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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 2 - Pandemics and Emergency Events Overview." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
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CHAPTER 2

Pandemics and Emergency Events Overview

Emergency events cover a wide range—from hurricanes and earthquakes to floods, mass shootings, terrorism, social disruption, cyber events, and pandemics. Most people are familiar with the impacts of natural disasters, such as snowstorms, flooding, wildfires, earthquakes, and major wind events such as hurricanes and tornados, but until recently there has been very little experience with pandemics.

In all emergencies, transportation agencies need to protect employees and customers, ensure continuity of operations, realign service to meet changes in demand, secure additional funding and assets, enhance communications with all stakeholders, and train and educate employees on response duties. All this must be accomplished while ensuring the systemic and structural resilience of the transportation system.

Managing emergencies is challenging because they are not common occurrences, and each event has its own unique characteristics and challenges. Although many of the capabilities required for emergencies are generic to all disasters (e.g., organization, planning, preparedness, response, and recovery), some required capabilities are specific to the event or hazard (e.g., impacts, duration, mitigations/countermeasures, public information) and some are unique to the event (e.g., time, place, politics, and economy).

Key Points on Service for People with Disabilities and Older Adults

The COVID-19 pandemic left many people with disabilities and older adults without reliable transportation to access essential goods, medical care, and social engagements. Social isolation of older adults was exacerbated with the emergence of COVID-19 because transportation service was reduced.

Some paratransit riders chose not to travel during the initial months of the pandemic because of concerns about their health and well-being. Riders made choices on whether to continue taking non-essential personal trips or travel to needed medical appointments.

The COVID-19 pandemic created challenges for agencies in complying with ADA requirements such as meeting requests from riders needing assistance from drivers and prohibiting capacity constraints. It was a challenge to provide service while maintaining necessary social distancing. Paratransit customers request a reasonable modification, and the transit agency must follow ADA guidelines when considering the request.

Differences in Emergency Events

There is a broad range of emergency events that can impact transportation agencies and operations. Natural hazards include earthquakes, floods, droughts, wildfires, and weather events

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 2 - Pandemics and Emergency Events Overview." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
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such as hurricanes, tornados, and winter storms. Technological and accidental events include structural failures (e.g., the failure of dams, levees, or bridges), hazardous material spills or releases, power failures, transportation system accidents or equipment failures, and cybersecurity breaches. Human-caused events include terrorism, civil disturbances, and sabotage. Health-related emergency events include human and animal infectious diseases and pandemics.

Most people are familiar with the impacts and effects of natural, technological, and human-caused emergencies. Impacts include disruptions to transportation system operations and often damage to transportation infrastructure and facilities. For events with advance warning such as weather events, system stoppages/delays and protective movement of vehicles/personnel occur before the event to minimize impacts. Other protections or mitigations may be put in place, such as flood barriers. Evacuation plans can be implemented to get people out of potentially impacted areas, if necessary. Once the event happens, damage to transportation infrastructure is assessed, and plans are put in place to repair or restore what has been damaged.

The impacts of pandemics are very different from the impacts of other types of emergency events. Infrastructure is usually undamaged, but service is significantly disrupted (e.g., usage or ridership can fall dramatically, or the services required can be significantly different). Employees, families, communities, and economies can be severely impacted. Although there is an onset of a pandemic, there is often a series of subsequent events or “waves” after that initial onset, with each wave bringing its own impacts and requirements for a response (Matherly, Bye, and Benini, 2021).

COVID-19 Pandemic

A pandemic is a global outbreak of a disease that may easily spread if populations have little or no immunity to the disease and that may result in a high rate of sickness and/or death. At the onset of a pandemic, no vaccine is available and there are limited, if any, successful medical treatments. Treatment or a vaccine can take some time to become available, if ever. Pandemics differ in their persistence, contagiousness, method of contagion, mutability, and lethality. These factors determine risk and must be considered in the response to the disease. Understanding pandemics, their impacts on transportation, and potential effective responses has become more important, not only for the response to COVID-19 but also to address the possibility that widespread virus contagions will become more frequent.

In late 2019 and early 2020, the first cases of what became known as COVID-19 were found in China, the United States, and other countries. By March 2020, COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic, and a U.S. nationwide emergency was declared. The COVID-19 pandemic did not affect transportation infrastructure, but there were profound employee, community, and economic impacts. Transportation services were severely disrupted as schools and businesses were shut down to prevent the spread of the disease. Transit agencies had to adjust their employee policies—from how transit operators interact with passengers and how workers can travel to a work site, to closing facilities and enabling work-from-home policies. Transit agencies had to regularly interact with their counterparts within other state and local agencies, especially health and emergency management, for information and support.

Other Emergency Events and Timelines

Most natural hazards and those caused by humans create a distinct emergency event, an occurrence that lasts for a specific, short period of time. There is an “event” and then a post-event response and recovery period. Figure 2 shows the timeline of event response and recovery phases.

Although pandemics may have an initial onset “event,” once there is an outbreak in a specific area or region that initiates a response, there may be a series of subsequent “events” or waves

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 2 - Pandemics and Emergency Events Overview." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
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Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2016.

Figure 2. Event response and recovery phases.
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Source: Adapted from Fakhruddin, Blanchard, and Ragupathy, 2020.

Figure 3. Pandemic response and recovery cycle.

as time goes on. Each wave may require its own response and recovery strategy. As a result, pandemic “events” are extended and indeterminate rather than finite and can last for months or years. Figure 3 shows the series of cycles that can occur during a pandemic event.

Impacts for People with Disabilities and Older Adults

Challenges in transportation for people with disabilities and older adults were particularly heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic since they often rely on transit for essential goods, medical care, and social engagements. People without reliable access to a vehicle in the household

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 2 - Pandemics and Emergency Events Overview." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×

or who cannot drive can need assistance with asking for a ride, finding an available driver/vehicle, securing a wheelchair or mobility device, and getting into and out of a vehicle (Cochran, 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how transit service changes can have dramatic impacts on people with different lived experiences. Public transportation is critical for many people with disabilities and older adults to access grocery stores, healthcare, and friends and family. Social isolation for older adults was exacerbated with the emergence of COVID-19 since transportation service was reduced and many businesses and social service organizations were temporarily closed (Theunissen, 2020; Nie et al., 2022). Older adults can also be reluctant to ask friends and relatives for assistance in transportation (Cochran, 2020).

In Seattle, many paratransit riders chose not to travel during the initial months of the pandemic because of concerns about their health and well-being. As a result, these customers would forgo trips they would normally take using paratransit; almost 30 percent of riders stopped using the service during stay-at-home orders (Ashour et al., 2021). Paratransit ridership showed reductions in working and non-essential personal trips while riders continued to take medical trips. An analysis of ridership in concert with census data in Seattle found that riders in higher-income neighborhoods and with greater access to personal vehicles were more likely to stop using paratransit service during the pandemic, while older riders were also more likely to stop using the service (Wang et al., 2022).

Maintaining Accessibility

The ADA, implemented in 1991, addresses the needs of people living with disabilities and requires emergency preparedness and response programs and services to be accessible. Accommodating and addressing the needs of people with disabilities and older adults can be difficult in emergencies or disasters, especially during pandemics. The COVID-19 pandemic created challenges for many transit agencies in complying with ADA requirements, such as the prohibition of capacity constraints. Social distancing, a COVID-19 safety policy, conflicted with the need for transit agency staff to assist people with disabilities and older adults. Reduced service levels and new safety policies sometimes impacted the accessibility of transportation service, making it harder for people with disabilities and older adults to take needed trips. Paratransit service can be a safety net for riders who lack other transportation options. In Seattle, paratransit riders—who typically need hand-to-hand assistance from drivers—were more likely to stop using the service compared to other riders, likely for health and safety concerns (Wang et al., 2022).

Maintaining Mobility

During emergencies, transportation services may be disrupted or suspended for extended periods of time. During the COVID-19 pandemic, significant reductions in transit services made it difficult for car-less and transit-dependent populations to continue to travel when necessary and have access to goods and services not available in their immediate neighborhoods. People with underlying health conditions and other needs are at higher risk for health complications if they miss routine medical appointments due to a lack of transportation options; several rural transit districts in Texas reported a decrease in service usage by older adults during the pandemic (Dinhobi et al., 2022). A case study in Central Alabama conducted a cluster analysis of paratransit ridership data; trip purposes with reduced riding behavior during the pandemic included employment, adult day care, and medical trips. Interestingly, dialysis trips, along with some employment and medical trips, continued to be taken by some riders (Nie et al., 2022).

Transit agencies took steps to help with pandemic mobility challenges by prioritizing rides for people with disabilities and older adults, assisting with meal delivery, and checking in with

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 2 - Pandemics and Emergency Events Overview." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
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regular riders. Some transit agencies partnered with local law enforcement departments to check in on older adults and ensure they were not isolated and did not have any transportation needs that were not being met (National Aging and Disability Transportation Center, 2020). Looking out for the mobility of people with disabilities and older adults during an emergency helps a transportation organization prioritize the mobility challenges of these riders when the organization is making responsive service adjustments. An analysis of changes in Seattle paratransit ridership suggests that riders with a high dependency on service were more likely to use new delivery services to fulfill needs in lieu of taking a trip (Wang et al., 2022).

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 2 - Pandemics and Emergency Events Overview." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 2 - Pandemics and Emergency Events Overview." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 2 - Pandemics and Emergency Events Overview." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 2 - Pandemics and Emergency Events Overview." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 2 - Pandemics and Emergency Events Overview." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×
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 Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response
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The COVID-19 pandemic left many persons with disabilities and older adults without reliable transportation to access essential goods, medical care, and social engagements. Issues of social isolation for older adults were exacerbated with the emergence of COVID-19 because transportation service was reduced.

TCRP Research Report 243: Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response, from TRB's Transit Cooperative Research Program, aims to provide transportation organizations (including transit agencies, specialized transportation providers, and other local government agencies and stakeholders) with helpful information and strategies on providing service for persons with disabilities and older adults in emergency situations.

Supplemental to the report is a pocket guide.

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