Transit Forecasting, Scenario Planning and Budgeting in the Age of COVID-19
How do you keep transit systems moving amid a pandemic when ridership and capital funding are seeing simultaneous historic declines? How do you manage through the funding emergency of today with a system that emerges on firm footing tomorrow? As uncertainty surrounds budgetary aid from states and the federal government, government officials and transit agency chief executives across the United States are asking these and similar questions.
While the transit industry continues to hope for clarity, there are avenues that agencies can pursue to help shore up transit’s future, many stemming from tools that can gather and deliver information. On the passenger side, tools such as rider information applications can help revive rider confidence. For agencies, forecasting and scenario planning can enable informed decisions concerning funding, budget allocations and resources. These efforts together will help keep transit rolling by supporting healthy cities and thriving state economies.
Here are three ways that these tools can help cities maintain the health of their transit networks.
Instilling rider confidence
The future of transit is intrinsically linked to its ridership — which has dropped dramatically as a result of the pandemic. COVID-19 has taken a toll on riders’ confidence in transit safety, with many believing there is a connection between transit use and contracting the virus, despite reports refuting these links. A recent report from the American Public Transportation Association indicated there is no direct correlation between the use of public transit and contracting the coronavirus. The New York Times supports this statement, specifically highlighting conditions in New York City, stating that New Yorkers tend to practice social distancing as they travel on subways and buses while also wearing masks and avoiding talking, eating or drinking.
Regaining rider confidence is essential to the health of our transit systems. Transit agencies can help riders feel more comfortable by prioritizing system cleaning and disinfecting. This, along with providing clear passenger information can enable riders to safely schedule their trips and address their concerns. AECOM provided cleaning and disinfection protocol guidance to Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) to help protect against COVID-19.
While emphasizing the importance of wearing masks and practicing social distancing, transit agencies are also implementing technologies like automated passenger counting, touchless fare payment systems and integrated intelligent solutions to safeguard riders and workers. For passengers, AECOM’s Transportation Resilient Integrated Passenger Solution (TRIPS) provides an integrated approach to safety by enabling riders to plan their rides for when there are fewer people using the system.
Offering options and information
Tools such as scenario planning — looking at potential occurrences and delivering insight related to different mobility conditions and budget allocations — are increasingly important. Scenario planning and forecasting tools such as AECOM’s MobiliticsTM provides agency executives with varied alternatives and up-to-date information giving them if/then scenarios to plan for appropriate mid-, short- and long-term budgetary allocations that can help maintain transit health beyond the short term. Investment is important to the next wave of transit advances — including electrification. Scenario planning can highlight risks and tradeoffs and help to balance immediate concerns with long-term goals.
Options and information are especially important as we continue to manage transit systems in the age of COVID-19, which to date is impacting how many passengers use transit and how. New Jersey Transit is employing AECOM’s MobiliticsTM scenario planning tool as well as near real-time anonymized cell phone data to understand behavioral changes, shifts in travel patterns and technology advancements. Together with data analysis, this informs current and future service enabling adjustments around technology and pandemic-related factors and allows for informed budgetary decisions.
Effective transit management can be challenging in the best of times and is even more so during a global pandemic. Agency executive officers, currently focusing available resources on their short-term survival options, may be left with little in reserve for mid- and long-range recovery. It is vital that they move past this thinking as quickly as is feasible and aggressively pivot to comprehensive planning and development of mid- and long-term funding solutions, which I discussed in my previous blog, “Transit Funding in the Age of COVID-19: IT’s Time to Think Beyond the Stimulus.”
In the meantime, scenario planning can help transit agencies develop appropriate resource and budget allocations by providing them with information needed to make the decisions that will put their systems on firmer footing now and in the future. Even in a more typical, everyday scenario, funding and investing in transit electrification has great bearing in equity, climate change and resilience.
These efforts, which are now even more important to the future of transit, require that agencies pursue a paradigm shift toward innovation for new revenue streams including the advancement of vehicle electrification as an essential support. Agencies are investing in electric buses as a means of cutting greenhouse gas emissions as well as the development of new jobs for skilled workers who can advance the infrastructure needed to support this next wave. AECOM has experts in place to help with the analysis by highlighting risks and tradeoffs to help balance immediate needs and long-term goals.
As the pandemic continues, ridership will continue to fluctuate, and transit agencies will be hard pressed to determine the appropriate short- and long-term investments and budget allocations for their respective systems. Transparency with riders, combined with adherence to disinfectant protocols and the use of scenario planning tools, can help ensure that they maintain the resources that support ridership in the present as well as in the years to come.