Will Covid-19 sound the death knell for old school public transit?

Ready to get into a packed Tokyo subway car soon?

Current public transit is based on century-old ideas, and was already under threat from 21st century technology. Now, in the Covid-19 era, we have to wonder how long it will be before people are willing to pack tightly on crowded buses and subways -- the only thing that gave transit any shot at being efficient. Will the virus sound the death knell for old-school public transit?

I discuss this in a new Forbes site article at Will Covid-19 sound the death knell for old school public transit?


Great article, Brad. My analogy has been the evolution of data from Time Division Multiplexing to packet networks in the communications realm. Ultimately, the packet approach won because of improved efficiency.

The big draw of packet switched was its flexibility. But what people don't understand is that in networks -- and transportation -- flexibility is efficiency. Because to be efficient in transportation by grouping people together you have to get them to want to group together, and to do it in groups that match the size of your vehicles.

Agree with you 100%, Brad. Nothing more frustrating than seeing oversize vehicles running with virtually no passengers and only getting 5 or 6 MPG.

I think it's more likely to spell the death knell for densely packed cities.

It'll be a gradual death, but I think it's already started, as many people of means have already fled, and the exodus will only grow as less populated areas reopen while cities are forced to stay closed, possibly for many more months.

The leaders of New York (especially the governor and mayor) caused a lot of deaths by keeping the subways and buses running. Cuomo has said that they had to keep the subways open in order for essential workers to get to work. I think they could have figured out a better solution that utilized the empty streets and empty parking lots, but only because most of the workers were staying home.

I'd be interested in seeing the breakdown of who had antibodies vs whether or not they used the subway system. I wouldn't be surprised if it's over 75% among people who regularly used the subway. How is NYC going to reopen before we have a vaccine? Not fully, unless they're going to accept a quadrupling of the number of total deaths.

It seems your reasoning that fear of crowds is hastening transit's demise is also a requirement for your futuristic alternatives to be competitive with it, such as 15 passenger vans fully loaded (ever ridden in one?) zipping through "low cost" tunnels never stopping at stations because we suppose that all 15 passengers get on and off in the same locations. Not sure it would actually work that way. Transit is evolving and as an industry we see that a network of options for people including those you speak of will be required to meet tomorrow's needs, but they will include high capacity transit in corridors where demand exists. Perhaps your next article should be on (the lack of) land use planning in this country and the crushing financial impacts that the maintaining the infrastructure of sprawl will have on our grandchildren.

All group vehicles will face a challenge, as I wrote. Smaller vehicles doing non-stop trips have a greater opportunity to be cleaned between every passenger trip than a train or bus does. But it's tough either way. Right now anybody who can afford it is scared of a group vehicle and tries to use a private car. And they will continue to do so where there is capacity to handle all those. The question is, what about places where you need the extra capacity.

Have you been in a modern office building in the last decade or so? They are all switching to a different style of elevator. No buttons in the elevators, you specify your floor before you get on. They group a bunch of people going to the same floor or a small collection and the elevator becomes non-stop or just a few stops. It greatly increases elevator capacity over regular elevators, which greatly increased it over stopping at every floor.

This is a taste of where it could go. Right now you go onto a subway platform and you get on a big long train, which stops at every stop. But yes, there is a group of people who all got on at your station and who are all getting off at the same station. So yes, if you all get in a small vehicle and go nonstop to that station (even if it's on a different line) you get not just a vastly superior and faster trip with no stops, you also get more capacity.

Except you don't need to do this in a dedicated tunnel. It's just that of course you prefer to have one if you can for yourself.

In DC, more would use public transit if it ran on time, were clean, and didn't kill people (yellow line fire, red line crash), and if riders treated each other with respect. The ones left using the system heavily are those without any choice -- people who can't afford to own a car or park it downtown, people with disabilities that prevent them from driving, the latter being a lot more people than you might expect and not just the elderly. I'm one of them, and in my 30s. I have no choice but to use the train to get from the suburbs to my downtown job. I have to live in the suburbs to afford the price of housing ("afford" is probably not the right term). I use a cane and have lost track of how many times other metro riders have kicked it out from under me while they are rushing to get on or off the train. I would love to have other options, but they would have to be affordable options to make a real difference. Because of my health, I may soon have to rely on paratransit for people with disabilities but dread that, as I've heard from friends who use it that it's even more unreliable that regular public transit. Example: if you have one medical appointment, the pickup and drop off windows are so unreliable that you essentially have to reserve the entire day, even if your appointment only lasts half an hour. I hope any overhauls of public transit take into account the unique needs of different populations.

There are ways do stay safe while taking public transportation. Watch the video for tips for self-protection from COVID-19 in Public Transportation and measures to make the transit industry safer and convenient for riders before, during, and after a health crisis. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfJ_-UM6aQA

In the end, this is the same ordinary advice to stay safer, not safe, but when it says avoid crowded buses, it is saying "avoid efficient transit." The transit makes no sense if it can't be crowded, that's the problem.

The concept of carrying capacity, in textbook terms, defines the maximum population that can be sustained by the finite resources of a given biome (a defined area). Usually, food--or access to it--is the most significant, and therefore, potentially limiting commodity.
Today, food remains a key determinant of survivability and its availability is directly proportional to one's capacity to pay for it. By the transitive property of congruence, the opportunity to earn a living equates to dinner on the table. Of course, one needs to be transported to the workplace to hold down a job.
The associative property clarifies: mechanized transportation extends the range over which a defined population can secure work. By extending access to life-assuring nutrition, public transit affordably increases carrying capacity and expands the number of individuals that can occupy a given niche.

The point is, that's what transit used to be good at. It isn't any more -- stopped a long time ago. It's more expensive and uses more energy than electric cars will in the future.

You could replace "transit" with "crowded cities" and "electric cars" with "suburbs" and it'd be equally valid.

I'm not sure how it'd be possible to replace transit with cars without decreasing population density, though. Maybe if you went underground with the roadways (or with the buildings!).

I have been saying for a long time that paid carparking should be provided close to the congested parts of cities. Included in the parking fees should be free mini shuttle buses radiating from this to all parts of the city centers with frequent stops as required something like the Uber model. No other vehicles in the city would then allow for autonomous vehicles and in most cases short walks to where the passenger needs to go.

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