BUSRide convened with industry thought leaders to discuss accessibility in the wake of COVID-19. The panelists discussed paratransit disruptions due to the pandemic, new safety concerns, the role technology plays in the “new normal,” and more.
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When COVID-19 hit the nation, did you witness disruptions to accessible transit and paratransit operations?
Paola Realpozo: Ridership plummeted, and new processes and procedures (and configurations to systems) needed to be in place for safety reasons; including cleaning and sanitizing, contact tracing, and social distancing (where possible). At the same time, providers found ways to keep vehicles in use and drivers at work by expanding service options to include meals on wheels, COVID testing and vaccination-specific transit, wireless internet hotspots to communities that needed it, and more.
What new safety concerns have arisen in accessible transportation due to COVID-19?
Kevin Trudeau: Most of our customers are a high-risk population, and we don’t take lightly their decision to trust their health to our services. Since COVID, we have implemented processes to increase peace of mind for those with mobility challenges, including an anti-microbial powder coating on the handrails of our wheelchair lifts and implementing a sanitation process as the last component of any service inspection. We also encourage and incentivize mobile service units, enabling the service technicians to come to the repair unit and limit exposure.
Bill Ott: Unfortunately, especially in the early onset of COVID, many transit drivers came into contact with the virus. Agencies quickly adopted plexiglass walls to limit operator exposure and took other measures to allow distancing between passengers and drivers. We saw increased interest in products like QUANTUM, because self-securement allowed drivers to secure wheelchair passengers without leaving the front of the bus.
Paratransit operations saw decreased demand, due to COVID restrictions as well as distancing concerns. We had many calls from paratransit customers about sanitization and the capabilities to disinfect our products, because those agencies were taking extra precautions to ensure the safety of their riders.
What specific challenges did pandemic protocols place on paratransit services?
Realpozo: Cleanliness required vehicles to return to the yard between each passenger trip. Barriers between seats caused communication issues, and social distancing reduced the option for shared rides. We were able to help our customers by quickly configuring our Trapeze software to help with contact tracing and adapting vehicle capacity to meet rapidly changing service requirements.
Trips had to be spaced out more and, in some cases, with only one passenger at a time. Trapeze software was used to help many paratransit systems make this adaptation and keep both riders and drivers safe.
What role does technology or equipment play in reimagining accessible transportation after COVID-19?
Ott: It is all about keeping distance and space between people, and trying to drive more autonomy with the riders themselves. Transit riders with wheelchairs are very capable, and we feel strongly about allowing them to board buses and secure themselves safely.
Autonomy is a big technology driver; we can see sensors that are looking at spacing. Even on the data collection side, with how many riders are getting on the vehicles and so forth, I think some of the IoT technology can be very, very useful in contact tracing.
It is going to be a while before we can truly return to pre-COVID operations in public transportation, so it is important that we leverage technology to keep passengers as safe as possible.
Trudeau: Like every industry, transportation is witnessing a high turnover of employees, specifically of equipment operators. This turnover forced us to accelerate our virtual education and certification efforts. In the past we would schedule onsite, in-person trainings. Today a brand-new operator can scan a QR code on our wheelchair lift and read instructions or watch instructional videos to ensure they’re operating the equipment correctly or troubleshoot any issues. We still believe in the value of in-person trainings, but we recognize the need for more versatile and virtual options in today’s era, whether during Covid times or beyond. This and our sanitizing processes are changes that are here to stay.
Realpozo: Agencies are rebooting their service offerings to meet the post-pandemic mobility needs. These include adding microtransit, Mobility as a Service, integrating their traditional bus and rail networks, and providing more handheld info on apps and at stations. Touchless technology is reshaping how both operations and passengers will interact within shared spaces as agencies move away from cash and other paper dependent operations. Real-time data will continue to be key in adapting service to ensure inclusivity and accessibility. Agencies are ensuring they provide a connected network of public transportation and not isolated services. Data also helps identify “unbanked” communities to place ticketing machines accordingly and ensure everyone and anyone has access to job, education and entertainment by riding public transportation. All of these require updated technology. At Trapeze, we quickly recognized the key role that technology played when COVID-19 hit and throughout the pandemic. It was thanks to our technology that all our customers were able to adapt quickly and frequently. New routes, new processes, and new rules were easily incorporated to the system to ensure compliance and safety.
Given the budget constraints and expenditures incurred by transit agencies during COVID, what tips can you offer for accessible technology procurement in a post-COVID environment?
Realpozo: The additional federal dollars coming in to assist should help agencies upgrade technology to ensure a low touch / high tech solution offering, which is required now post-pandemic. Trapeze offers a full suite of products used by the majority of paratransit systems in North America to assist agencies meeting the future needs of their passengers.
Technology provides great value to agencies; the investment made today will pay off in the short and long term.
Ott: Transit was fortunate thanks to the investments of government stimulus throughout COVID. Of course, that is not going to be around forever, but it did allow the agencies to upgrade and invest during the pandemic.
Transit agencies operate on pretty tight margins. When it comes to self-securement technology, the most cost-effective option for agencies is to acquire during the bus building process – so it is not coming out of operating dollars. The bid spec process can be slow, but it can a great way to obtain game-changing technology for passenger safety.
Agencies are always looking for something better when it comes to specs. In some cases, they just do not even know a certain technology exists. So, we are diligent about getting information into the hands of the people writing these documents and finding champions for our technology.
What best practices do you recommend for agencies, companies, and drivers in a post-COVID transportation environment?
Trudeau: Stay current on safety operations, commit to a thorough pre-trip inspection cycle, and make use of the BraunAbility resources for operators. With the quick scan of the QR code on products, our new virtual training and troubleshooting content is now so easy to access.
Our loading and unloading training procedures have not changed. We still focus on safety of the customer above all and meeting them at their comfort level.
Ott: We have a very strict set of requirements for securement in order to meet transportation safety goals. Those requirements are not going to go away or change due to the pandemic. Ensure devices are attached to wheelchairs in a proper manner, and utilize securement belts for occupants.
For transit riders there are fears of contamination from securement belts that can create some challenges when securing passengers. We require that drivers recommend securement belt use to all riders, but the decision is ultimately up to them. Our technology, like QUANTUM or Q’POD, can help play a part in alleviating those fears.
We did see an increase in the riders using the QUANTUM, versus the Q’POD or traditional securement, during COVID. This did allow agencies to have more confidence in the product, simply because of continued use. Especially because of transit turnover, it is critical that staff have knowledge and understanding of the safety technology on board their buses.
What vehicle- or equipment-based steps can agencies take – whether in practice or with technology – to prep their operations for future crises?
Ott: The first step is having tools and protocols to keep vehicle disinfected on a regular basis.
Paratransit vehicle specifiers should consider space planning when defining vehicle layouts and would push for agencies to really plan for spacing when scheduling rides, given what we know about COVID-19 and social distancing. Obviously, it is a balance, but spacing is something of which we must remain mindful. I could see some changes to floor layouts, and maybe the introduction of barriers to further protect passengers with wheelchairs.
Contact tracing can be very controversial because of personal rights and privacy concerns, but I think it may become more prevalent in paratransit where you see repeat customers.
Finally, I think fleet changes may occur as paratransit trips move to smaller vehicles with less passengers. People will be less inclined to ride together, and that may affect vehicle procurements moving forward.
As a technology provider, it is our job to anticipate these changes and then automate as many steps of the process as possible.
Realpozo: There is a wide array of technology to empower riders and transit operations across the country and that will help agencies in their path to recovery:
Enable passengers to manage trips easily and independently. While web and telephone should remain part of the mix, a mobile-first approach is the clear winner if you’re looking at how to spend resources to reach riders, reduce call volume and make paratransit operations more efficient. After COVID-19 riders will want to feel safe and be in the know about their journey with precise information in real-time.
It is critical that your agency’s analytics platform is flexible, interactive, and transit-focused – that it enables you to determine if policies are having their intended effect, quickly and confidently manage performance, and identify areas for improvement.
Cloud PASS allows paratransit customers more flexibility, and more control over booking and managing their trips. It helps you to reduce time spent on calls in your Control Center, and drastically increase automation to save countless hours on scheduling and dispatching. Post-pandemic services should be a better experience for your riders but also for your employees with user-friendly and intuitive software that makes the day of operations a smooth experience
More than tracking basic work order information, Enterprise Asset Manegement (EAM) provides real-time “actionable intelligence” for better operational decision-making. Our EAM is designed specifically for a transit environment to help track and keep assets in a state of good repair (rolling stock, facilities, linear, and components). Vehicle preventive and proactive maintenance is complicated, but the EAM system you use to manage your fleet shouldn’t be. With EAM you ensure vehicle availability to serve your post-pandemic increased demand.
Trudeau: This timeless advice still applies – be sure you are conducting pre-trip inspections and conducting preventative maintenance on all your equipment. Many vehicles have been sitting through Covid. If your fleet has been idle for more time than is normal, it’s especially important that you’re regularly running the equipment, taking it for test drives and ensuring it’s ready and able to operate despite any down time.
This is a critical time for the future of the commercial mobility transportation industry. BraunAbility is excited about our collaboration with Q’STRAINT and the potential to not only make wheelchair securement easier and faster, but also touchless and therefore safer as well. This partnership couldn’t have come at a better time.