide accordingly safe and convenient mobility.

 Safety Culture: The Foundation of Viable Service 

If people don’t think transit is safe, they won’t ride.

The Washington, DC region knows this well. The region experienced years of transit ridership declines following passenger deaths in a 2009 train collision and 2015 electrical fire, among other smoke and derailment incidents during the period. Re-earning public trust took an extended messaging effort branded “Back2Good” – in tandem with infrastructure repairs that necessitated some painful rail service shutdowns – but WMATA was winning back riders in the months before the virus hit.

WMATA’s messaging on its plan for pandemic-recovery service restoration, released last week, is reminiscent of Back2Good: the agency, citing a safety-first approach, does not expect to restore full transit service until around spring of 2021. The plan includes Back2Good-style rail shutdowns to accelerate planned capital maintenance and expansions during periods of expected low ridership. But the agency expects reduced service frequency and span to continue throughout the region’s rail and bus systems until an effective COVID-19 treatment or vaccine is widely available.

However, while reduced service levels do allow for more aggressive maintenance, the cuts also might cause COVID-19 infections by restricting the space available to riders. Specifically, coronavirus’s biological and geometric threat to riders contrasts with the engineering challenges of WMATA’s pre-Back2Good electrical shorts and broken rails: the less space people have, the more likely the virus is to spread.

Thus, agencies like WMATA may consider adjustments to the safety angle of their COVID-19 messaging, highlighting adaptations to sanitation and support for front-line workers rather than cuts to service.

WMATA’s recovery plan does emphasize the importance of visible cleanliness to its system’s reputation, it also does take a stance requiring face coverings for all employees and riders, rather than strongly recommending. But agencies able to convey an ability to learn and adapt as the coronavirus situation evolves can send a particularly strong message to the public.

For example, San Diego MTS describes on its website how improvements to its sanitation program during a 2017 Hepatitis A outbreak are helping it combat this pandemic; MTS has sustained more service than many of its U.S. peers and retained its essential-worker ridership.  New York MTA, meanwhile, is testing new cleaning methods such as ultraviolet light during its unprecedented overnight subway closings, a strategy that could resonate in the hard-hit region MTA serves.

Transportation and health officials can help reassure the public about transit’s sanitation by simply making use of their systems. The DC Metro, for example, was among Dr. Anthony Fauci’s primary means of mobility when the region was still open.

It will take more than just disinfectant, however, for transit agencies to publicly convey their attention to rider safety. Agencies can send a signal that’s relatable on a human level by respecting the people most central to their mission: their employees.

Honoring workers’ sacrifice is a logical such step. DC, for example, constructed a memorial park dedicated to deceased employees and passengers near the site where the aforementioned 2009 Metro train collision occurred; the Amalgamated Transit Union also maintains a monument to fallen workers outside its headquarters. And during the coronavirus crisis, a New York MTA webpage lists the names of its workers who have died of the disease, subtly humanizing their contribution and dedication.

The coming tributes to transit workers might resemble those honoring other public servants like military and police. For example, in pre-virus times the NFL’s then-Oakland Raiders paid tribute to a BART employee who risked his life to pull a stricken rider off the system’s tracks, while New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised a post-virus ticker-tape parade for his city’s essential workers.

A transit employee driving a city bus across the field before a reopened stadium’s first post-pandemic game might not replicate the speed or noise levels of a fighter jet flyover, but the scene could have similarly powerful emotional impact. And if drivers stuck in traffic after the game – at Los Angeles’s Dodger Stadium, let’s say – then watch LA Metro buses continuously whiz past them through their dedicated lane, they just might consider taking transit to the next game they attend.

Information Eases Our Minds

Transit agencies can make their systems more user-friendly by effectively conveying service information to the public. For example, access to real-time bus arrival data not only reduces actual rider wait times by two minutes since people know when their bus is really coming, but also provides peace of mind that slashes perceived wait times by an additional 13 percent.

During the COVID-19 recovery, agencies can provide real-time information on not just arrival times, but also how crowded each bus or train is.

In January, before the pandemic, the Pittsburgh area’s Port Authority of Allegheny County began providing such crowding data on its TrueTime app simply to make its system more convenient for riders. Now, if a rider can open an app and see that the next bus is too crowded to permit sufficient physical distancing, they can relax, grab a to-go coffee or sandwich, and adjust their timing to align with an emptier bus before heading to the stop.

Operationally, such live crowding information may also help transit agencies determine when to temporarily boost service on busy lines by adding extra buses on the fly, as agencies including the Atlanta area’s MARTA and Arlington Transit have done.

Clearer information can also help people seeking a physically distanced trip plan ahead. Transit expert Jarrett Walker, for example, emphasizes the importance of frequent network maps on which lines that operate every 15 minutes or less all day stand out from lines with more sporadic service. Such clarity is particularly important now, as it helps transit riders ascertain the places they can go with confidence that, even if the first bus is too crowded, another will arrive soon.

Given the funding and logistical complications COVID-19 has caused, it’s challenging for transit agencies to sustain a network of frequent service that backs up such a map. But agencies have drawn upon several strategies to do so. For example:

  • Boston’s MBTA plans to use federal stimulus funding to expedite a return to full service even though ridership is projected to remain significantly below pre-pandemic levels for months
  • MARTA and San Francisco’s Muni, among others, have focused their limited resources on sustaining a core set of high-frequency lines
  • WMATA is using paratransit vans to operate new first- and last-mile shuttles that connect several Metrorail stations to hospitals, despite its aforementioned service reductions
  • Jacksonville, N.C.’s transit system added a new bus line that serves a retail corridor lined with essential businesses such as grocery stores and pharmacies

We’ll further examine service restoration strategies in our forthcoming article on how COVID-19 might affect urban shape and, by extension, transit network design.

Choices and Convenience Earn Respect

Transit agencies can connect with the public by demonstrating a commitment to moving everyone, regardless of the type of transportation space they’re comfortable with. By forging collaboration between transit,  person sized vehicle, and car-based modes – the roots of a full-scale Mobility as a Service (MaaS) program – agencies can send people a constructive, reassuring message through their actions.

Biking seems particularly poised for sustained popularity as society recovers, and thus provides transit agencies a way to diversify their brands. Some transit agencies, like LA Metro, have directly managed bikeshare systems under their brands for years. Such branding, backed up by physical integration such as consistent fare media, can help agencies demonstrate their commitment to providing open-air mobility to those who prefer it.

Municipalities can boost this collaboration by installing dedicated cycling networks that take burden off their roads and transit systems, as Paris and Milan are doing. By participating in these efforts, transit agencies may be able to further propagate their brands. For example, Seattle’s now-permanent 20 miles of local-car-traffic-only Stay Healthy Streets could feature wayfinding signage providing directions to transit hubs, as is prevalent on Arlington, Va.’s extensive network of bike infrastructure.

Transit agencies can also partner with ride-hailing. While such efforts were often hobbled by a lack of cooperation before COVID-19, the ride-hailing industry is now fighting for its life during the pandemic. Thus, leaders of that industry might be more open to pursuing more public-oriented goals, especially given how essential bus and rail connectivity helped transit agencies obtain their $25 billion federal stimulus.

Given that Uber and Lyft operate many of the bikeshare systems that transit may partner with as described above, agencies can expand those agreements to incorporate motorized transportation.

For example, agencies in Miami and Des Moines have responded to the crisis by leveraging ride-hailing to cover certain essential mobility needs. This has allowed them to consolidate their larger buses onto busier trunk lines, providing people who use those lines more space to physically distance. Furthermore, agencies – such as Indianapolis’s IndyGo – are already using data on coronavirus-motivated ride-hailing programs to bolster their longer-term service planning. The MTA just last week launched an app helping essential workers travel overnight when the system is shut down for cleaning called Essential Connector to provide more options for those can’t otherwise travel.

Such broad collaboration can send a powerful, trust-building message. But it also might facilitate something that transcends messaging: basic convenience, an attribute that evidence suggests can shape transportation behavior more deeply than safety or fear.

For example, many people drive cars – despite the greater risk of dying in a crash – simply because they’re more dependable than the skeletal bus systems serving their area. And though 40 percent of people have reported a fear of flying, speedy airplanes remain a go-to mode for intercity and overseas travel.

Creating effective transportation messaging to gain trust from riders will constitute a strong start on the recovery path towards convenient and reliable mobility. In the coming weeks, we will further explore geometric, geographic, and economic tools that could help power such mobility.

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