Beginning with President Trump’s order to limit travel from China on January 31, 2020, and the subsequent orders to restrict travel to the United States from new “hot spots” in Europe and Brazil, government officials across the U.S. have taken unprecedented steps to address the new threat from COVID-19 and to minimize the spread of the coronavirus – especially as public health officials were issuing predictions of the numbers of potential fatalities if preventative steps were not taken. By early March 2020, the number of documented cases in Washington State and California led public officials in those states to begin shutting down brick and mortar commerce and schools, imposing travel restrictions, and directing residents to stay at home.

Following President Trump’s national declaration of an emergency on March 13, 2020, state and local governments across the country acted over the following weeks to mitigate the virus’ spread among their populations by severely limiting in-person activities and person-to-person interactions that were not deemed essential. Government officials took steps to minimize social contact. Orders to “stay-at-home” became “work-from-home” for office workers, schools were closed, sports and entertainment events were canceled, and tourism evaporated.

City governments and transit agencies were on the front lines of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and began developing strategies to mitigate the virus’ spread, facilitate social distancing, and aid relief efforts related to COVID-19, several of which are summarized below.

1. Mitigation on Public Transit

Many transit agencies implemented sanitization procedures for vehicles, stations, and facilities, reduced service, schedule changes, provided drivers with personal protective equipment (PPE), implemented social-distancing rules while seated or standing, and enforced rear door boarding for buses. Some transportation providers responded to the crisis in innovative ways. In the Los Angeles, California region, LA Metro and Via re-configured their on-demand rides to select transit stations to a point-to-point service within existing service zones.[1]

Additionally, in response to the dockless micro-mobility trend involving e-scooters and bikes, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (“LADOT”) updated its required cleaning protocols for these services and is actively monitoring vehicle deployment.

2. Assistance with Relief Efforts

In Florida, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority partnered with technology firms Beep and NAVYA to deploy autonomous vehicles (without any driver or passengers) to deliver medical supplies and COVID-19 test samples to the Mayo Clinic in Florida.[2]

In Washington D.C., the Department of For-Hire Vehicles (“DFHV”) repurposed its microtransit program to provide trips to hospital workers in partnerships with taxi companies and Via for a $3 fare. The DFHV also coordinated with Uber to donate 20,000 free rides to hospital workers and added grocery store trips to the agency’s paratransit services.

3. Congestion Pricing Suspension

In light of the significant drop in vehicle traffic across all seven state-owned toll bridges in the San Francisco, CA area, weekday congestion pricing on the Bay Bridge was suspended indefinitely.[3] In New York City, the congestion pricing program planned for January 2021 was put on hold.[4]

4. Reduced Speed Limits

Several cities, such as Washington, D.C., Oakland, CA, and Baltimore, MD, implemented some form of slow-street initiative to promote safe social distancing for cyclists and pedestrians during the pandemic. In Washington, D.C., for example, the speed limit was reduced from 25 mph to 20 mph and streets were restricted to local traffic only. [5]

5. Relaxed Parking Enforcement

Rules related to parking were relaxed during the period of lockdowns. In Denver, CO, and the California cities of Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose, most parking enforcement rules were suspended altogether, albeit temporarily.[6] In New York City, parking regulations that allow for street cleaning were suspended for over two weeks.[7] Boston, MA and Seattle, WA, gave special parking permits to health care workers to help them get to and from hospitals and other care facilities as easily as possible.[8][9]

6. Temporary Bike Lanes and Expanded Sidewalks

Connected bike routes served as an important alternative to public transit and created a temporary relief valve for the transit system in the wake of COVID-19. Several cities temporarily (and some permanently) expanded their cycling infrastructure. Philadelphia, PA, for example, closed a large 4.4-mile road segment to motor vehicles for the safety of cyclists and pedestrians.[10] In New York City, approximately 45 miles of streets have been closed to vehicles and opened to pedestrians and cyclists, including nine miles of temporary bike lanes, with 100 miles planned to be taken back from drivers.[11]

7. Mitigation in Taxis and For-Hire Vehicles

Many governors exempted taxis and for-hire vehicles from the lockdowns because their work was deemed “essential” as a service.  Louisiana was a notable exception.  Although for-hire service continued in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the cessation of shared rides to promote social distancing.[12]  The NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission and other regulators took steps to encourage installing partitions between drivers and passengers, including relaxing restrictions on the partition requirements.[13]

8. Assistance to Taxi and FHV Drivers

One of the most effective help for transportation providers and drivers right now is financial relief and assistance, yet unfortunately, many transportation agencies do not have the power to solve some of these issues, such as obtaining grants and loans and insurance premium refunds.  Most regulators, however, have waived licensing fees and reduce the licensing processes; and some regulators have gone outside their typical licensing and enforcement roles to help distressed licensees secure business through food and package delivery programs and provided free resources such as financial assistance, health care insurance, and legal services.[14]

In New York City, the TLC coordinated an informational campaign, is assisting licensees (drivers, vehicle owners, base owners) with applications for local small business assistance programs, and is providing information on public assistance programs, including food assistance, unemployment assistance, and mental health. The TLC also recruited taxi and for-hire vehicle drivers for a NYC-run food delivery program, paying up to $53 per delivery route.  By May, the program has provided an income of $3.5 million to more than 15,000 struggling drivers.[15]

Similar to New York City, the Washington, D.C. taxi regulator, DFHV, is facilitating more work for taxi drivers by allowing them to use their taxi vehicles for food delivery service and allowing them to prioritize this work.[16]

9. Maintaining Paratransit Service Levels

The City of Chicago, IL eliminated the passenger portion of all paratransit taxicab fares as a way to encourage ridership. The Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection partnered with Uber and Lyft to provide free rides to victims fleeing domestic violence during the pandemic.[17]

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation (“LADOT”) streamlined vehicle and driver permitting for Ambulance Companies to ensure adequate services are being provided during the pandemic.  Companies in this sector have remained busy, but employee retention has been a struggle.[18]

The Reopening:  Responses from Federal Government

While the shutdowns and re-openings are largely governed by the states themselves, they typically follow guidelines set forth by the federal government and incorporate, often by reference, such recommendations into their own measures. The most common example of this is recommendations and guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the “CDC”), which recently issued cleaning and disinfecting guidelines for reopening public spaces, workplaces, businesses.

Other federal agencies that state and local governments have looked to for guidance in crafting their own mitigation measures and reopening plans include the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”). OSHA specifically issued guidance for rideshare, taxi, and for-hire workers, which includes recommendations that there should be limits on the number of passengers transported at a single time and the installation of Plexiglas partitions between driver and passenger compartments when possible. The EEOC recently expanded guidance and is recommending that employers have a “Return to Work Safety Plan” to address a whole host of issues related to COVID-19 which includes policies and procedures to ensure social distancing, promote hygiene, mandate the availability, distribution and use of personal protective equipment (“PPE”), provide for employee screening before leaving for work and upon arriving at the workplace, and ensure contact tracing.[19] For employers, failing to implement the “Return to Work Safety Plan” and enforcing OSHA and public health requirements can lead to administrative actions and litigation.

Looking Forward

Deciding where the government regulator needs to step-in to mandate new public health and safety requirements is a question on everyone’s mind in the ground transportation industry. In the absence of centralized regulation, the International Association of Transportation Regulators (“IATR”) – a non-profit, professional organization of government transportation officials, and of which I serve as the president – is drafting best practices and regulations that act as a guide for regulators to implement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in their respective jurisdictions. The IATR Model Regulations for COVID-19 Health, Safety & Resiliency will address the scenarios that create contingency plans for future crises and prepare the industry for a second wave of COVID-19, should that present itself. To collect the best data, regulatory and policy information, and opinions of regulators from different areas of the world, the IATR formed a COVID-19 Task Force comprised of the chairs of its committees. Representatives from the Technology & Innovation, Safety, Accessible Transportation, and TNC Regulator committees will discuss the potential long-term implications of current regulations, and adapt them to present a plan that addresses the needs of all industry operators in the short-term and long-term.

Footnotes

[1] https://thesource.metro.net/2020/03/25/metros-mobility-on-demand-service-now-running-point-to-point-trips-within-service-zones/

[2] https://navya.tech/en/press/jta-beep-navya-autonomous-shuttles-help-transport-covid-19-tests-collected-at-mayo-clinic-drive-thru-site-in-jacksonville/#:~:text=The%20JTA%2C%20Beep%2C%20NAVYA%20and,from%20pedestrians%2C%20traffic%20and%20staff.

[3] https://www.sfexaminer.com/news/congestion-pricing-suspended-on-bay-bridge/

[4] https://www.nydailynews.com/coronavirus/ny-coronavirus-congestion-pricing-on-hold-20200422-idyclofw4nbnnbc3ftbhjpjfpm-story.html

[5] https://ggwash.org/view/77841/bowser-announces-reduced-speed-limits-slow-streets-and-streateries-across-the-district

[6] See https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2020/03/23/coronavirus-berkeley-suspends-some-parking-enforcement-through-april-7-during-coronavirus-response/; https://www.denvergov.org/content/denvergov/en/covid-19/recovery-guidance/transportation-parking.html; http://ladot.lacity.org/coronavirus/parking-rules-what-relaxed-and-what-enforced; and https://www.sfmta.com/projects/covid-19-developments-response

[7] https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/pr2020/pr20-015.shtml

[8] https://www.nbcboston.com/news/coronavirus/city-of-boston-forgiving-parking-tickets-for-health-care-workers/2104346/

[9] https://sdotblog.seattle.gov/2020/03/26/were-launching-a-parking-permit-program-for-healthcare-workers-on-front-lines-of-the-covid-19-response/

[10] https://bicyclecoalition.org/mlk-drive-closed-to-motor-vehicles-open-to-socially-distanced-people/

[11] https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/pedestrians/openstreets.shtml#:~:text=Streets%20Opened%20for%20Social%20Distancing,a%20total%20of%20100%20miles

[14] https://www.blackcarnews.com/article/what-the-iatr-and-transportation-regulators-are-doing-to-respond-to-the-covid-19-pandemic

[15] https://www.wsj.com/articles/unemployed-drivers-find-work-delivering-food-to-new-york-citys-needy-11589218383

[16] https://dfhv.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dc%20taxi/page_content/attachments/Administrative%20Issaunce%20-%20AI-2020-02%20-%20Taxicab%20Delivery.pdf

[17] https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/mayor/press_room/press_releases/2020/april/UberLyftPartnerforDomesticViolenceVictims.html

[18] https://www.chauffeurdriven.com/news-features/industry-news/2565-how-transportation-regulators-are-responding-to-covid-19.html

[19] https://www.eeoc.gov/coronavirus

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