Transit in the “2-meter economy”

photo: ANP
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That our LRT trains are currently virtually empty shouldn’t surprise anyone. During my shifts at the platforms, I make a bit of a game out of trying to count the number of customers as the train rolls into the station. It is usually around 20 at the most. I have counted even less than that. At rush hour in the afternoon, Tunney’s (Tunney’s!) can be empty at times. Usually trains around that time carry 500-600 people per train, every five minutes.

Commute to work

A poll in the US under Transit App users by the Transit App shows that the customers who are still travelling are women and people of colour. White male ridership dropped off a cliff. By and large it is essential workers who are still riding transit. Although I am not standing on a platform with a counter I think this is pretty much the case in Ottawa too. Transit App polled 25,000 workers to help transit companies make decisions. The bulk of people still using public transit — 92% — are using it to commute to work.

Keep cities moving

Secretary General of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), Mohamed Mezghani, recently penned an article on LinkedIn in which he writes that “one thing is certain- Public transport authorities and operators are committed to protecting passengers and employees, while keeping cities moving.” That is easier said than done though.

Collapsed ridership

Transit services around the world generally lost about 75-85% of their ridership and this is likely not going to improve anytime soon. Cities are facing an enormous headache because who is going to cover the cost and how are we going to move people when the 2-meter economy boots up again? It is going to be a gargantuan task.

Staggering losses

Take a look at the numbers. The San Francisco transit operators expect a US$200 million quarterly loss, or a staggering US$800 million a year. New York transit estimates a weekly revenue loss of US$142 million during the city’s lockdown and Washington US$2.5 million each weekday.

Several sources write that in order to have safe public distancing, one needs to stay 1 meter to 1.5 meter away from each other. This effectively reduces the number of passengers to about 25%-35%.

Mr Mezghani writes that based on experiences from countries that are further ahead on the curve, “that among the measures they took, a very important one stands out: the use of masks by all users and staff of public transport.”

It is so important for transit to get the customers back, not only for cost recovery, but also because our roads will clog beyond imagination when everyone returns to work by car rather than transit. Of course, I am hoping that many people will start cycling but I am realistic enough that that will drop off by the time we hit December. Who remembers the 51 day transit strike in 2009?

Therefore, the government has to encourage people to work from home at least part of the work week to avoid a rush hour nightmare or perhaps come in only a few hours per day after rush hour: “Flatten the rush hour” should be our new battle cry.

Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning

Meanwhile the White House is putting guide lines together for transit in the US, many of them already implemented, such as wiping down drivers’ compartments and providing personal protective equipment such as mask and sanitizer.

OCTranspo has been cleaning trains and stations and recently installed hand sanitizer dispensers at Line 1 stations. Staff has personal sanitizer bottles (from a distillery in Almonte by the way) and is going to give access to masks to staff soon. All that -unfortunately- will likely not convince customers to pack themselves in trains during rush hours, when the bulk of the customers travel. From experience from before Covid-19 hit Ottawa, I can share with you though that if you travel between 9 am and 3 pm, you should be fine.

Other possible sources of infection are buttons, door handles, toilet seats and trash cans. ‘No touch anything’ could become a standard, meaning we should see an increase in sensors and buttons large enough to hit with an elbow. There could be markings on the floor of trains and buses where we are supposed to stand, and we can even expect one way entrance and exit in buses.

Sneeze guards and thermal scans

Clearly the roped off areas in the front of the bus and train cannot continue, it takes too much valuable space. Expect more sneeze guards and even thermal scan body temperature sensors for operators. Cash transactions might become a thing of the past and touchless payments only might be the future. And what stops us to just hop on a bus and pay touchless with a credit or debit card?

Dutch railways

We can also expect for now that rows of seats might be blocked off. That is exactly what the Dutch railways are going to experiment with.

This week, the Dutch railways are going to run a number of trains with chairs covered with film, signs and arrows to test how they can direct people to sit and stand in the right place. Six trains will run between Zwolle and Groningen (in the north east of the country) to see how customers react, how the signs will hold up, if it is easy to clean the trains etc. These measures however can only work with a capacity of about 25% of the normal capacity.

No cost masks

As an extra measure, transit could hand out masks for people, which might sound like an expensive idea, but perhaps a lot cheaper than driving trains with 5% of its passenger capacity.

At the same time, we shouldn’t forget that transit is not the only place during the day where one can get infected as transmission can happen in the work place and at home and other places too.

Corona Transportation Ladder

On the Dutch Vervoersnet website, we can read (in Dutch) about the Corona Transportation Ladder by mobility expert Jos Hollestelle. Jos lists the several transportation options and looks into what the safest way for social distancing (ie not spreading or contracting the virus) is. It looks like this:

  1. Work from home/Video conferencing
  2. (Electric) bike and walking
  3. Speed pedelec/Scooters
  4. Car/Motorbike
  5. Car pool/Taxi
  6. Van pool/ Shuttlebus
  7. Public Transit outside rush hour
  8. Public Transit during rush hour (1st class)
  9. Public Transit during rush hour (2nd class)

Based on this preference ladder, cycling will be a real winner and transit has a tough year ahead. It makes sense that individual ways of travelling have a preference, combined with a health factor. (We have some great bike infra and some not so great. Small quick local improvements in bike infra could help tremendously.) Environmental benefits may have to take a back seat unfortunately. Nobody really knows where it is going though until we have herd immunity (a long way to go) or a vaccine.

There is only so much you can do as a transit company while the deficit keeps growing. Excellent service might help, warm shelters in winter might help, a pleasant fast ride might help (dedicated bus lanes!) and regular, reliable service might help. Cutting service will attract even less people, increasing services might be too costly. Councillor Brockington tweeted this week to expect a hundred million dollars shortfall for transit. Yikes!

Whatever we are going to do with transit, it is not going to plank the deficit curve for a while. Meanwhile if you do take the train, and you should really try, enjoy the space. It is like being in a stretch limousine all by yourself.

Without the Champagne.



  1. Thank you for this post Hans. OC Transpo will need to run local buses (feeder buses to the LRT) with higher frequency during non-rush hours to make this work. One bus every (half) hour as is the case now won’t cut it.

    Driving in to work downtown is not a real option, there is simply not enough parking available.

  2. What impacts do you see long term for public support and funding of transit projects? Would be pretty sad if this leads to a death spiral of decreased ridership, hence less interest in expanding/improving the system, hence poorer service and even lower ridership, repeat ad infinitum.

    Here in Ottawa I think Stage 2 LRT is probably too far into construction to be affected, but there’s still Stage 3 into the West End + any number of projects elsewhere in the world in the planning stages. It would be an environmental and urban planning disaster if they were all scrapped in favour of more/bigger highways.

    • From what I read no one really knows where this is going. There is hope for more funding. Perhaps longer trains and even more frequency will get people to their destination, but that comes at a cost, which means increased fare at the fare gates. Other funding models could be a levy on gas, as public transit keeps thousands of cars of the road. But can this be sold politically? Yes Phase 2 is too far in already but I am not so sure about Phase 3 yet. I fear that other than 4 hours of rush hours, the trains to Barrhaven might be empty, because who needs to be in Barrhaven during the day? Om the other hand, if there is a vaccine things change again.

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