Three Takeaways from “A Day in the Life of a Transit Planner: COVID-19 Edition”


Janice Soriano-Ramos of VTA, Jeff Sponcia of MCTS, and Dan Nemiroff of SEPTA led the discussion on how their roles and priorities have shifted in response to COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the transit planning industry on its head. Agencies across the United States have shifted into pandemic planning mode, figuring out how to provide service in a world of social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Service planners are facing the same challenges of remote work as professionals in other industries—keeping people connected, learning to balance home demands during work hours—while also finding ways to move people safely and efficiently.

On May 12, Remix hosted a webinar to learn how transit agency leaders are responding to the challenge, and the panelists had a lot of inspiring insights to share. Many if not most of those insights fall into three categories: safety, data collection and recovery planning.

1. Safety requires flexibility

The highest priority has been providing a safe environment for operators and riders. This requires huge operational shifts and large-scale efforts to change boarding and alighting processes and service changes control passenger load. 

For safer boarding and alighting, agencies are asking passengers to board in front and alight in the rear, or vice versa. And since crowding often happens at fare payment, some agencies are opting to temporarily suspend collection. Without fare collection, however, service planners must rely on other means of collecting passenger load data. Drivers of smaller systems who lack Average Passenger Count (APC) technology have reverted back to manually counting the number of passengers boarding the bus.

To promote social distancing, agencies are adding buses to increase frequency of popular routes while also encouraging drivers to implement impromptu decisions like skipping stops with waiting riders if the vehicle is already at max capacity for proper social distancing. Of course this is an imperfect system as no agency has unlimited buses, in fact, most agencies have fewer drivers available due to the high levels of operator call-out, and skipping stops is a sure way to decrease rider happiness. 

Changes in boarding and alighting as well as rapidly implemented service changes are difficult things for riders to adopt without clear, frequent communication. Service planners are pouring their energies into leveraging digital communication platforms, like social media, more than ever before.

2. Getting creative with ridership data

To shift route planning to a more iterative practice, service planners are relying more on detailed ridership data. Jeff Sponcia, planning manager for the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS), reports that his team has been re-evaluating ridership weekly or even daily, diving deeply into how many people ride each route and when.

For Jeff and his team, Automated Passenger Counters (APCs) have proved essential. “In my eight years here,” says Jeff, “there’s never been a more critical time for us to get these APC assignments."

Like many agencies, MCTS doesn’t have APCs on all buses. They’ve had to strategically assign buses equipped with APCs to different routes in order to get a system-wide map of ridership. Then they shift the APCs to higher-ridership routes to assess the effectiveness of schedule changes.

Jeff says that this tactic has allowed the agency to adjust service to meet the needs of both riders and operators. They’ve been able to add buses to high-ridership routes and take buses off routes that were getting fewer riders.

3. Recovery strategies are still uncertain, but top of mind

Many transit agencies have now reached a point at which they are transitioning from crisis response to recovery.

Janice Soriano-Ramos, a senior planner for Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, says that after an 80% decline in ridership, the number of people on buses in her network has started to increase. She believes that as reopening continues, transit agencies will need to continue ridership monitoring to make sure that systems are meeting needs.

“A lot of us are faced with the challenge of practicing a data-driven planning process with really hard-to-obtain data,” she says. Agencies will need to provide the right service levels for increasing commuter traffic, but it's difficult to tell what that will look like. 

Fare collection is another big question. Dan Nemiroff, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), reports that his agency is planning to start collecting fares again as soon as it is safe to do so. Janice believes that her agency is on a similar track. It's a difficult balance to strike because agencies need revenue, but safety still comes first.

What we heard from the audience 

Across the country, transit agencies are facing similar challenges. To prepare for its recent webinar, Remix sent a survey out to transit planners across the country, asking:

What is the biggest change or challenge you have faced in your job due to COVID-19?

More than 400 people responded. The most common response spoke to the challenge of working from home, while most of the rest focused on broader challenges facing the transit industry, including:

  • Significant declines in ridership
  • The need to predict rapidly changing conditions and travel behaviors
  • The need for nimble service planning
  • Maintaining social distancing and safety measures on buses
  • Accessing passenger loads data
  • Public engagement in a shelter-in-place world

At Remix, we are committed to helping service planners increase the speed at which they need to produce work, help with digital public engagement, and provide flexible data visualization and analysis. If there are any agencies out there who would like the Remix team to estimate passenger load data with incomplete fare data, please reach out to us here.