Editor’s note: Green Mountain Transit has begun a pilot door-to-door public transportation system in Washington County. Rather than go to the bus stop and climb aboard an often-empty bus, public transportation riders now may get Uber-like rides (free for now) on demand, from door-to-door. At the same time, some bus routes have been cut back. Here, Tom Evslin describes this ‘new normal.’
Rush hours are history.
Covid has given mass transit systems an opportunity to reinvent themselves to serve the new normal. This opportunity is mandatory. If they don’t reinvent, they will wither away; downtown districts will suffer and an opportunity to make the huge pandemic drop in energy use permanent will be squandered.
Mass transit infrastructure – like many utilities and like highways – has always been designed for huge twice daily peaks. The peaks determine how much track is needed; how many tunnels; how many busses, light rail, and subway cars. For almost twenty hours each day, much of that capacity is idle. In rush hour in many cities the vehicles are full in one direction and nearly empty in the other. The time between the beginning of the morning peak and end of the evening peak means that two shifts of workers must be hired even though there isn’t sixteen hours of work for them to do.
That was then; this now.
The successful new normal transit system has more frequent service throughout the day than it used to and much, much less rush hour capacity.
Many people are going to continue to work exclusively from home. Others will come into “the office” or into town for meetings some of the time. The idea of an office as a place where everybody needs to be 9-5 is history. Of course there will still be many people whose jobs require them to work away from home; but their hours don’t have to be divided into the traditional three shifts. High frequency transit service throughout the day both enables flexible hours and encourages using mass transit instead of cars even when flexibility is needed.
The successful new normal transit system provides door-to-door service. If I have to get into my car, drive to a terminal, pay to park, leave my car idle for the day, walk a very long distance or take an expensive taxi when I get near work, and then reverse the process at the end of the day, I’m just going to take my car into the city. Rush hour won’t be a problem for cars, either, in the new normal. Algorithms like those used by Uber make it possible to dispatch small transit vehicles like a ride-share service at the ends of the transit network. Transit systems can also work with existing ride-sharing service. The objective is to make it so convenient to take transit for a partial WFH family that two cars aren’t necessary. Autonomous vehicles will have a big role to play here in the future but not significant for a couple of years.
The successful new normal transit system has smaller vehicles.
Smaller vehicles allow more frequent service and even on demand service; they also reduce energy costs. The hulking big busses were necessary for rush hour service and used to run three-quarters empty the rest of the time.
The successful new normal transit system depends on riders feeling secure.
Not much a transit system can do about hastening vaccination, but they do depend on it. One more reason why public policy may have to require vaccination. New vehicles will have to provide better air quality; frequent cleaning of vehicles, which most transit systems have already initiated, makes them more attractive but doesn’t do much to eliminate spread of airborne Covid. Crime is up in major city transit systems as well as in the cities themselves. Smaller vehicles will help with transit crime, but law enforcement is also required. During the pandemic I hear there are more homeless people living or camping in busses and subway cars. The problems of the homeless must be addressed but allowing them to live in transit vehicles will help keep those vehicles empty of other riders.
The successful new normal transit system cancels capital plans based on the way things used to be.
All those new vehicles planned or on order: cancel them if you can. Without the need to service rush hours, there are already too many vehicles and too much outstanding debt. Smaller vehicles will be what’s needed. The new tunnel; the expanded track: probably not needed any more. Plan for frequency; plan for end-to-end service; plan for agility; plan for efficient fuel use.
The successful new normal transit system helps the new normal downtown develop.
There are already less cars going to city centers this year than last. If a reinvented transit system can help assure that a flood of cars doesn’t come back, cities can create more open space for walking and biking. City rents are plummeting. Office buildings will be repurposed as residential keeping downward pressure on rents and making the city affordable for those who want to live there. Ironically, when they must make a visit to an office or a client, city dwellers may be going to the burbs. But remember we now have frequent transit service with good connections at both ends. The transit service will benefit from having riders going in both directions at all times of day. The urbanites won’t need cars.
The successful new normal transit system will allow us to continue energy use and emission at the low levels the pandemic forced us to without hindering economic recovery. The best is yet to come.
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