Diverging Approach: Uncharted Waters

As the covid-19 pandemic spreads and as a ground stop on just about all aspects of American life sets in, we’re facing a lot of unknowns in the world of suburban transit these days. The bottom is falling out of mass transit demand as workplaces shift to work from home or mass layoffs as schools, bars, restaurants, and just about everything else shuts down. While no service reductions are scheduled for CTA, Pace, or Metra — yet — they are likely on the horizon. BNSF conductors reportedly announced to morning commuters that service reductions will start Wednesday; Metra meanwhile refuses to confirm or deny any upcoming service changes.

My guess is that Metra will very shortly announce that they’ll go to their alternate schedules, which generally are reserved for significant weather events. (It’s not guaranteed that they’ll do this, of course, but the BNSF, MED, MD-N, MD-W, Rock, UP-N and UP-NW alternate schedules have all been updated within the last 72 hours, so make what you will of that.) The alternate schedules are good: off-peak cuts are minimal (except for late night trains, which are mostly cut), with most of the changes happening at the peak of the peak. Metra deserves credit for maintaining those off-peak runs, however in the era of flattening the peak and social distancing there are a few other immediate changes we would recommend for all our transit agencies:

  • Suspend face-to-face fare collection. With other agencies like the Illinois Tollway taking the dramatic step to go towards all-electronic tolling and closing manned toll booths, and while transit agencies will likely be running a fare surplus as monthly passes go unused (or unrefunded), keeping riders and front-line employees safe from the coronavirus should take precedence over fare collection. Metra’s conductors serve important safety functions onboard trains: performing inspections, communicating with dispatch and the operator, operating wheelchair lifts, etc. Suspending fare collection can also lower the number of conductors needed on each train, which allows for smaller crew sizes and once again, fewer front-line contacts with potentially infected riders.
  • Open all the coaches in each consist. One of our Metra pet peeves for years, this recommendation takes extra urgency now: open every coach in every consist to allow passengers to spread out (maintain six-foot separation) rather than opening coaches as needed. This also goes for CTA service: don’t cut off-peak trains into smaller 4-car consists. Now is not the time to try to save a few bucks on electric.
  • Maintain off-peak service. While most of us hunker down and while social attractions shut down through the end of the month, there are still plenty of workers who do need to get to jobs, and plenty of them have untraditional hours. The front lines of a pandemic are first responders and health care workers, of course, but janitorial staffs, grocery store workers, supply chain employees, etc. are also vitally important. Off-peak service is crucial to serving all of these off-hour commuters.
  • Plan ahead. While the bulk of the disruption will likely occur between now and the end of March, it’s important to remember that there’s no toggle switch that magically gets flipped on April 1 that gets everything back to normal. Having a smooth transition to normalcy will be important to getting riders back on transit. To that aspect, seeing NICTD’s announcement today that March monthly passes will be good through April is a smart strategy that doubles as a ridership appreciation tactic.
  • Don’t panic. The ridership numbers are going to drop dramatically. It’s okay. Most of them will come back in a few months.
  • Think outside the box and take notes. While public health is obviously the top priority for everyone during a pandemic, these are also unique circumstances for unplanned pilot projects. Want to change staffing models? Try a new fare collection technique? Work out an operational issue? Now’s the time to try with limited impacts on ridership.

For the rest of us: wash your hands, cover your cough, avoid unnecessary travel, and make good choices. We’ll get through this together.