Redefining Public Transit During an Emergency
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly changed community needs. To meet those needs, transit agencies filled roles outside of their regular scope of service.
In the TRB Cooperative Research Program’s TCRP Synthesis 167-Partnerships for Equitable Pandemic Response and Recovery, EBP documented the non-traditional ways that transit agencies supported their communities during the pandemic, including:
Providing access to food and supplies through delivery or distribution services
Supporting public health by providing transportation to COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites, hosting testing and vaccination sites at transit stations, and using transit vehicles to host mobile testing and vaccination clinics
Enabling distance learning for students with unreliable internet access by using transit vehicles as Wi-Fi hotspots
The Synthesis provides lessons for transit agencies looking to continue to evolve in a post-pandemic environment and to better prepare for future emergencies. Two key themes emphasized throughout the study were (1) the importance of collaboration with partner organizations and (2) the promotion of equity for vulnerable members of the community.
The Power of Partnerships
During the COVID-19 pandemic, transit agencies leveraged existing connections and formed new partnerships with other organizations to better understand their communities’ evolving needs and to learn where transit agencies could help to fill gaps. The organizations that transit agencies partnered with include local and state government, non-profits, hospitals, schools and higher education institutions, and private sector businesses. To better understand the role of community partnerships in pandemic response initiatives, we spoke with transit agencies, including Laketran in Lake County, Ohio and the Bay County Public Transit System in Bay County, Florida.
In an initiative in Lake County, Ohio, Laketran leveraged existing partnerships with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, the Lake County Council on Aging, the Lake County Commissioners Office, Lifeline, and several volunteer organizations to connect in-need households with food when the pandemic hit. The community need was first identified when the local 2-1-1 line, a non-emergency help line for local residents, started to receive a significant increase in calls related to food insecurity. The initiative to provide access to food evolved over the course of the pandemic in three phases, starting with the use of paratransit vehicles to deliver food packages to over 2,500 families at the start of the pandemic, and becoming a permanent mobile food pantry service offered by Laketran and its partners that provides food to vulnerable members of the community on a weekly basis. According to Laketran, the strong connections it already had with community members and organizations were key to the success of the food access initiative – they knew exactly who to call at the onset of the pandemic to identify and meet community needs quickly and effectively.
In an initiative focused on public health, the Bay County Public Transit System in Bay County, Florida worked with the local Council on Aging and the Bay County Health Department to provide access to COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, including through a mobile clinic. While the transit agency had a long-standing working relationship with the Council on Aging to provide transit services to seniors, it first established a connection with the Bay County Health Department during a previous emergency: Hurricane Michael made direct landfall in Bay County in October 2018, prompting the Bay County Public Transit System and many other organizations to jump into emergency response efforts. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the transit agency and its partners knew there would be homebound or otherwise mobility-constrained residents in need of essential services. Together, the partners compiled a comprehensive list of at-risk residents and developed programs to connect them with essential services, including the mobile COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics in support of broader community public health efforts. According to representatives from the Bay County Public Transit System, experience with previous emergency situations like Hurricane Michael was key to their successful pandemic response, as it taught them the level of community coordination that is necessary during an emergency.
The initiatives that Laketran and the Bay County Public Transit System were a part of primarily targeted elderly, lower income, disabled, and otherwise mobility-constrained populations. While many agencies broadened their roles in advancing different types of equity during the pandemic, agencies simultaneously pursued ways to continue to support and even expand transportation equity in their communities.
Striving for Equity
Equity is central to transit agencies’ missions, as public transit provides critical mobility for people who do not have access to cars or cannot drive. While diversifying their services and initiatives to meet wider community needs during the public health emergency, transit agencies continued to prioritize equitable service and, in some cases, even expanded service, as transportation access remained a primary community need during the pandemic.
In Santa Rosa, California, Santa Rosa Transit expanded its paratransit area to cover popular destinations outside of the city that previously required a transfer. The agency also introduced a call-ahead service on paratransit to expand the service to riders who may have experienced fixed route bus service cuts early in the pandemic. These expanded paratransit services involved coordination with neighboring transit agencies, promoting stronger interagency partnerships that have continued after the public health emergency. Santa Rosa Transit continues to meet with agency partners to establish new equity-focused initiatives, including efforts to improve county-wide coordination across different transit operators and improve access to healthcare throughout the community.
Closing Thoughts for Transit Agencies
The research and case studies included in our study support a series of recommendations for transit agencies looking to learn from the pandemic to improve future emergency response. Suggested actions include:
Proactively establish and maintain connections with other community organizations during non-emergency times.
Understand and communicate each organization’s resources and expertise as effectively as possible, including the availability of surveys and data.
Be flexible and open to shifting roles in an emergency situation.
Our research on pandemic responses can support future research on cross-agency coordination, and equity considerations in decision-making and performance-tracking. It also provides insight into effective processes for public and stakeholder engagement in an emergency. Finally, some of the initiatives documented in the report may transform into long-term opportunities for transit agencies to assist their communities in non-traditional ways.