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Understanding heterogeneous public transit ridership behavior during COVID-19




11: Urban Studies and Planning

Faculty Supervisor:

Jinhua Zhao

Faculty email:


Apply by:

September 7, 2020


Also see our cross-posting on Handshake: https://app.joinhandshake.com/jobs/3935270

Project Description

Public transit is a critical public service that provides access to economic, educational, and other opportunities, particularly for low-income and minority groups who disproportionately rely on these services for their mobility. With the global outbreak of the novel human coronavirus (COVID-19), concerns of viral transmission risk on transit have contributed to massive reductions in ridership, particularly among more advantaged riders who have modal alternatives (use of a private car and free or subsidized parking) or the ability to work from home and avoid travel entirely. Other riders, many from disadvantaged groups employed in “essential services”, have continued to use the system despite health concerns and service cuts. Aggregate trends in public transit ridership fail to account for this heterogeneity in use of service and impacts during COVID-19. This experiential learning opportunity will use trip data from public transit agencies and publicly available information on sociodemographics of urban neighborhoods to shed light on how different groups of transit riders have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are looking for two students. Each student will be assigned a public transit agency partner—either the MBTA (Boston) or the CTA (Chicago). With access to trip records from the public transit agency partners, the students will: 1) Cluster riders based on key features extracted from their trip data prior to COVID-19 2) Build geographic and sociodemographic profiles of the rider clusters based on available census data around key trip locations 3) Quantify and compare the impact of COVID-19 on transit use across clusters 4) Track how transit use changes across clusters as cities begin the process of phased recovery programs These activities will provide insights into how different groups of riders behave in response to the pandemic, help transit agencies identify their “core” riders, and inform potential service adjustments that can better expand the accessibility of their core and disadvantaged riders. The UROP will begin with a tutorial (training workshop) on how to work with transit fare card data, in which students will learn how the data is collected, how it is used for operations and planning decisions within public transit agencies, and about the data features available for further analysis. Throughout the semester, students will convene weekly with their instructor (via Zoom) to discuss progress and compare results and learn new analytic techniques for the next steps. Loss of public transit ridership and the potential stigmatization of these services has long-term implications for equitable economic growth, social justice, sustainable mobility, and climate change. This learning opportunity will help public transit agencies in two U.S. cities better understand how different types of riders, particularly disadvantages groups, use their system before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic.


This remote UROP is open to students from any discipline interested in issues of urban planning, transportation equity, and COVID response. Prior experience with querying and analyzing large data sets is required; experience with unsupervised learning techniques such as clustering analysis is recommended. Students will be expected to dedicate 10 hours per week through the Fall Semester (14 weeks).