By John Schneidawind, vice president, public affairs, ARTBA

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing transit systems across the country to innovate how they provide service to a ridership depleted by stay-at-home orders. At times, the health safety and operational challenges have been inspiring, Leslie Richards, general manager of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), said during a Nov. 4 panel discussion at ARTBA’s Northeastern Regional Meeting.

Other private industry and public agency leaders included Tom Prendergast, executive vice president and Americas transit market leader at AECOM and former chairman and CEO of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), and Thomas Rowbottom, deputy director of operations at PATH. Dan Corey, deputy national ITS practice leader at AECOM, moderated the session.

In Philadelphia, SEPTA’s daily ridership has plummeted to 300,000 trips from 1 million trips pre-pandemic. Monthly passenger revenue has dropped to $4 million from $40 million, Richards said. Other U.S. transit agencies report similar declines in ridership and revenue.

The ARTBA panelists said agencies must find new ways to achieve the almost impossible task of keeping service moving while making sure that social distancing guidelines are followed in systems once crammed with people. Among the strategies being used:

  • Improved crowd control. Rowbottom said PATH has developed an app that lets passengers know how crowded trains are before they board.

  • More frequent communication with riders, and between system employees and executives. Prendergast said passenger complaints about service now reach senior level transit executives faster via social media than internal communication channels.

  • Increased maintenance during the slowdown. “The good news is that many of our contractors have been able to accelerate repair projects,” Richards said.

She also praised the bravery of SEPTA’s 7,000 front-line workers, about 70 percent of the total workforce.