The COVID-19 crisis has created new challenges for public transport. What will the reopening process and post-COVID era bring?

In a recent webinar, we discussed ways to plan for different ridership scenarios, tackle uncertainty with flexible yet robust schedules, and manage potential resource shortages. Read on to learn the key points that were covered.

What will the new normal look like?

As areas gradually reopen from lockdown, many uncertainties will remain, but a few key elements are now clear. One is that many more people will be working from home. We would expect this to mean fewer people taking public transport and less traffic on the roads, resulting in less ridership and shorter runtimes, ultimately reducing the required service levels and fleet size.

But the picture is not so simple. Several competing factors come into play.

Physical distancing requirements could restrict passenger loads, so that the required service levels and fleet size would increase, despite carrying fewer passengers. Yet this could be mitigated by passengers choosing to avoid herding by not travelling at peak times. Fear of herding could also push potential riders into using their personal vehicles, which could reduce required service but increase runtimes. These conflicting effects make it even more difficult to plan how many buses you need on the road.

Meeting new scheduling challenges

The reopening process will be in constant flux as government authorities monitor and reassess the situation. Different phases will be implemented with little or no lead time. To cope with this, public transport schedules will need to be both flexible and robust.

means being able to modulate service levels quickly while reallocating some resources, constantly assessing demand for each part of the network and moving resources if problems are found. 

  • Having prepared multiple scenarios in advance, and being able to switch them quickly, will be key to balancing the service offer and demand

means being able to maintain a stable minimal service that mitigates uncertainties, such as runtimes, ridership, and availability of vehicles and drivers on any given day.

  • Limiting interlining will let you avoid problems spreading to different parts of the network and make it easier to adjust service levels and resources between lines. This may seem paradoxical. We usually recommend interlining for effective resource utilization, but exceptional times call for exceptional measures
  • The one-driver-one-bus approach keeps it simple, but when this is not possible, using plenty of layover will stabilize your timetables and buffer your reliefs

A possible approach to achieving flexible, robust schedules is to determine the minimum “base” service levels that must be maintained. These can be defined as alternative scenarios that will easily be changed over as reopening progresses, or if any projections regarding ridership, runtimes, or resources turn out to be inaccurate. The aim is to provide a stable basis for regular employees to bid on their work.

A way of determining these base levels is to look at historical ridership by route and direction and to identify alternative bus seating capacities to get an indication of which trips would “overload” because of physical distancing requirements. Any variance in demand exceeding the base levels must be covered by adding resources – whether trips, vehicles or operators – at the last minute, e.g. by calling on extra-board employees. Using the appropriate software tools is key to considering all these variables and creating realistic schedules that are both flexible and robust.

Challenges for daily operations

New challenges and effects for daily operations will include the following:

  • Prioritizing service to ensure that essential service is maintained
  • Handling multiple scenarios for service changes arising from implementing the base service levels described above
  • Meeting variances in demand exceeding the base levels by dispatching work to an increased number of extra-board employees
  • Implementing physical distancing for employees
  • Responding to budget restrictions and manpower shortages

GIRO’s teams can advise HASTUS clients on the best use of the tools in HASTUS to meet the challenges of operating public transit in the post-COVID-19 era.

A recording of our webinar on planning your route to the new normal can be viewed in the client section.