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The suffocating crowded T of old won’t be returning anytime soon after the coronavirus lockdown ends

Mandatory masks, crowding alerts, and higher-frequency service are among the measures specialists predict when commuters return to transit riding.

A woman walked towards a platform at South Station in Boston on April 21.
A woman walked towards a platform at South Station in Boston on April 21.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

Beijing has tested “subway by appointment” where riders book times to enter certain stations. In Taipei, Taiwan, passengers have their temperatures checked as they enter the transit system. Milan plans to close subway stations when the system gets too busy, Madrid is handing out masks to riders, Amsterdam will boost frequencies of buses and trains, and transit vehicles in Seoul are disinfected more than a dozen times a day.

These are some of the measures transit systems across the world are taking in regions that are stirring awake into the unsteady and still-undefined period between the end of strict lockdowns and the eventual fade-out of the coronavirus crisis.

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But with the Boston area looking ahead to a post-surge recovery from the pandemic, the MBTA of old — mob scenes at stations, hyper-crowded commutes — is unlikely to return in that form anytime soon. Masks will probably be considered as essential as a CharlieCard, and vehicles may be more empty than packed. Many white-collar workers might even be told to continue working from home if they can.

“We cannot continue to manage or operate in the way we used to,” said Mohamed Mezghani, secretary general of the International Association of Public Transport, which is based in Belgium. “People are expecting a different way, and we have to adapt to that.”

The T has repeatedly declined to comment on its plans for the recovery, except to say it is “reviewing a variety of potential scenarios as it manages through the pandemic and begins planning for future service."

South Station front door windows were washed during the coronavirus pandemic.
South Station front door windows were washed during the coronavirus pandemic.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It doesn’t seem like rush hour as we used to know it is starting soon. Governor Charlie Baker appears likely to extend the pandemic shutdown beyond the current May 4 expiration, and remains focused on public health responses instead of plans to reopen the economy. Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston also predicted the shutdowns will continue, and suggested it is impossible to think about reopening until commuting on the T can be done safely.

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“It’s going to be very different going back," Walsh said in an online video interview with the Globe Thursday, adding that the MBTA will need to run much more frequent service to manage crowds. “And that’s going to be part of our decision when we think about bringing people back to work. What does it look like? How many people are actually going to be coming into Boston every day, traveling, because a good portion of them take the MBTA?”

Even once the shutdown begins to phase out, many riders are likely, by their choice or their employers', to remain in their home offices until there is much greater mass testing, or a highly effective treatment or vaccine. Others will be out of work, or have little interest in hopping aboard buses and trains where crowding together for a common trip is sort of the point.

The MBTA is far from alone among US transit operators in sharing few specifics about the post-lockdown commute. At the nation’s largest public transit system in New York, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Patrick Foye said on Wednesday that the agency is “far into a plan” for service once the shutdown ends, and that it will focus on “customers, employees, disinfecting, cleaning, and social distance on trains and buses.” But he provided few details.

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In Boston, the MBTA’s response to the coronavirus to date has been to serve passengers who need to commute into work, and protect drivers from catching the disease, while discouraging most travel. It has generally followed national guidelines, such as requiring bus and trolley passengers to board through the back doors and roping off a portion of vehicles to keep them from getting too close to drivers.

But transit agencies will probably need to take more significant steps to keep service safe as businesses’ lights flicker on and more riders come back.

High-tech approaches have popped up in Asia, such as cameras that automatically check body temperatures at entry points, or QR code readers on vehicles that commuters would have to scan to create a tracing system in case a rider becomes infected later on.

Americans, of course, are comparatively sensitive about data protections, and it’s unclear whether there will be much appetite for this kind of smartphone-based tracing system in the United States. US transit is also not exactly known for its cutting-edge technology; the MBTA, for example, has struggled to upgrade to an all-electronic fare collection system.

Passengers are instructed not to sit on the seats closest to the operators cab on a Green Line train in Boston.
Passengers are instructed not to sit on the seats closest to the operators cab on a Green Line train in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Still, Chris Dempsey, director of the nonprofit Transportation for Massachusetts, said the MBTA could use more limited technology to help riders. One option may be using social media or existing transit apps to tell riders how crowded the next bus or train is.

“You could pull up [your] phone and try to get a sense for how busy a service is and what the load on the service is, and switch to the Blue Line if it looks like the commuter rail is as busy as forever,” he suggested.

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Experts rattle off other low-tech options, too.

Transit systems could use signs or barriers of some sort on station platforms and in vehicles to control crowds and limit the number of people boarding vehicles. Milan officials, for example, say they will put markings on train floors to help riders keep social distance, but that will reduce the capacity of each vehicle dramatically.

Workers could clean vehicles over and over throughout the day, and do so in view of passengers to instill confidence that the work is actually being done. And hand sanitizer could be available at stations and in vehicles.

The MBTA has been disinfecting vehicles once every 24 hours, though buses are also getting a mid-day scrub. The T also pledged in early March to install hand sanitizer dispensers at its busiest stations, but that still hasn’t happened. Spokesman Joe Pesaturo cited supply chain and delivery issues, and said those same problems would make it difficult to make sanitizer available on every vehicle, too.

Leonard Marcus, an expert in emergency response at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said commuters should also be expected to make the right decisions: washing their hands frequently, staying home if they feel sick, and wearing masks if they do take transit.

Some public health experts think masks should be compulsory and enforceable by drivers or transit police: no mask, no ride. But realistically, Marcus said, it may fall more to riders to self-enforce such common-sense precautions.

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“People in Boston are not shy,” he said. “While someone might be willing to put up with loud music on a train or bus, I think what we’ll find is that if somebody walks on a train or bus without a mask, people will give them a piece of their mind. And I think rightly so.”

For now, ridership has plummeted to such low levels that crowding is not generally a problem, though there are some buses that still feel unnervingly full as the T has cut back on the numbers of vehicles it normally runs.

While those lower service levels might be appropriate for now, once people begin returning to work, transit systems will need to instead consider offering more frequent service than even under normal circumstances, said Jason Farley, a nurse epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University.

“With reduced ridership, reduced schedules may make sense from a business perspective,” Farley said. “But as we move toward increased ridership, that’s when [transit agencies] should be moving toward flipping it on its head, to increase space between people.”

It may be difficult to quickly boost service at rush hour without new drivers, vehicles, or track infrastructure, but transit systems could run many more cars during off-peak periods, which would be all the more beneficial if companies stagger shift times. That would come at great expense to agencies that have already lost vast amounts of fare revenue to the virus, though the federal government has sent them additional aid to help cushion the blow. Robert Puentes, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Eno Center for Transportation, noted that many big-city agencies, including the MBTA, had already labored to fulfill long-term goals of increasing service to make transit more attractive.

“Doing it now would actually be to keep people distanced from one another,” he said. “That might be something that gets accelerated, just for this different public policy issue.”

James Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said the gradual return of MBTA ridership going forward may be best understood as a broader measure of how people feel about being in public.

“People’s comfort riding on the T and gathering in a crowded situation will tell us a lot about how people are feeling about returning to work and returning to something akin to normal,” he said.

Rooney said companies should work both internally and with other employers to stagger shift times and shorten rush hour as much as possible. Many riders who work in office settings may not be returning to the T soon; nearly every plan published by a think tank or university about restarting the economy, as well as the first two phases of the Trump administration’s reopening guidelines to states, stress that those who can work from home will probably need to do so for a while.

“The very most practical, safest way possible is to allow people to telework as much as possible, for as long as possible,” said Farley, at Johns Hopkins, adding that elevators at office buildings pose similar crowding concerns.

Ridership will also be a measure, going forward, of the state of the economy, as numbers on trains and buses will be sadly depleted by the thousands and thousands of people who are now out of work.

A custodian walked past an empty train platform at South Station.
A custodian walked past an empty train platform at South Station.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Fear may also act as a brake on some of the risks. Even before the mass closure of schools and offices, ridership was quickly shrinking as it became clear that the coronavirus was spreading in Massachusetts. Now, after taking great pains for weeks on end to avoid other people, using transit again may be a hard sell for many riders.

Some advocates hope city and state leaders will make street improvements that will encourage more people to bike or walk to work, both of which allow for greater social distancing than public transit. In Italy, Milan officials recently announced plans to dedicate more street space for walking and biking, in part because of concerns that fearful transit riders will otherwise start driving and create traffic problems.

But a car may seem like the safest option to some commuters, especially those who live farther from work. Heidi Fowle of Quincy has continued to commute by two buses and the Red Line to her job at a Weymouth nursing home during the pandemic. But going forward, she hopes to buy an inexpensive car before more people return to work, and drive instead.

“If this wasn’t going on, there’s no way in the world I’d be trying to buy any kind of vehicle at all,” she said. But, “the idea of being on a regular crowded, or even semi-crowded, kind of route for my entire commute... I just couldn’t handle it.”


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.