Managing public transit during a pandemic: The trade-off between safety and mobility

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

place - north america, place - urban, mode - subway/metro, mode - mass transit, planning - methods, planning - personal safety/crime, ridership - commuting


Public transit, Spatial compartmental model, Safety-and-mobility trade-off


During a pandemic such as COVID-19, managing public transit effectively becomes a critical policy decision. On the one hand, efficient transportation plays a pivotal role in enabling the movement of essential workers and keeping the economy moving. On the other hand, public transit can be a vector for disease propagation due to travelers’ proximity within shared and enclosed spaces. Without strategic preparedness, mass transit facilities are potential hotbeds for spreading infectious diseases. Thus, transportation agencies face a complex trade-off when developing context-specific operating strategies for public transit. This work provides a network-based analysis framework for understanding this trade-off, as well as tools for calculating targeted commute restrictions under different policy constraints, e.g., regarding public health considerations (limiting infection levels) and economic activity (limiting the reduction in travel). The resulting plans ensure that the traffic flow restrictions imposed on each route are adaptive to the time-varying epidemic dynamics. A case study based on the COVID-19 pandemic reveals that a well-planned subway system in New York City can sustain 88% of transit flow while reducing the risk of disease transmission by 50% relative to fully-loaded public transit systems. Transport policy-makers can exploit this optimization-based framework to address safety-and-mobility trade-offs and make proactive transit management plans during an epidemic outbreak.


Permission to publish the abstract has been given by Elsevier, copyright remains with them.


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