Pandemic complicates cities’ transportation planning

Even before the pandemic struck, public transit agencies in major U.S. cities suffered from declining ridership. In many cases, COVID-19 has exacerbated those losses.

How to stem them in the short term and calibrate public transit’s role as technology advances are two questions at the forefront for transportation planners as they prepare for a wave of new mobility trends.

“I was talking to the CEO of the Ann Arbor transportation authority yesterday, and I asked him, ‘How’s ridership?’‚ÄČ” said Paul Ajegba, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, during a Zoom presentation Wednesday at the Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars. “He said, ‘Terrible.’ So we need to build public confidence back to let them know it’s still a safe mode.”

Municipal authorities are grappling with their role in the future transportation ecosystem and with which technologies and transport options to adopt. The coronavirus’s impact has been apparent in some cases, with commuters forgoing public transportation in favor of personal vehicles. In other areas, including the use of fleet vehicles, the impact is more surprising.

Brendan Jones, COO of Blink Charging, a nationwide purveyor of electric vehicle charging equipment and services, says business has increased since March.

“While we have this temporary situation, and maybe a long-term residual effect, it appears the electrification of fleets is sustainable at this point,” Jones said in the same presentation.

“The marketplace is alive, more so than pre-COVID, which is really interesting,” he said. “We have more installations in this space than ever before, so I see that as a bright spot.”

Unclear is whether that has been accelerated by COVID or is more of a reflection of the nearly $300 billion in collective global investments in EV technology across truck, bus and passenger vehicle platforms, according to a Blink estimate.

But electrification is one of several strategies cities are considering as they set policies and make investments to encourage lower emissions and less traffic congestion.

Cities will need strong leadership to navigate shifting public attitudes, said Andy Taylor, director of strategy at Cubic Transportation Systems Inc., of San Diego, which integrates payment solutions for public transportation systems.

Municipal officials should go beyond encouraging private industry to set up local test beds that permit autonomous vehicle deployment and setting up mobility-as-a-service apps that aggregate transportation options.

“Cities and regions need to step up and take ownership and embrace operators and bring them into the fold to ensure they are operating in the times and areas they need to operate to manage things holistically,” he said. “Unless cities can bring them in, you get these fits and starts of [venture capital-funded] companies trying to get a foothold.”

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