Any person can legally ride DC-area public transit for any purpose, but in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic the region’s transit providers have significantly curtailed service and instructed the public that the portion of the system still operating is for essential trips only.
Following a series of cuts during the week of March 16 (and one small restoration at the weekend’s end), WMATA now manages a network consisting of every-20-minute Metro trains and skeletal bus service. It also has closed two rail stations located near the Tidal Basin and its tourist-beloved cherry blossoms. The agency has cited a variety of reasons for its cuts, including social distancing needs, a desire to reduce unnecessary travel, budget constraints, and the virus’s effects on workforce availability.
Arlington Transit (ART) has also suspended service on more than half its bus lines and re-tweeted WMATA’s essential-trips-only announcements to its riders. And Maryland Governor Larry Hogan – whose state’s bus and rail systems are deeply integrated with lines that serve Arlington directly – has offered perhaps the region’s strictest rhetoric to date, urging people to stay off public transportation unless they are “emergency personnel.” WMATA forwarded Hogan’s statement to its Twitter followers.
The evolving messages to transit riders in and around the nation’s capital have provided broad, sometimes-conflicting information on what constitutes an essential trip. Here’s how officials’ guidance might apply to some specific types of trips, as well as some operational strategies that can help us get our heads around a clearer definition.
The definition of “essential” varies from person to person
WMATA’s announcements instruct riders to not take transit unless absolutely necessary. The announcements aim to balance individuals’ mobility needs with adverse effects their trips could have on other riders, vehicle operators, and the agency’s overall ability to provide transit service. But it’s incredibly difficult to define such a threshold precisely, as the following example trips demonstrate:
A person with COVID-19 symptoms accessing treatment:
The WMATA and ART guidance addresses healthcare access for people with fevers, dry coughs, or other coronavirus-associated symptoms very clearly: don’t use public transit.
The concerns justifying this guidance materialized on March 21, when a Metrobus operator tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Within hours WMATA cut the Metrobus network to just 20 lines for the remainder of the weekend, though an agency spokesperson stated this was not specifically due to the employee’s coronavirus diagnosis.
Additional context complicates this perspective, however. For example, WMATA’s messaging has emphasized a need to reserve the system’s limited remaining capacity for doctors, hospital staff, and first responders. But people working in those capacities are at particularly high risk of contracting coronavirus and developing serious symptoms, meaning they may spread the disease during their essential commutes.
Concerns surrounding equitable access to treatment complicate things further. Arlington, for example, has expediently developed drive-thru testing facilities. However, WMATA’s guidance tells people with symptoms who don’t own a car to contact their healthcare providers and await further instructions – in other words, the agency is not connecting these people to medical care.
A grocery store worker accessing their place of employment:
A person who restocks the shelves, scans customers’ items, or disinfects the aisles at a supermarket is essential to the community during this crisis. People in the service industry must report to their workplaces in person to perform their duties and make a living.
WMATA’s recent ridership numbers reflect these trips’ importance. Specifically, flat-fare Metrobus – majorities of whose riders earn less than $30,000 annually and don’t own automobiles – moved more people daily during the week of March 16 than more expensive Metrorail, whose lines and schedules cater more to office workers relatively likely to have telework flexibilities during COVID-19.
WMATA’s messaging to riders, however, implies that agency leadership does not consider service industry workers’ job access essential. On the morning of March 19, the agency tweeted complements to rail riders for avoiding its system but told bus riders that they had “work to do.”
Preliminary data indicates that this messaging didn’t change the operational definition of an essential bus trip. Rail ridership dropped an additional 15,000 trips from that Wednesday to Thursday, but daily bus ridership remained steady at 150,000.
The transit agency, however, has not changed its position, threatening to shut down the entire Metrobus system due to these ridership numbers in a March 22 announcement.
A person going to a park to exercise:
The WMATA guidance limits the definition of “essential” to various work-related trips, reflecting that on a given day a person doesn’t require outdoor activities to get by.
The social distancing restrictions needed to combat COVID-19, however, are likely to remain in place for long enough – 12 to 18 months, by some estimates – to have a lasting effect on people’s day-to-day health habits. With gyms closed, people will need to exercise outside, but it may not be safe or feasible for them to walk, bike, or drive to the places best suited to their physical and mental vitality.
Arlington’s relatively strong transit network, for example, has helped make the city the U.S.’s fittest, giving its health care system a leg up on other parts of the U.S. strained by an obesity epidemic. Thus, bus and rail connectivity to Arlington County parks and trails are essential to keeping residents, more than 90 percent of whom exercise daily, healthy.
The wording of Sacramento County, Ca.’s March 19 shelter-in-place order might have accommodated Arlington’s situation more effectively than WMATA’s guidance. The order, since-usurped by a more vaguely-worded statewide one, limited public transit use to accessing essential activities, business, or government functions, but defined walking, hiking, running, and biking as such essential activities.
Transit agencies define what’s essential in how they design and operate our systems
A look at some standard transportation planning and operating practices – specifically, transit ridership and coverage goals, roadway level of service metrics, and transportation demand management strategies – provides insight into what local officials and the traveling public consider essential.
Essential coverage for some
Jarrett Walker, an industry leader whose bus system redesigns have boosted patronage in cities such as Richmond, Va., defines a given transit line’s role by categorizing it as either a ridership or coverage-oriented service. Ridership-oriented lines are primary forms of connectivity on the mixed-use corridors they serve, achieving financial, environmental, and spatial efficiency that makes those corridors more livable and vibrant. Coverage-oriented lines maximize the number of people with nearby transit access and are intended to provide access to critical life needs, but they require high per-rider subsidies and, because they tend to operate infrequently and indirectly, often wind up inadequately serving only people who must make the trip and are unable to utilize other forms of transportation.
When it became clear that COVID-19 would significantly affect daily U.S. life, Walker encouraged transit agencies to sustain equitable all-day connectivity and align any cuts with reduced peak-hour demand. However, WMATA, ART, and other DC-area agencies do not seem to have followed this guidance.
Instead, the DC region’s remaining transit system provides just bare-bones coverage. The system may meet some needs, but service is so infrequent and skeletal that even without WMATA’s messages attempting to define what’s essential, people are likely to use modes other than transit – even for trips that are absolutely necessary – unless they lack access to other options. Notably, some of the challenges WMATA has cited to justify its cuts – such as budget constraints and workforce shortages – are not unique to the COVID-19 crisis, but rather are long-standing issues that hinder many transit providers’ efforts to provide effective coverage for everyone.
Regional leaders can look nationally – specifically, at our national rail system – for a crisis management model truer to Walker’s guidance. While Amtrak has substantially reduced service on its high-ridership corridors in response to COVID-19, the federally-owned company continues to operate its full network of long-distance trains and provide essential mobility to rural areas throughout the country.
Essential space for some
For decades, environmental reviews of transportation and development projects have incorporated level-of-service (LOS) standards mandating that road capacity be sufficient – and, if necessary, expanded – to minimize traffic congestion for drivers, regardless of their trip’s purpose.
Houston Metro has taken an LOS-type approach to combating COVID-19, helping sustain relatively complete transit connectivity while encouraging social distancing. During the week of March 16, the agency increased bus service to give riders more space. Following ridership declines as people chose to cut back on their outings amidst the pandemic, the transit provider subsequently announced it would reduce most of its system to a Saturday schedule beginning the week of March 23 but continue to operate some extra buses at key times.
The reality of induced demand, however, renders automobile LOS an ineffective urban planning metric, as expanded roads remain clogged due to capacity-generated increases in vehicle miles traveled (VMT). This would normally not be an issue for spatially-efficient transit, but the new coronavirus’s contagiousness has changed this geometric equation. Accordingly, Houston’s approach to COVID-19 incorporates some significant downsides for riders; if a bus is more than half full, passengers wishing to board must continue waiting at the stop until an emptier vehicle arrives.
One potential way for transit agencies to drive demand down and create more space for social distancing is to make buses and trains more difficult to use – analogous to the effects of road diets and congestion pricing on VMT.
Indeed, a number of DC-area transit providers – including, as of March 24, Metrobus – have rolled out policies that separate riders and speed up vehicles, such as capacity restrictions, rear-door boarding, fare elimination, and longer trains, in conjunction with their service cuts. The president of WMATA’s employee union suggested ramping up this approach further, voicing support for operational practices that “get…people from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible” while asking agency management to further curtail bus service to a limited set of lines designed primarily to provide access to medical facilities.
ART, in contrast, temporarily boosted service on an Arlington bus line in response to increased ridership – a decision more in line with transit’s basic mission of providing connectivity to jobs and other essential life needs.
Essential mobility for all, with managed demand
Alternatively, transit agencies can simply continue executing their mission to the public and leave it to those outside the immediate industry to nudge people’s mobility habits during the pandemic.
Seoul, South Korea, a national capital and world-renowned transit city, has perhaps pioneered such a transportation demand management (TDM)-based approach to combating COVID-19. Seoul Metro, the primary provider of subway service in the region, has experienced ridership declines during the pandemic that – while substantial – are nowhere nearly as precipitous as those afflicting DC-area transit agencies. But the region’s rail and bus systems have continued operating, with transit providers instead prioritizing outbreak-related tasks within their control such as disinfecting facilities and providing reassuring, sanitation-encouraging messages to riders.
At the same time, South Korea has flattened its infection curve and become a global model for coronavirus management through policies such as curtailing of public gatherings, widespread testing of people who may have been exposed, and intensive information sharing.
Evidence from this past weekend suggests that the DC region, like Seoul, may benefit more from policies focused on transportation demand and public health than from transit service cuts.
Though WMATA closed two Metrorail stations close to the Tidal Basin, people jammed roadways on Friday and Saturday to visit the cherry blossoms during peak bloom, sitting within six feet of each other inside their stopped cars before potentially spreading COVID-19 on overcrowded walkways amidst the trees. To control the situation, local authorities closed streets in the area on Sunday morning, alleviating the crowding and giving people who did show up more room to spread out.
For Arlington and the DC area, more thoroughly emulating Seoul’s approach would require unprecedented local and national support for sustaining transit connectivity through ridership fluctuations as the coronavirus situation continues evolving. It would also necessitate tracking measures that people may find unfamiliar and invasive – for example, 10 countries have started tracking citizens through their cell phones in an unprecedented move.
Such unprecedented moves may become the new normal, however, as world leaders work to combat the coronavirus and protect our health, economy, and overall well-being. With various jurisdictions offering different strategies for sustaining connectivity amidst crisis, it’s important to remember that this rapidly-evolving situation is new for everyone, and that as long as transit agencies work together the public will be safer in the end.