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Transit Survival In The Age Of COVID-19

By: Ned Einstein
Tel: 212-766-1121
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In two recent articles for National Bus Trader, I described how to put motorcoaches back on the road in both unusual and traditional roles. Here, I will outline some ideas for getting fixed route transit buses and passenger trains back to work, consistent with safety for both drivers and passengers.  The ideas focus on NYC’s transit system as a model, since the challenges facing this system are the nation’s most severe.

Principles and Practices

These ideas are hopefully based on realistic assumptions, despite the mix of optimism, protests, politics, prayers, lies, shenanigans and other activities which may suggest otherwise:

  • Without the measures suggested, and particularly at the passenger rail level, large urban transit systems are veritable petri dishes for keeping the virus alive and spreading.
  • Without anything near the degree of testing necessary, public transit will continue to serve as an incubator until vaccines are available and widely administered.
  • If our nation’s testing acumen is any indication of our organizational prowess, the widespread administration of a vaccine will occur months or years beyond its emergence.
  • Even forgetting the irreversibly-damaged U.S. economy, major cities cannot function at all without active participation in many business sectors by countless workers with no alternatives to public transportation.
  • Irrespective of the mode, vehicles cannot safely be shared to the extent they have been for years to come.
  • If each infected person infects fewer than 1.0 other individuals, we may eventually recover – or at least succumb to a rate of infection merely epidemic.
  • If each infected person infects more than 1.0 individuals, our society will disintegrate, and eventually, far fewer of us will be left.

The measures cited below are not a menu. Unless most or all of them are employed, major cities will continue to foment a stream of infections and deaths for years, even if the peak of the first wave (or any subsequent wave, flattened or otherwise) has been reached. Otherwise, the risks of riding large shared-ride vehicles can only be minimized if capacity is deliberately underutilized – resulting in a passenger-spacing that reflects “social distancing,” strict use of personal protective equipment for drivers and passengers, a number of vehicle modifications (most of which are, at least, not very costly) and other measures noted.

Interestingly, self-preservation has effected much of this reduction already. As this piece is being written, 30% of subway service in NYC has been cut. Ridership has decreased by 93% on that share of service which remains, and bus ridership has been reduced by roughly 90%. Boston has experienced similar statistics: Subway ridership has decreased by 90%, and bus ridership by 80%.

Of course, these decreases are not economically sustainable forever, even while they will likely last for years, to some degree, in a country with practically no Q-tips and an embarrassing skeleton of a healthcare system – just for starters -- despite a squadron of courageous healthcare workers willing to operate at great risk. But the sluggish pace at which we are addressing the problems, coupled with the dramatic increases in illness and death, suggest that patronage on shared-ride services deploying large vehicles must continue to be sparse for years to come.

The ability to continue to afford these services, at these levels of usage, is largely a political issue which lies beyond the technical issues discussed in this installment. However, the challenge is also being grossly-exaggerated by transit systems and their lobbying groups. To place this challenge in perspective, New York City’s transit system had been recovering a mere 35 percent of its operating costs from farebox revenues (one-way full-fares for adults are $2.75). Yet NYC’s fare recovery ratio is the nation’s highest. Regardless of the financial issues, the technical issues are clear if we are to survive the operation of transit services medically. And because so many workers and others rely on public transit with few or no other reasonable alternatives, the medical consequences of our failure to render these services largely safe will only decimate our economy further.

Restructuring for Reentry

No single article can identify all the changes that must occur for the transit industry to survive, much less the country to survive. But a few basic changes must absolutely occur. That so few of these changes have even been mentioned reflects a startling lack of leadership at the local level. The obvious failures at the Federal level require no comment.

Alternative Work Schedules. Given the reality of “transit dependence,” we cannot escape the viral broth that will naturally come with work patterns centered around peak hours. This is true both with transit usage and with work (and other) activity in general. We must greatly spread out these hours, including (where possible) assigning workers of many types to “night” and “owl” shifts (according to transit jargon). Such shifts will clearly not be possible for many types of work. And even where they are possible, late evening and early morning shifts will be less possible in late Fall, Winter and early Spring months, when the hours of daylight shrink noticeably.

Of those alternative work hours possible and realistic, some “sub-peaks” will likely be needed so that supervision can be coordinated, and the hours for those who must work together can overlap. As an expert in alternative work scheduling, I know of no studies which have explored, much less defined, any sub-peaks. (Pre-school and kindergarten hours are a rare exception in and apart from transportation.) We will have to develop them. And we will have to develop them quickly.

Vehicle Modifications. With motormen and trainmen operating largely in phone-booth-size compartments, the most costly modifications for passenger rail are already in place. This is less true for  bus drivers. Where protective barriers exist (apart from the floor-to-ceiling “modesty panels” behind the driver’s seat), aisle-side barriers must be enhanced to completely separate drivers from passengers (consistent with heating, ventilation and air conditioning reaching the drivers). Fare collection should not be a problem, particularly as transit systems had pioneered the automation of this activity as part of the U.S. Jobs Elimination Program decades before the emergence of Covid-19.

Protecting the passengers has its own set of challenged and solutions. Some practices, like rear-boarding, began in a few transit systems months before the virus emerged, when those like the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (recovering only seven percent of its operating costs from farebox revenues) eliminated fares altogether. (Fares covered less than the cost of collecting them.) Regardless, rear boarding, seating and alighting must be employed as a standard practice.

Separating isolated-seated passengers rows apart can be enhanced by far-less-costly shields than the near-bullet-proof Plexiglas needed for drivers. Five-millimeter sheets of mylar (commonly found in art supply stores) can easily be cut the provide floor-to-ceiling extensions of forward-facing seatbacks – although sheets this thin are not as easy to clean and disinfect as thick shields. Many institutional and commercial facilities are protecting their workers with plastic sheets the quality of dry-cleaning covers. More formidable hinged-swinging shields could be affixed to the aisle-side end of bus and train seats – although the costs for such installation will be substantial. But it would supplement the distancing needed to keep the passengers safe.  Further, passengers must use only window seats, further distancing themselves from fellow passengers walking by them in the aisle.

Dwell times for boarding and alighting must also increase (where needed) so that passengers do not bunch up walking from or to the doors. To ensure they do not, bus drivers will have to abandon their reckless “white line” habits and ensure that all boarded passengers are seated before zooming away, and that alighting passenger have plenty of time to walk to the rear door (and middle door of articulated buses) without getting knocked off their feet.

Another helpful device which would increase dwell times are “thermometers-on-a-chain:” So that we spare drivers from doing this, passengers must take their own temperatures before boarding, and the information must immediately be made available to drivers. This precaution will not screen out everyone infected, since many infected individuals are asymptomatic (i.e., “carriers”). And one’s temperature is only a crude screening criterion through which many infected passengers will pass. But it will identify many infectees. As a footnote, one’s temperature varies by roughly 1.5 degrees through each 24-hour period (or sleep/wakefulness cycle). No human being alive in the history of our species has ever maintained a temperature of 98.6 degrees (or any other temperature level) throughout his or her cycle. So a readout of 99.8 degrees, for example, means nothing. But finding boarding passengers with temperatures above 101 degrees can at least provide some indication of risk – even while many with such temperatures may not have Covid-19. But in this era, we cannot afford to let them use shared-ride transportation unless they have proof of recovery or immunity. Unfortunately, we are far from the ability to determine either. And we do not know how long either recover or immunity will last.

Passenger Protection. Needless to say, passengers will need a serious level of PPE (or PPG), although not the quality needed by healthcare workers, much less astronauts or deep-sea divers. This requirement will necessitate intelligible policy-making as the availability of this equipment is prioritized. Over time, we will likely have enough PPE, particularly as many items (some types of masks, shop coats, goggles) are washable.

While we seem incapable of producing Q-tips (enhanced or otherwise), we are making strides in face masks and face shields: More than a month ago, MIT had been machining 100,000 face shields per day. Competing with one another, states, cities, hospitals and all manner of entities and businesses are slowly obtaining masks and shields from all over the World. One’s internet browsing is already saturated with pop-ups advertising fashionable face masks, with the number and variety exploding. As enough latex gloves, shop coats and shoe coverings become available, passengers will be well-protected in the context of the other changes noted.

Mode Split. Shared-ride vehicle’s passengers need to be thinned out as much as possible. If NYC, for example, did not squander 11,000 vehicles of its Uber- and Lyft-decimated taxi fleet to deliver food, and if we deputized every small passenger vehicle’s driver to supplement the taxi fleet, we could thin out bus and subway ridership significantly (while also saving money by deploying fewer costly vehicles). This is particularly true as traffic levels have shrunk dramatically as so many individuals work from home, and so many no longer work at all. Further, this mode split will provide far more jobs than are lost by bus drivers and passenger rail personnel.

Wheelchair handling and securement present a much-greater challenge. Ideally, wheelchair users should mode-split from transit to paratransit or accessible taxicabs. Of course, we do not have nearly enough of either. Some wheelchair users can transfer out of and back into their chairs, which can be stored in a sedan’s trunk or an SUV’s hatchback. Walker users, who should also board and alight buses via the lift or ramp (but who are rarely accommodated this way) can more easily transfer into and out of a sedan or SUV – albeit with considerable close-contact passenger assistance. Frankly, we need every exclusive-ride vehicle we can muster to transport people. But untrained motorists rarely have the skill to provide passenger assistance to wheelchair or walker users boarding or alighting from non-accessible vehicles. Otherwise, both drivers and passengers must be well-protected.

While costly, personal cars can be outfitted with taxi-like shields.  But far thinner plastic separators can be easily configured to accommodate all types and sizes of sedans and SUVs. Half-millimeter-thick Mylar is sturdy enough to be cleaned and disinfected (again, not as easily as thick, fixed Plexiglas shields). But dry-cleaning-bag-quality plastic is plentiful, easy to hang and, between passengers, it can be disposed of and replaced.

As noted, in addition to safety improvements, this mode split will immediately address unemployment, although it will hardly vanquish it. With a tilt toward fairness, taxi fares should be more heavily-subsidized than those vehicles unsaddled by “medallion fees.” But while most U.S. cities have decimated their taxi fleets to accommodate Uber (and other short-term pretenders), we currently need all the Ubers and their cousins we can find and afford. Otherwise, to the degree this mode split can accommodate the travelers, costly rail and bus services can be reduced. Their operators can be put to work chauffeuring their otherwise passengers in their personal vehicles on an exclusive-ride basis. However, many or most bus or subway riders cannot afford taxi fares. So while this mode split will create a considerable number of additional jobs, the salaries of most of these employees will require subsidies.

Finally, mode-split need not pertain only to vehicles with wheels. With so many workers operating from home or unemployed, the broad seat spacing on the Staten Island Ferry already resembles the approaches needed for buses and (particularly) subways outlined above. If not, there is no reason our moderate-sized armada of small boats cannot be deployed, and their captains deputized. During a nine-day period in late May and early June, 1940, 850 small boats rescued tens of thousands of British soldiers from Dunkirk.  Our coastlines and lakes are lined with exponentially more boats of all sizes.

Fleet Size and Schedule Adherence. The notion of increasing dwell times (for boarding and alighting) likely sends shivers through transit agency officials whose bus schedules are notoriously so tight that “recovery time” is a myth, and safety compromises of all types are rampant.  However, increased dwell times will be largely offset by a combination of (a) fewer stops (because of greatly-lessened ridership), (b) less traffic (as many employees work remotely), and (c) the suspension of fares and fare collection.

Apart from the time and cost issues of thinning ridership, getting more buses has obvious advantages, at least in theory. This issue is important if we cannot replace the buses needed with smaller vehicles – and these smaller vehicles can only provide exclusive rides safely. However, borrowing buses from other cities is a well-worn pattern: We do this during every Olympic Games. Because virus conditions are likely to last for several years, now is the time for the FTA and Congress to begin replacing the near-mothball-quality fleets of many transit agencies as fast as they can. If we get ahead, we can ease up in the coming years, as costs inflate, ridership thickens, and we need to save money to offsets our extraordinary recent and rising debts. In the meantime, more buses mean more jobs.  Quite simply, we cannot make buses fast enough. We need them now. We can pay for them later.

Fleet-Mixing and Sharing. Transit fleets can also be augmented with schoolbuses. New York City has 9000 schoolbuses – far more than its 5,725 transit buses. The nation has half a million. Even fully-used, they are deployed only a few hours a day, five days a week. Plus, we will not likely require as many schoolbuses if school even resumes this September. That is because, for school to begin, classroom sizes much shrink in the same way transit capacity must. If one fifth of the students can attend school live once a week – an approach that will at least accommodate social distancing as the majority attend class via Zoom – fewer schoolbuses will be needed, even if the passengers must be spaced further apart, as in the transit approach outlined above. And we will need even fewer schoolbuses for home-to-school trips because most schoolbuses were not filled to capacity before the virus. A substantial shift to alternative work schedules, and to a lesser degree school schedules, will grant us still more flexibility, and make greater use of our combined bus, train and motorcoach fleets, for more hours, despite using less of their individual vehicle capacities.

I strongly suspect that full school attendance will not be practical by September simply because we are so hopelessly behind in meaningful testing. Plus, a subset of parents will be skittish about sending their kids to school. And many of them will be able to monitor their Zoom-students as the parents either work at home or remain unemployed. As a result, much of a community’s schoolbus fleet will be free to supplement its transit fleet.

Even with their ridership greatly thinned out to accommodate schoolchildren or other passengers, schoolbuses will still have to be modified similar to transit buses, as noted above. But with only single front doors, drivers will have to be thoroughly encased by wraparound shields, and dressed practically like astronauts, to keep them safe. At least, schoolbuses do not involve fare collection. But they also do not have rear doors. So the costs of protecting drivers operating schoolbuses will be much greater. And without the partially-encasing shields of most transit buses, schoolbuses must effectively start from scratch with this modification.

Finally, cities can augment their fleets with the nation’s 33,000 motorcoaches, most of which (particularly in the tour and charter sectors) are currently collecting dust. For this particular crisis, these vehicles have advantages other passenger vehicles do not – particularly their restrooms – even while they have only a single front door. Like schoolbuses, those motorcoaches without existing partial shields for drivers may have to begin from scratch. And other than for elderly or disabled passengers, assistance up and down the stepwell may have to be abandoned – liability notwithstanding. (Frankly, it is rarely provided by transit drivers, whether needed or not.) But as replacements for transit buses, at least fare collection will not be an issue. More realistically, soundly-outfitted drivers should be able to assist well-protected passenger on and off the vehicle with little risk.

Parking. If fleet size increases, so too will the need for parking. Yet this is actually one of the simplest problems to solve. With fewer people actively traveling to work, those families with multiple cars can park many in the suburbs or countryside. This practice will likely require some incentives mixed with some hard-core policies and their enforcement. Otherwise, as smaller vehicles replace buses, parking will be less of a problem.

Cleaning and Disinfecting. I suspect that union rules which typically prevent drivers from cleaning or disinfecting their vehicles can easily be set aside. Frankly, passengers could help perform this task as well. Much of this practice is already being performed – although recent suggestions from the CDC suggest that this practice is also over-rated: A recent release noted that the it “may be possible” that the virus can exist on surfaces. In a different administration, such advice might have been phrases as “it is highly unlikely.”

It is hard to really know whether our current level of disinfecting is a necessity or a ruse.  The NYCTA has shut down between the hours of 1 and 5 AM ostensibly so that workers can spray the interiors with disinfectants, and otherwise scrub them down. One suspects that this practice is more-genuinely designed to prevent otherwise homeless individuals from sleeping on the trains, as thousands or tens of thousands did before the virus. (The naïve or misled should note that, to qualify for a shelter in New York City, one must be homeless for a full year.) Regardless,  no one could ever claim that the interiors of our public transportation vehicles are not now spotless.

The Solution: More Vehicles, More Jobs, More Cost, More Patience and More Realism

Regarding vaccines, the shortest time on record to develop a vaccine was the four years it took to tame the mumps. The vaccine to cure polio took over a decade – launched with the “March of Dimes” crusade initiated by President Roosevelt before his death in 1944, and ending with the Salk Vaccine in 1954. I grew up with fellow elementary students who spent years as “polio pioneers.” Current progress at Oxford, for example, may indeed deliver a miracle – while one would be foolish to count on it. Racing along too quickly, one might recall thalidomide, the side effects of which emerged in 1962. At European bus exhibitions in the 1990s, I observed countless adults with fingers growing out of their shoulders and all sorts of other deformities which likely made their existence a living Hell. Despite some political advantages of the debate, a reliable vaccine and its world-wide distribution are likely years away. And there is no telling whether or not a few Covid-19 cells may mutate into something different, possibly more infectious, and/or which requires us to refine our vaccine or begin its development all over again. In this context, the concepts identified for radically restructuring our public transportation services are of critical importance, and much of our survival will likely depend on these adaptations.

The contributions of traditional public transit to years of incubation and contagion are obviously compounded by a wide array of other factors. One I have not even heard discussed involves the affects of public transit on “opening the country,” and the pressures likely to result from this on transit riders and those affected (or infected) by them. Going back to work in an economy based largely on increased consumption and excess will not “flip the switch.” Even beyond a nation where half the individuals have few or no savings, even those with moderate savings are likely to emphasize it for years to come. To expect activities like car sales, fashion, entertainment, attendance at sporting events, dining, travel and vacations to reach their previous levels is hopelessly naïve. These are just the starting points for what lies ahead. Years of vast unemployment and underemployment lie ahead with the country “wide open.” Just maybe not at golf courses and country clubs.

Then there is the cost of debt. One can print only so much money before its value noticeably declines. Otherwise, it is hard to fund other much-needed activities as we fall deeper in debt to those willing to lend us money. Those providing these funds face risk. This risk drives up the interest rates on the loans. Our grandchildren will inherit the responsibility for paying them off. Many Americans recognize all this. Its acceptance is a political football.

Much-needed activities clearly include far more than the skeleton of a healthcare system we obviously have. Yet we will be more hard-pressed to afford the system we need indefinitely, even as it has recently been strengthened in many parts of the country. This reality is not political, although means of addressing it clearly are. Instead, it is unavoidably economic, irrespective of politics.

One theme that naturally emerges from these approaches is the reality that many of these changes – particularly in the provision of public transportation -- can create jobs. And lots of jobs. We saw millions of jobs emerge as a result of 9-1-1. Certainly, workers could have done more productive things than provide security which was almost unneeded before that event. Nevertheless, that single event created jobs that are still performed (notwithstanding the recent reduction in air travel). Otherwise, because of the risks which poor security involves, these jobs were, and still are, meaningful jobs.

Frankly, open or shut, life will be tough on haberdashers and tailors. But we need hoards of drivers. Luckily, many more adults can drive than can sew. The New America cannot expect to have the same types of jobs as did the Old America. But if we solve our problems intelligibly, we may get close to having the same number of jobs.

If we think intelligibly about public transportation, we should realize that we need it. It is unfortunate that it has become so under-designed, poorly-organized and unproductive as it has become over the past several decades. This is particularly true as robots have replaced live earthlings, driver salaries have shrunk dramatically, driver shortages have become epidemic, and management has thinned out. Now, public transportation must be restructured. But like many other things, it should not lead to unemployment. Instead, intelligibly-restructured transportation will create jobs. And if enlightened and responsible decisions are made, it will lead to the production, sale and maintenance of more vehicles – and more jobs making, selling and repairing them.

These dynamics will not apply to every industrial sector. But some of those unemployed can be shifted to those sectors which need personnel. Healthcare workers. Testing and tracing personnel. Delivery workers. And public transportation drivers. Not to mention the tens of millions of workers who could repair our crumbling roadways, bridges and tunnels. Now it not the time to whine for money for laid-off transportation workers. And now is not the time to replace drivers with robots. Now is the time to put drivers to work doing things we sorely need. If we are to reinvent some semblance of a viable economy and a rational society, public transportation must be a part of them.

For decades, much of public transportation has been a disgrace.  Transit and paratransit, in particular, have been inexcusably wasteful. As noted, New York City experienced the highest fare recovery ratio in the country at a mere 35%. Transit has become so inefficient that fare collection in a few cities was being abandoned months before Covid-19. This must change. But this change must begin by recognizing the contribution public transportation must continue to make in order to help sustain our economy. Particularly in the short run, it must change by implementing measures like, and including, those noted above.

I am not optimistic that we can do this. I only know that it is possible. And I know that, in the past, this nation has accomplished far more challenging things. Public transportation can become a role model for contributing to our recovery, helping to sustain our economy, and creating jobs. If it does not accomplish these things, public transportation will become a role model of our failure.

Ned Einstein is the President of Transportation Alternatives, a passenger transportation and automotive consortium engaged in consulting and forensic accident investigation and analysis (more than 600 cases). Specializes in elderly, disabled, schoolchildren. Mr. Einstein has been qualified as an Expert Witness in accident analysis, testimony and mediation in vehicle and pedestrian accidents involving transit, paratransit, schoolbus, motorcoach, special education, non-emergency medical transportation, taxi, shuttle, child transport systems and services...

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