Community

A Safer Environment: Protecting Transit Space for Vulnerable Riders

Community

A Safer Environment: Protecting Transit Space for Vulnerable Riders

In this post:

  • Differences in transit dependence have been made especially transparent with the onset of the COVID crisis

  • Those who have choices in when and how they ride transit can create a safer environment for those who must be on transit at certain times by choosing to ride in off-peak hours


SteveFarber-headshot

Dr. Steven Farber, University of Toronto. Photo courtesy Dr. Farber.

Dr. Steven Farber is a professor at the University of Toronto, a quantitative transportation geographer, and a spatial analyst. His research program investigates how land use and transportation systems affect social and economic outcomes of urban areas. Today, we’re talking to Dr. Farber about transit in the era of COVID and how we can make transit access better for everyone coming out of this crisis. Answers have been edited for clarity.

RM: Tell me about your research.

My research generally looks at the impacts of the transportation and land-use system on people’s daily activity and travel behaviour patterns. What I’m interested in is understanding differences in how people’s daily activities are facilitated or hindered by barriers in the transportation system. A lot of my work is trying to relate inequalities in access to public transportation to inequalities in how much people are participating or able to participate in vital daily activities such as work, school, healthcare, social activities, and so on.

We’re trying to quantify or create new ways to measure the importance of the transportation system, and shift what we measure to these fundamental outcomes of what I think the transportation system is really trying to achieve.

RM: In terms of what your research team has seen, did the patterns of transit used during COVID reflect the conclusions you’ve drawn from past research in terms of who needs it, who gets it, what people use it for and what those essential things are?

I think probably the thing that was most apparent is just how optional transit is for so many people. The vast majority of people who had the ability to stop using transit did so right in the wake of fears of disease transmission. I think that up to now, we understood that there were differences between transit-dependent populations and transit-optional populations, but at a population level with the shock of COVID, we’ve never been able to observe anything like this in the past or at least in my career.

It was just undeniable evidence that there are these big differences between people who truly are dependent on transit and those who are using it because for them, in rush hour, can say, “Taking transit to work beats driving in traffic or paying for parking.” It’s a very different situation.

The way that we’re able to tease out the transit dependence issue is we looked at those people who were conducting activities and we looked at, of the people who were conducting activities, what modes of transportation were they using and what were their socioeconomic characteristics and so on. We found big inequalities there by income and race and car ownership and spatial patterns in the city of who continue to use transit for trips that they were still doing.

RM: What do you think that people need in order to get back into mass transit especially now as ridership starts to go up and physical distancing isn’t possible on all vehicles?

First of all, I think that we do need to do as much as possible to impose health and safety requirements on users and providers of transit. Things like keeping buses at safe capacities, cleaning, and washing. If the numbers are right, there’s not much that we can do on the supply side to make cities function again as they were before, assuming that transit can only reach 30% max capacity compared to the pre-pandemic conditions. There’s just not enough space on roads and not enough buses in the system to carry a normal level of demand – one bus can only be 30% full for safety reasons.

I think that there’s also a whole lot of telecommuting policy and behavioural change and timing that can be imposed. Perhaps, trying to move the peaks or to flatten out the peaks of transit demand – attempts to do that are going to be there. The thing that really concerns me is that by and large, people with the least power, people who are working service jobs, have shift work, and so on are going to have very little control over when and where they go to work. What that means is, I think that there’s an onus on other travellers to respect that inequality and to try to create a safer environment for those without a choice during this pandemic. If you don’t have to travel in the peak, or you can work from home, or you can change where you work, then I really think that it’s your new social responsibility not to crowd transit systems that are really being used by people without a choice, without another alternative.

The thing that really concerns me is that by and large, people with the least power, people who are working service jobs, have shift work, and so on are going to have very little control over when and where they go to work. What that means is, I think that there’s an onus on other travellers to respect that inequality and to try to create a safer environment for those without a choice during this pandemic.

I don’t think that this is a permanent change, but I do think that there’s some social responsibility to be made and some changes to be made in the near term in order to protect our most vulnerable population groups who really don’t have choices – all sorts of white-collar workers have flexibility right now, like never before.

I do think that there’s a big discussion that has to be had there. Because what we see is that it’s people of colour and recent immigrants and low-wage workers who have no choice about where and when they commute. Also, they’re stuck on buses for longer distances. They don’t own cars and they can’t afford other means of transportation and so on. These are really the populations that we need to reserve transit, for those dependent populations right now and not crowd them out and subject them to extra health risks.

Tune in for part two of this interview next week, where we’ll discuss how we can learn from the COVID crisis in order to make public transit more accessible to more people.

In this post:

  • Differences in transit dependence have been made especially transparent with the onset of the COVID crisis

  • Those who have choices in when and how they ride transit can create a safer environment for those who must be on transit at certain times by choosing to ride in off-peak hours


SteveFarber-headshot

Dr. Steven Farber, University of Toronto. Photo courtesy Dr. Farber.

Dr. Steven Farber is a professor at the University of Toronto, a quantitative transportation geographer, and a spatial analyst. His research program investigates how land use and transportation systems affect social and economic outcomes of urban areas. Today, we’re talking to Dr. Farber about transit in the era of COVID and how we can make transit access better for everyone coming out of this crisis. Answers have been edited for clarity.

RM: Tell me about your research.

My research generally looks at the impacts of the transportation and land-use system on people’s daily activity and travel behaviour patterns. What I’m interested in is understanding differences in how people’s daily activities are facilitated or hindered by barriers in the transportation system. A lot of my work is trying to relate inequalities in access to public transportation to inequalities in how much people are participating or able to participate in vital daily activities such as work, school, healthcare, social activities, and so on.

We’re trying to quantify or create new ways to measure the importance of the transportation system, and shift what we measure to these fundamental outcomes of what I think the transportation system is really trying to achieve.

RM: In terms of what your research team has seen, did the patterns of transit used during COVID reflect the conclusions you’ve drawn from past research in terms of who needs it, who gets it, what people use it for and what those essential things are?

I think probably the thing that was most apparent is just how optional transit is for so many people. The vast majority of people who had the ability to stop using transit did so right in the wake of fears of disease transmission. I think that up to now, we understood that there were differences between transit-dependent populations and transit-optional populations, but at a population level with the shock of COVID, we’ve never been able to observe anything like this in the past or at least in my career.

It was just undeniable evidence that there are these big differences between people who truly are dependent on transit and those who are using it because for them, in rush hour, can say, “Taking transit to work beats driving in traffic or paying for parking.” It’s a very different situation.

The way that we’re able to tease out the transit dependence issue is we looked at those people who were conducting activities and we looked at, of the people who were conducting activities, what modes of transportation were they using and what were their socioeconomic characteristics and so on. We found big inequalities there by income and race and car ownership and spatial patterns in the city of who continue to use transit for trips that they were still doing.

RM: What do you think that people need in order to get back into mass transit especially now as ridership starts to go up and physical distancing isn’t possible on all vehicles?

First of all, I think that we do need to do as much as possible to impose health and safety requirements on users and providers of transit. Things like keeping buses at safe capacities, cleaning, and washing. If the numbers are right, there’s not much that we can do on the supply side to make cities function again as they were before, assuming that transit can only reach 30% max capacity compared to the pre-pandemic conditions. There’s just not enough space on roads and not enough buses in the system to carry a normal level of demand – one bus can only be 30% full for safety reasons.

I think that there’s also a whole lot of telecommuting policy and behavioural change and timing that can be imposed. Perhaps, trying to move the peaks or to flatten out the peaks of transit demand – attempts to do that are going to be there. The thing that really concerns me is that by and large, people with the least power, people who are working service jobs, have shift work, and so on are going to have very little control over when and where they go to work. What that means is, I think that there’s an onus on other travellers to respect that inequality and to try to create a safer environment for those without a choice during this pandemic. If you don’t have to travel in the peak, or you can work from home, or you can change where you work, then I really think that it’s your new social responsibility not to crowd transit systems that are really being used by people without a choice, without another alternative.

The thing that really concerns me is that by and large, people with the least power, people who are working service jobs, have shift work, and so on are going to have very little control over when and where they go to work. What that means is, I think that there’s an onus on other travellers to respect that inequality and to try to create a safer environment for those without a choice during this pandemic.

I don’t think that this is a permanent change, but I do think that there’s some social responsibility to be made and some changes to be made in the near term in order to protect our most vulnerable population groups who really don’t have choices – all sorts of white-collar workers have flexibility right now, like never before.

I do think that there’s a big discussion that has to be had there. Because what we see is that it’s people of colour and recent immigrants and low-wage workers who have no choice about where and when they commute. Also, they’re stuck on buses for longer distances. They don’t own cars and they can’t afford other means of transportation and so on. These are really the populations that we need to reserve transit, for those dependent populations right now and not crowd them out and subject them to extra health risks.

Tune in for part two of this interview next week, where we’ll discuss how we can learn from the COVID crisis in order to make public transit more accessible to more people.

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This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or its affiliates.

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