How Mobility Messaging Can Inject Confidence Into a COVID-Changed Society - Mobility Lab


COVID-19 and the devastation it has caused has made people uneasy about spending time in shared public spaces like buses and trains. And by continuing to go out in public during the pandemic and perform face-to-face work, transit employees, like all essential workers, are risking their lives and health to keep society functioning, a selfless act illustrated by sobering statistics.

But despite stereotypes that buses and trains are akin to petri dishes, research findings regarding how transportation systems might affect the spread of disease are mixed.

For example, while an MIT economist’s working paper uses data on known infections to make a case that New York City’s subway “seeded” that region’s Coronavirus outbreak, a George Mason land use researcher posits that the New York outbreak spread primarily through car travel in a rebuttal supported by the same data. Also, while researchers observed that patients among a cohort of 138 people in Nottingham, England were more likely to have a respiratory infection if they had recently used buses or trams, a survey of nearly 6,000 people in Britain found that people who don’t use transit are more likely to catch flu.

There is scientific evidence, however, that transit and other forms of sustainable mobility bolster health and prevent disease in numerous other ways:

  • Geometrically-efficient biking, walking, and transit provide people space to physically distance

  • Active, healthy mobility combats underlying health conditions that make people more vulnerable to complications of illnesses like COVID-19

  • Cleaner air fortifies people’s lungs and hearts; multiple studies have identified links between concentrations of toxic airborne particulates and coronavirus fatality rates

  • Stopping climate change and sprawl could protect people from pathogens that originate from decimated animal habitats, expanded mosquito ranges, and melting permafrost

Underlying this is public transportation’s superior safety: transit riders are ten times less likely to die in a crash than an automobile occupant.

Given all this information, as society starts to reopen how can transit agencies articulate a message that 1) respects the virus’s threat and honors employees’ sacrifice and 2) reassures the public that transit is a safe, preferable option?

Transit agencies – alongside their industry allies – can build on communication strategies they’ve used both before and during the pandemic, including:

  • Emphasizing rider and employee safety

  • Providing straightforward, up-to-date service information

  • Integrating complementary transportation options into their brands.

  • To back up that messaging, transit agencies must provide accordingly safe and convenient mobility.

Safety Culture: The Foundation of Viable Service

If people don’t think transit is safe, they won’t ride.

The Washington, DC region knows this well. The region experienced years of transit ridership declines following passenger deaths in a 2009 train collision and 2015 electrical fire, among other smoke and derailment incidents during the period. Re-earning public trust took an extended messaging effort branded “Back2Good” – in tandem with infrastructure repairs that necessitated some painful rail service shutdowns – but WMATA was winning back riders in the months before the virus hit.

WMATA’s messaging on its plan for pandemic-recovery service restoration, released last week, is reminiscent of Back2Good: the agency, citing a safety-first approach, does not expect to restore full transit service until around spring of 2021. The plan includes Back2Good-style rail shutdowns to accelerate planned capital maintenance and expansions during periods of expected low ridership. But the agency expects reduced service frequency and span to continue throughout the region’s rail and bus systems until an effective COVID-19 treatment or vaccine is widely available.

However, while reduced service levels do allow for more aggressive maintenance, the cuts also might cause COVID-19 infections by restricting the space available to riders. Specifically, coronavirus’s biological and geometric threat to riders contrasts with the engineering challenges of WMATA’s pre-Back2Good electrical shorts and broken rails: the less space people have, the more likely the virus is to spread.

Thus, agencies like WMATA may consider adjustments to the safety angle of their COVID-19 messaging, highlighting adaptations to sanitation and support for front-line workers rather than cuts to service.

WMATA’s recovery plan does emphasize the importance of visible cleanliness to its system’s reputation, it also does take a stance requiring face coverings for all employees and riders, rather than strongly recommending. But agencies able to convey an ability to learn and adapt as the coronavirus situation evolves can send a particularly strong message to the public.

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