Three’s a crowd? Examining evolving public transit crowding standards amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

mode - bus, mode - rail, place - north america, operations - crowding, planning - surveys


Transit, Crowding, Load factors, Social distancing, COVID-19


The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically affected public transit systems around the globe. Because transit systems typically move many people closely together on buses and trains, public health guidance demanded that riders should keep a distance of about two meters to others changed the definition of “crowding” on transit in 2020. Accordingly, this research examines how U.S. public transit agencies responded to public health guidance that directly conflicted with their business model. To do this, we examined published crowding standards before the COVID-19 pandemic for a representative sample of 200 transit systems, including whether they started or changed their published standards during the pandemic, as well as the reasons whether agencies publicize such standards at all. We present both descriptive statistics and regression model results to shed light on the factors associated with agency crowding standards. We find that 56% of the agencies surveyed published crowding standards before the pandemic, while only 46% published COVID-19-specific crowding standards. Regression analyses suggest that larger agencies were more likely to publish crowding standards before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, likely because they are more apt to experience crowding. Pandemic-specific crowding standards, by contrast, were associated with a more complex set of factors. We conclude that the relative lack of pandemic standards reflects the uncertainty and fluidity of the public health crisis, inconsistent and at times conflicting with the guidance from public health officials, and, in the U.S., a lack national or transit industry consensus on appropriate crowding standards during the first year of the pandemic.


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