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UT to Help Study Transit, Bike Sharing, and E-scooter Sharing in Nashville and Portland during Pandemic

Traffic on Demonbreun Street in Nashville

A Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority bus drives through the city’s downtown. A new study including UT researchers is taking a look at how COVID-19 is impacting transit, e-bike sharing, and e-scooter use in Nashville and Portland, Oregon. Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has changed the way most of the world moves through daily life, with many businesses having to temporarily close and students at all levels forced to transition to online courses.

Even so, grocery stores, medical facilities, and takeout restaurants remain open, requiring workers to commute to and from work. In metro areas, that can often mean taking some form of transit, potentially exposing workers in these vital areas to the disease.

Candace Brakewood

Candace Brakewood

Chris Cherry

Chris Cherry

In a collaborative project between the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Portland State University, Professor Chris Cherry and Assistant Professor Candace Brakewood, both of UT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and PSU Sustainable Transportation Program Manager John MacArthur are studying the potential for shared bikes and e-scooters to fill that need.

The project comes with backing from a National Science Foundation RAPID Award. These awards are granted for research with “a severe urgency with regard to availability of, or access to data, facilities, or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events”—events like the current pandemic.

Moving forward, the research team is partnering with local public agencies—WeGo Public Transit in Nashville, Tennessee, and TriMet and the Bureau of Transportation in Portland, Oregon—to look at commuting patterns in both cities. Bike share and e-scooter share companies Bird, Spin, and BIKETOWN as well as Transit App will be providing support to track changes in ridership during recovery.

“Working closely with local and national partners will give us, and policymakers, a clearer picture of where transportation priorities and opportunities lie,” said MacArthur. “We’re hoping our models can help predict how city transit systems will recover for current and future public health crises.”

The main question they wanted to answer was whether widespread adoption of new modes of transportation, such as bike share and e-scooters, would offer workers a way to get to work without putting them in the close confines of other passengers on traditional transit, and whether people would even choose these modes in the first place.

“Transportation demand has dropped by 50 to 90 percent across all modes in the US, and transit has been particularly hard hit, with micromobility modes like shared bikes and electric scooters also seeing large drops in use,” said Cherry.

As travel demand recovers, it is important to understand the role of shared modes in restarting the economy and maintaining social distancing.

—Chris Cherry

One of the early findings is that answers to those questions vary greatly by city and region. In New York and Chicago, for example, bike share usage was up 65 percent from the same date the year before, but in Seattle and San Francisco, bike share use had plummeted.

The reason for the variance may lie with the cities themselves.

“It—not surprisingly—is tied to the kind of response the city had to the virus,” Brakewood said. “In Seattle and San Francisco, there was a greater shutdown of activity and at a sooner date than in Chicago and New York. Where businesses stayed open longer, workers were required to report longer, but the good thing is that it shows that those workers at least tried to find methods of commuting that still allowed them to be better spaced from others.”

Beyond Nashville and Portland, the team will look at ridership trends across various modes of transportation, giving them a more robust understanding of how other US cities and the workers within them respond to times of crisis and helping guide future decisions.

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