June 25, 2021
Public transit is still recovering

Photo: Palm Tran

Clinton Forbes, executive director of Palm Tran, says a full recovery for public transportation could take up to three years.

Transportation

Public transit is still recovering

Full recovery for public transportation could take up to three years

Nancy Dahlberg | 4/28/2021

During the pandemic, Clinton Forbes, executive director for Palm Tran, the Palm Beach County transit agency, has seen transit use fall 50%. Transit use has begun creeping back, but full recovery to 2019 levels may be years away, he says.

Forbes, who has 30 years of experience in public transportation, is also the chairman of the Florida Public Transit Association, which represents more than 40 transit systems around the state, all deemed essential services during the pandemic. In that role, he brought them together in virtual meetings to share best practices from transit agencies around the country. “We did not capitulate. We adapted; we innovated; and we kept our systems running.”

FPTA’s members, which include both urban and rural systems, reported drops in usage from 25% to 60%, Forbes says. Palm Tran beefed up cleaning services and added shields around the bus operators and UV light in the buses’ ventilation systems, among other measures. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority repurposed autonomous shuttles to transport COVID test samples. Some agencies added the barriers in the smaller paratransit vehicles. Most limited capacity. Fortunately, the federal government provided Cares Act money to sustain the services — Palm Tran’s share was $50 million.

The much larger Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation and Public Works saw year-over-year use plunge 70% in April 2020, but it has been creeping back and was 38% down in January, says Miami-Dade County Chief Operations Officer Jimmy Morales. Fares were suspended during the pandemic but will likely be fully restored by summer.

Because many of its riders depend on transit — or want to avoid Miami traffic jams — Morales thinks Metrorail and bus use could return to near pre-pandemic levels in the second half of the year as people feel more comfortable getting back on transit again because of the vaccination program and as the economy, particularly the hospitality sector, comes back. He acknowledges the remote working trend will likely have an impact. “Whether it’s a 5% dent or a 20% dent, we don’t know that yet.”

Early in the pandemic, ridership on LYNX, Orlando’s transit system, fell to just 20% of pre-pandemic levels, but in March Lynx was just over 50% with some routes at 60% to 65%, says LYNX CEO Jim Harrison. He’s cautiously optimistic but says there’s no crystal ball for the new normal. “Central Florida has a service sector economy, which by its nature is very hands on and is a significant part of our customer base. LYNX will continue to provide service safely when businesses decide when and how their employees will return.”

Forbes of Palm Tran thinks full recovery could take up to three years. People have been forced to change their habits by the pandemic — perhaps they bought an inexpensive car or finagled a friend to get them to work every day. In addition to increased marketing to get people back on buses, Palm Tran may add on-demand transit to more routes. During the pandemic, the agency converted its rural Go Glades service from a fixed-route micro-transit service to on-demand, and ridership actually increased 15%, Forbes says. “Our plan going forward is not to say we are going to continue to do what we’ve done over the last 50 years. We have to adapt."

 

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