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COVID-19: Which aspects of transit and transportation are essential?

With the recent global outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, transportation is getting a spotlight in contrasting ways; while it creates environments where people must necessarily pass in close proximity to one another, it also provides a way to access goods and services that are a very high priority right now.

Let’s evaluate some of the impacts of the decisions that policymakers must make to this industry from three perspectives:

  • The impact on the traveling public
  • The impact on the workforce that provides the transportation services
  • The impact on the physical infrastructure that transportation services use

These perspectives include impacts of the decisions that are not isolated from one other; indeed, they are all related, which makes these decisions all that much more important.

Amid reports of city buses running nearly empty through the streets of Toronto due to the outbreak, I immediately thought that the city could save some money by reducing the number of vehicles in service; after all, there are a whole lot of fewer people traveling right now. To my surprise, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) announced an increase in the number of buses in service in order to reduce the number of riders per vehicle even further. This action was done to limit the number of people in proximity of one another on each bus in line with the new social distancing rules that have been put in place. Once I realized the benefit to the health and safety of the traveling public this action introduces, it made sense.

The Canadian Urban Transit Association recently announced the details of a stimulus funding package that the industry has requested from the federal government to help offset the increase in cost of these actions, that are indeed necessary to protect the health of the traveling public.

These measures include:

  • $400 million per month in funding to replace lost farebox revenues for transit systems
  • $1.2 billion in emergency relief funding for transit systems
  • Placing transit systems on the priority list for procurement of cleaning agents, disinfectants and Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for operators
  • Make strategic investments in transit infrastructure to support jobs, research & development spending and supply chains

The public transit industry is facing a monumental challenge ahead to stay afloat, continue to get people where they need to go and provide a near extreme level of safety, all while transporting significantly fewer passengers. Much of the measures identified above address this, but perhaps there is an opportunity here to accelerate a transformation that was already underway for the transit industry before this pandemic hit. This transformation was a fundamental shift in the way transit is deployed in a world of modern mobility within a plethora of choice for the general public on how to get somewhere. Transit systems can be more strategic, efficient and agile in their service delivery models. It’s not simply a question of essential vs non-essential service; transit planning is highly complex and there is a spectrum of need that transit experts and GIS-based solutions can address.

Nonetheless, no level of transit would occur without the workforce that supports the service. The measures included in the stimulus package do indeed address this aspect very well and rightly so. The people who provide our transportation services are just as vulnerable to this virus as the rest of us, and the health and safety of human lives is the absolute top priority.

As health cases mount around the world, Canadian transportation service jobs are being affected. Many of us can work from home and have made the transition to do so. However, this is not possible for a vast sea of people who must physically show up for work every day. While there are ways to reduce the exposure for people, which are being done and must continue to be done, perhaps there are also ways where technology can help to prioritize where people are needed most. For example, solutions like Tracker for ArcGIS can help with this task by capturing the locations of field staff and supporting critical field activities. 

Much like transit planning, infrastructure maintenance is highly complex and, as such, a science has been developed around this that has been maturing for decades. This science can help determine which maintenance projects are essential, allowing us to ensure the safety of our transportation infrastructure while we get through this crisis.

We must allow our policymakers to make quick decisions in challenging times. Making the best decisions require good data and technology to support the consequences for both the short term and the long term. Canadian governments of all levels have invested in geospatial information system (GIS) technology and intelligent people that support better data-driven decisions that help us all prosper with and without challenging circumstances. So, as we make decisions, we must leverage our capability to deliver strong, dependable insight into data so that essential vs non-essential decisions are made swiftly and well for the betterment of us all.

To strengthen business continuity, Esri is providing Coronavirus Business Continuity Solutions at no cost. Contact your Esri Canada account manager if you have an ArcGIS account. For new users, please request assistance through the Esri Disaster Response Program.

About the Author

Arif K. Rafiq is the Transportation Industry Manager for Esri Canada. His efforts are focused on advising customers how to use GIS technology to improve all areas of transportation management, specifically highways, public transit, aviation, marine, rail, freight and logistics. As a global transportation management systems specialist, Arif has significant experience managing highway infrastructure around the world. Exploring our vast planet with all its cultures and beauty has a been a major part of his life; he believes that the only thing you can buy that will make you richer is travel.

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