The Metropolitan Transportation Authority – the LIRR’s parent agency – said it was consulting with health experts, transit advocates and business groups, and was seeking ideas from other transit agencies, United States and abroad, on social distancing on trains. MTA President and CEO Patrick Foye said, “Everything is on the table.”
The number of LIRR users remains at about 3% of normal levels during this COVID-19 pandemic, said the MTA, but the agency predicts that up to 60% of its passengers could return by the end of the year.
A key element of the MTA’s social distancing strategy will be a call to major employers to help relieve pressure during peak hours by spreading hours and days of work, and enabling remote working. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has expressed support for the opportunity to fundamentally change the commuting culture in the region.
“It’s about rebuilding. It’s literally about rethinking and moving forward this day right now, “Cuomo said on May 6. “And we want to do it. How to find a better transport system? “
Robert Previdi, a Philadelphia transportation lobbyist and former MTA transit planner, agreed that the pandemic is a chance to “rebuild better.”
“Why not get rid of rush hour in this particular case?” Who likes to sit or stand on a crowded train or crowded Penn Station? Said Previdi. “If we could do a better job by shifting people’s work hours, so that we can avoid this 5-hour nonsense that happens all too often at Penn Station, I don’t think anyone would miss it.” “
For the LIRR, which transported 91 million people last year – a modern record – even a fraction of its usual ridership could create overcrowding on an 85-foot by 10½-foot train car.
“This is a particularly difficult environment,” said Martine Hackett, associate professor in the master’s program in public and community health at Hofstra University.
While increased efforts to clean up the MTA on trains, which are now disinfected daily, are helpful, Hackett said the greatest risk to commuters is the close contact they are forced to make with others LIRR passengers in confined areas. Railways generally travel much longer distances between stops than subways, which could result in the virus being trapped in a train car for an extended period of time.
“Longer train journeys increased the risk of transmission, compared to those with shorter train stops,” said Hackett.
Although the MTA has stated that it is preparing its plan for commuters to maintain a safe social distance, there are no mitigating measures that will calm the minds of some LIRR regulars. Malverne commuter Amanda Gilmore, who has been on the railroad for a dozen years, does not believe that the LIRR will be able to effectively reduce congestion – particularly during unplanned service interruptions that can result in disruption. equivalent of two sets of riders piling up in a train.
“I don’t know what measures they could put in place that would work even in some of the scenarios I found myself in,” said Gilmore, 40, director of human resources. “At worst, forget 6 feet. You literally have people around you, touching you … In summer, I sweat the other commuters who drip me. “
Senator Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), a frequent critic of the LIRR, agreed that even with a strategy in place, commuters will need more insurance than is currently possible before resuming travel “two times a day for more than an hour ”… In a closed environment with other people. “
“Is it safe to sit on a train, even with an empty seat next to you? Being less than 6 feet, regularly, every day, around other people? I think this is a fundamental question that we cannot get around by trying to understand what rush hour will look like, “said Kaminsky. “When someone says,” Hey, sure. You will be fine as long as you wear a mask “, I think people will want to come back … But this information is not there right now. “
The MTA has already taken certain measures to combat overcrowding, in particular by requiring passengers to wear face masks or blankets, and by marking the platforms of certain stations with adhesive tape to show how far the passengers are must stand for each other.
Technological solutions are also in preparation. The LIRR has announced that it will deploy a system by August that will provide “real-time traffic data” for 90% of electric trains, which are designed to accommodate around 100 people per car. The MTA also plans to use cameras and analytical technology to monitor congestion at stations. Foye even suggested a reservation system for metro users that would use “the technology we all know and that Ticketmaster uses”.
“The 6 feet of social distance that we’ve all come to accept in the past few months doesn’t work, I think everyone recognizes, in a public transportation environment,” said Foye. “So the question is, with masks and daily disinfection and new technologies, what can we do to limit the clutter and control that? “
To promote social distancing on generally crowded vehicles, public transit agencies around the world have turned to low-tech and high-tech solutions. In France, decals designate certain seats as prohibited in order to space passengers. In Italy, the number of passengers on trains and buses has been severely limited. In China, commuters have their temperature checked before they can board a train.
At a web conference hosted by the MTA last week, the leaders of other major transit systems in the United States also shared their plans to keep passengers a safe distance from each other. The San Francisco BART system adds cars to trains and adds services during periods of high demand. SEPTA and the New Jersey Transit of Philadelphia have reduced their capacity limits by 50%.
But with the LIRR already running almost every train in its fleet during peak hours – and always packed – before the pandemic, Previdi thinks that trying to disperse the crowds will not work. According to LIRR statistics, approximately 65% of the 284,000 average weekday passengers traveling to and from Long Island in 2019 did so during peak hours – between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
“They know they don’t have the physical trains to add service, so it’s not an option,” said Previdi. “I think it’s going to have to be a combination of everything – companies and MTA are coming together and finding ways, with everyone working together, to reduce congestion at peak times. “
Christopher Jones, executive vice president of the Regional Plan Association – a planning and advocacy group – said the most important key to reducing the risk of infection on public transportation will be “to try to keep the number of people who have to take the train during… the rush hour as low as possible. This could involve providing commuters with other options, such as express buses, or offering discount fares to encourage travel during off-peak periods.
“This is clearly going to require change at all levels – train operators, employers and drivers. This is something that everyone will have to work together, “said Jones. “People will do things in three or four months from now that they never thought it would be something they would do everyday. But people are adapting. “
MTA officials and transit experts have come up with several ideas for reducing rush hour congestion once commuters start to return to work in large numbers. Here is some:
- Change when and where people work: MTA officials said that being able to maintain a safe social distance on its system would require employers to stagger the hours and days of employee entry and allow for extended distance work.
- Reduce capacity while adding train cars: Some transit agencies in the United States and Europe are adding to their fleet of trains and buses while reducing the number of people allowed to use them, by up to 50%.
- Keep certain seats out of range: In order to space passengers, some transit agencies affix decals on alternate seats or rows of seats, asking them to leave them unoccupied. Similar markings on station platforms also invite cyclists to keep their distance from each other.
- Use of technology: The LIRR said “real-time overcrowding” data will be available for 90% of its electric fleet by August. The MTA is also considering combining video cameras at stations with analytical technology to better monitor and control congestion in real time. MTA president Patrick Foye even offered to use Ticketmaster-inspired technology to allow commuters to book a seat on the metro in advance.
- Tariff incentives: Some transit experts have suggested offering discount fares to encourage passengers to avoid traveling during the busiest times.