AUSTIN (KXAN) — “How did COVID-19 impact public transit options?”

That was a key focus of a transit equity panel during South by Southwest Conference & Festivals Monday. As national transportation leaders home in on how to increase transit equity and accessibility for all users, public and private transit leaders discussed the impact COVID-19 has had on transit usage and how to converge legacy transit systems with new technology.

The panel, “New Mobility Should Mean Equitable Mobility,” outlined five key groups at the forefront of transit equity:

  • Youths under age 18
  • Mothers who are coming from carless households
  • Low-income households
  • Older adults above age 65
  • People living with disabilities

For these, and all population subsectors, community engagement options were outlined as critical in creating public transit options that actually encourage and elevate people’s mobility and ability to engage with their communities — whether their work, entertainment, commercial or other public uses.

“Wherever you sit in the mobility ecosystem, it is really hard to do anything or get anything to a successful place by yourself,” said Hind Ourahou, mobility policy principal at Via. “And I think that it’s also really hard when you don’t consider your users, or residents, or however you want to call that population, whenever you don’t consider them stakeholders or consider that part of the partnership is also with them.”

When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, Ourahou said the pivot for transit leaders has been to think more creatively about transit options in a COVID-influenced environment, particularly for essential workers still needing to access in-person work.

For Paul Krutko, president and CEO at Ann Arbor SPARK, he said a critical focus will be on the influence the pandemic continues to have on central business districts and how the rising trend of remote options play into transit needs.

“The question that we all have to grapple with, is this grand experiment of remote working. People are living far away from where their actual job is — what does that mean for city development?” he asked. “And on the equity side, a lot of the folks that work in those people-facing businesses before are in the lower, middle-income category. And when those jobs aren’t there anymore, how are we going to respond to that?”

Likewise, due to personal hesitations that continue surrounding mass public transit and COVID-19, Ourahou added there has been renewed focus on “micro-transit” options.

“We now have plenty of mobility and transportation options that have been tested in the past two years,” she said. “And so where do rideshare, electric bikes fall into the conversation? Where do scooters fall into the conversation? Where does micro-transit and on-demand channels fall into the conversation? So there are plenty of more options that are not just the fixed routes for the subways or the train lines.”

During a Q&A portion of the panel, one audience member discussed advancements in new transit technology, such as autonomous vehicles, and asked how this technology can be applied to legacy transit systems like buses, trains and bikes.

Kristin Shaw, an urban planning professional with WSP, said that there’s a lot to be done at the policy level to help concentrate more funding into mass transit efforts to make this technology viable and effective in legacy systems. But it’s also about changing public attitudes and behavior toward public transit, which can often be viewed as a lower-class service.

“[It’s] getting people comfortable and understanding there’s a lot of stigma removal and there’s a ton to be done around it, and just making sure that people understand that taking a bus is as effective, if not more, than taking an Uber,” she said.