Study: Travel on mass transit impacted by measures to prevent COVID spread

·7 min read

Oct. 18—WILKES-BARRE — Teri Ooms, executive director at The Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development at Wilkes University, this week said Northeastern Pennsylvania is only beginning to learn the value of public transit and appreciate its importance as it relates to workforce issues.

"In major metropolitan areas, public transit is a major asset," Ooms said. "However, in NEPA, it has a bad rap — it is for seniors and those with DUIs."

Ooms said projects like the Scranton Area Community Foundation's NEPA Moves are beginning to change that perception! However, as public transit is beginning to get the attention the region needs, COVID hits.

"Travel on mass transit has been impacted by measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19," Ooms said. "The nature of travel on buses means enclosed spaces and potential for close contact with other individuals."

Ooms said the 2021 Indicators Report found that experts have identified several factors driving the spread of COVID — closed and/or poorly ventilated spaces, overcrowded areas, and contact with other individuals.

Given this knowledge, Ooms said vehicle transportation is one public venue in which virus transmission can occur.

In response to coronavirus, transit agencies have implemented the following:

—Administrative Controls: Training, plans, policies, and procedures that articulate and enforce infection-reduction efforts.

—Personal Protective Equipment: Gloves, masks, and shields.

—Hand Hygiene: Hand-washing, waterless hand sanitizer, prohibited sharing of office supplies and other items.

—Environmental Hygiene: Cleaning of stations, vehicles, and workplaces to minimize surface contamination.

—Social Distancing: Spacing of at least 3-6 feet between persons to minimize contamination from droplets (sneezing and coughing.)

—Ventilation: Control of indoor temperature and air flow to reduce contamination.

In some cases, prevention measures may be difficult to enforce, and type and degree of risk varies with context and environment.

Public transportation has continued in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area through the COVID-19 pandemic, although services have sometimes been limited. The most acute impacts on transit ridership, and trips on other modes, correlate with the varying permissiveness of federal, state, and local restrictions, particularly the statewide stay-at-home order in effect in Spring 2020 and phased out by mid-summer.

Transit operators' recent public meeting minutes in Northeastern Pennsylvania have suggested that local fixed route service in late 2020 stood at about 50 to 75 percent of pre-COVID ridership, and 55 to 65 percent for shared ride service.

As the region recovers from the disruptions of the pandemic, Ooms said several factors could impact public transit demand and ridership. Potential sources negatively impacting transit trips could be changing behaviors due to coronavirus — both a reduction in total trips due to the pandemic itself and remaining restrictions on activities, and a shift in mode choice away from transit due to perceptions about COVID safety in transit vehicles. State funding in PA is also a challenge, she said.

"Evidence gathered so far does not suggest that mass transit is particularly likely to facilitate the spread of COVID-19," Ooms said. "Studies conducted in European cities failed to find a significant link between mass transit and infection clusters, though those systems were already operating at reduced ridership levels when this data was collected. Transit has also not appeared to drive spread of COVID in Asia, though Japan and South Korea have an established culture of mask usage on crowded transit systems."

Ooms added that while it is ultimately rider perception of safety that will drive a return of ridership to pre-pandemic levels, the continuing roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine and gradual return to pre-pandemic behaviors supports the assumption that this factor depressing ridership will be short-term, especially as many mass transit riders in Northeastern Pennsylvania have cost or vehicle availability constraining their transportation mode choice.

In the meantime, effective communication of safety measures being taken is likely to be important in keeping the confidence of riders who do have a choice of whether or not to use public transportation.

However, Ooms said there are factors that may be longer-term sources of downward pressure of mass transit ridership. Telework, partially or fully, has become far more common, and many employers report investing in new remote work technologies and some have begun to rethink their physical space needs.

However, telework is not uniformly available to workers in all industries and occupations. Research from earlier in the pandemic found that workers who could work remotely (partially or fully) tended to have higher incomes than those who could not.[i] In Pennsylvania, the public transportation (excluding taxi) mode share for traveling to work was 5.6 percent in the 2019 5-year American Community Survey estimates.

However, this share was higher among lower wage workers, particularly those with annual earnings less than $25,000. Those with annual earnings greater than $35,000 commuted via public transportation less frequently. This would suggest that the impact on mass transit ridership from shifts to telework will be limited, as lower income workers, who more frequently utilize public transit, are generally less able to work remotely. Insert graphic 1

Ooms said there are some variations to this trend, as shown in the industry breakdown comparing the share of jobs by industry group that can be done remotely to the statewide public transportation mode share of workers in that industry.

Two industry groups that represent many white-collar jobs in professional services, management, administration, information, finance, insurance, and real estate, had the highest ability to be done remotely, but also ranked high in public transportation mode share in Pennsylvania. This trend could be driven mostly by the concentration of these jobs in Pennsylvania's two largest cities and availability of regional rail and other transit services oriented to suburban commuters in those regions.

"Notably, arts, entertainment, hospitality, and food service, had the lowest share of teleworkable jobs as well as a high public transportation mode share," Ooms said.

In addition to travel for work, many public transit trips are related to obtaining healthcare. Ooms said early in the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth usage skyrocketed regionally and nationwide.

Before the pandemic, many private and government-provided insurance including Medicare and Medicaid did not generally cover telehealth visits, specifically those with specialists, social workers, or therapists. Since March 2020, waivers have been in place to allow for expanded use of telehealth.

While telehealth usage peaked in April and declined as many health providers normalized operations in spring and summer of 2020, telehealth utilization remains far higher than at any point before the pandemic.[ii] While the future trajectory of this trend is highly dependent on extension of these waivers (and potentially other policy changes), it is likely that telehealth will continue to play a larger role in the future than prior to the pandemic.

Ooms said there are also several long-term factors related to the pandemic that could be potential sources of growth for mass transit ridership. The region's transportation and warehousing sector was already growing prior to the pandemic, and it is possible that further growth could result from new investments in ecommerce by businesses and long-term shifts towards online shopping by consumers.

Accordingly, logistics has continued to grow in the region even despite the pandemic. As of the 3rd quarter of 2020, the Transportation & Warehousing industry employment in the two counties grew by over 1,300 jobs compared to the prior year, a time in which nearly all other industry groups saw employment decline.

Several of the ZIP codes with the highest number and/or most significant growth of industry employment correspond with several geographic clusters of industrial and business parks in the region. These parks or groups of parks are centered on Hazleton and the surrounding areas, Hanover Township in Luzerne County, Pittston and Jenkins Townships in Luzerne County, and the Lackawanna Valley communities of Dunmore, Throop, Olyphant, and Jessup. Further growth in these industries will necessitate sustaining and enhancing public transit links between population centers with these employment centers.

Another long-term outcome that warrants consideration is that increased telework could result in some households rethinking transportation mode choice.

For example, Ooms said households where one or more person works partially or fully remotely from home may decide to own fewer vehicles than if all workers in the household worked outside the home, and instead use more flexible and varied transportation modes that include a mix of private vehicle trips, mass transit, ride sharing apps, and/or active transportation.

Reach Bill O'Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.

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