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Building resiliency in transit design during COVID-19 and beyond

July 02, 2020

By Ken Anderson

Taking the long view on transit building design will help agencies post-pandemic

Transit is an essential service, providing mobility for residents within urban settings. Public transit is a central part of any well-functioning city and provides an essential option to personal vehicles. For many of us, it is the most viable, affordable option. Public transit was hit hard during the stay-at-home orders required to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Soon, we will again use public transit for our day-to-day lives.

Thus, we need to start envisioning what the long-term future means for public transit buildings and facilities. What will these places look like when physical distancing and shelter-in-place ends?

As transit designers, we believe strongly that good design must respond not only to the current crisis and changing behavior but serve riders and transit workers for decades to come. We’re taking a new look at design considerations for public transit through the lenses of short- and long-term responses.

Good design must respond not only to the current crisis and changing behavior but serve riders and transit workers for decades to come.

We have seen our industry shift design considerations for transit infrastructure (both public-facing terminals and transport and the maintenance facilities and offices) toward efficient, safe, sustainable, and resilient design. Now we need to reconsider public health.

How to reopen

With Canadian and US governments at all levels providing stimulus funding for transit, transit agencies are developing plans to reduce the spread of viruses and to build public and staff confidence in the safety of the system for reopening. On the plus side, most transit facility spaces are set up so operators can adjust with temporary solutions in internal protocols and maintenance to respond to the pandemic. Both public spaces (stations) and the non-public spaces (facilities and support) can be readily modified to create additional safety and security. Right now, we are designing for reopening with early phase protocols (social distancing, staggered entry, ongoing disinfection) with essential changes of signage and entry and exit infrastructure. These are likely interim solutions.

The short-term outlook for operations, maintenance, and administration is also promising. Most transit operations are already socially distant. Mechanics tend to have their own tools and their own bays for transit repairs. Agencies can adjust their fueling, service, cleaning schedules, and nightly protocols to promote distancing and infection control. At the transit office, hours of operation, protocols, and cleaning can be adjusted.

We can’t simply think most immediate and least costly, we need to think flexible. Despite what’s happening today with COVID-19, the demand for transit is unlikely to go away.

Temporarily, the rider’s experience is likely to be reshaped by self-regulation and, in some cases, mandated masks. Riders won’t enter areas that seem too crowded for their comfort level. Agencies will be challenged to balance safety with function and utility in how they accommodate rider’s preferences for lower-density experiences. By its nature, transit use tends to concentrate people, and limiting its numbers may be the most difficult aspect of relaunching widely.

We are closely observing how some agencies, such as the New York MTA, are handling Phase I of reopening. Understanding the challenges of social distancing in a subway car, the MTA did not promise the ability to provide it at the level we’ve seen. Rather, they provided more regularly cleaned vehicles, required riders to wear masks, and adjusted schedules to allow for overnight deep cleaning using UV light. The result is an immediate and significant uptick in ridership toward pre-COVID levels and a level of confidence from users.

It will benefit transit designers and their clients to observe this temporary state to see which solutions prove effective and how behavior and procedures adjust over time to promote health. This will inform us as we look toward a long-term vision for public health in transit environments.

Most transit facility spaces are set up so operators can adjust with temporary solutions in internal protocols and maintenance to respond to the pandemic.

Longer term, touchless, anti-microbial

There are some design elements we can predict that public transit would be wise to embrace long term. Touchless operations for retail, banking—and even transit—are already the norm in some parts of the world. We will see transit redesigned to allow for a touchless rider experience from ticket buying to entry and exit. Sliding, automated doors will replace gates that must be pushed by hand, for example. Smartphone technology will enable touchless ticket purchasing. Designers will borrow established elements from healthcare, from anti-microbial surfaces to the use of positive or negative air pressure to increase airflow in public or back-of-house spaces. With the pandemic in mind, we can look at opportunities for stations that can open or close themselves to outside air.

Right now, transit systems are facing short-term pressures, such as loss of funds from fewer paying riders. With these fiscal pressures in mind, and the challenges of resuming service, they may look to spend their municipal and regional budgets (which tend to be modest in the best of times) carefully.

Flexible, resilient, equitable

Fortunately, as we continue to get more specific and detailed information about this pandemic, good news is emerging. Recent studies in Paris and Austria found that none of the “clusters” of COVID-19 infected people (150 clusters in Paris and 355 in Austria) were traceable to riding transit. It’s important to balance immediate public health responsibilities with thoughtful long-term responses.

Good design is about thinking beyond today’s challenges without losing sight of our guiding principles. Clearly, we must incorporate public health in our designs. And transit infrastructure must also last decades, balancing what’s best for the community while considering the rider’s experience, climate change, and resiliency. We can’t simply think most immediate and least costly, we need to think flexible. Despite what’s happening today with COVID-19, the demand for transit is unlikely to go away. And the next crisis may not be a pandemic that temporarily shuts down the system, it might be an event that increases public reliance on the transit system. 

Despite what’s happening today with COVID-19, the demand for transit is unlikely to go away.

We must first envision and then design for the crisis that hasn’t hit yet. Rather than downsize, we might suggest designing administrative workplaces for transit agencies that are highly flexible, can accommodate staff for years to come, can size adjust to the agency’s needs over time (with shared spaces with movable walls, for example), or can be repurposed quickly and economically for a completely different function. We also remind ourselves to consider the resiliency of transit systemwide. If the public transit system is frozen, we can’t presume that rideshare or automobiles will fill in the gaps for all riders. This crisis has shown us just how closely the availability of transit is related to social equity, climate change, and shaping communities. A truly resilient transit system will provide multiple options for movement within the city for everyone.

It will benefit transit designers and their clients to observe this temporary state to see which solutions prove effective. This temporary state of high alert and the infection control measures and modifications it requires also gives us an opportunity to learn through observation. By taking stock of what is and isn’t working, seeing how habits and patterns change over time, we can build better transit stations and facilities for the future.

  • Ken Anderson

    Known for developing architectural solutions that transform lives for the better, Ken is responsible for guiding our transit practice in the United States.

    Contact Ken
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