Transportation & Planning Students Study the Effects of COVID-19 on Transit in a University Town

UF students waiting to enter one of the RTS buses along a route located on the UF campus. Image courtesy of RTS – Gainesville’s Regional Transit System.

UFTI Transportation doctoral student Sagar Patni and UF urban planning master’s student Juan Suarez conducted a study under the direction of their adviser, Dr. Siva Srinivasan, to track the impact of COVID-19 on ridership in the City of Gainesville, Florida, a college town that is home to the University of Florida and Santa Fe College.

For more than a decade now, transit ridership has been on the decline with agencies scrambling to find novel ways to increase ridership and revenue by partnering with Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) and exploring the role of e-scooters for first-mile/last-mile connectivity. This downward trend has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as ridership demand is on a decline, and worldwide, the pandemic is also having an effect on public transportation.

As the City of Gainesville went into stay-at-home (as much as possible) orders earlier on in March 2020, it was easy to see the decrease in pedestrians, transit, and vehicle movements on the road at the time. Patni and Suarez knew the pandemic would have some sort of impact on the transit system in town, so they set out to examine the impacts of COVID-19 on route-level transit ridership in Gainesville. In particular, the goal of the study was to find out how the impacts varied based on the land use along certain routes and how these impacts have varied over time during the months of March to June of 2020. To do this, the students used data from Gainesville’s transit agency known as RTS (Regional Transit System).

Route-wise ridership for the month of April for years 2018-2020

From their mathematical models, Patni and Suarez found that for the pre-COVID years, the models predicted a demand pattern consistent with the University of Florida schedule. For the year 2020, the model captures a major reduction in ridership between April and March and between May and April. The demands for June 2020 were comparable to those of May 2020. The greatest drops in ridership were for routes that are university-serving compared to routes that serve other parts of Gainesville.

This non-funded research project produced a mathematical model which is helping to explain the variation of transit ridership based on the months used for the study, including variations in land use. Patni says that the framework they have created can be used for the remaining months in 2020 to continue to monitor how ridership trends will fare the rest of the year.

Percentage land use distribution along the operational bus routes

How will the study benefit the City of Gainesville, society, and practitioners?

Patni writes, “As we are still continuing with the work-from-home-type practice to a great extent, practitioners can adopt this approach to project transit ridership for the future months and can simultaneously change the supply side of the services to cope with the decreased travel.”