Optimizing operational strategies for mass transit systems in response to a global pandemic

Hongyuan Yang, Yu (Marco) Nie*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study analyzes the risk involved in riding various transit modes during and after a global pandemic. The goal is to identify which factors are related to this risk, how such a relationship can be represented in a manner amenable to analysis, and what a transit operator can do to mitigate the risk while running its service as efficiently as possible. The resulting infection risk model is sensitive to such factors as prevalence of infection, baseline transmission probability, social distance, and expected number of human contacts. Built on this model, we formulate, analyze and test three versions of a transit operator's design problem. In the first, the operator seeks to jointly optimize vehicle capacity and staff testing frequency while keeping the original service schedule and satisfying a predefined infection risk requirement. The second model assumes the operator is obligated to meet the returning demand after the peak of the pandemic. The third allows the operator to run more than one transit line and to allocate limited resources between the lines, subject to the penalty of unserved passengers. We find: (i) The optimal profit, as well as the testing frequency and the vehicle capacity, decreases when passengers expect to come in close contact with more fellow riders in a trip; (ii) Using a larger bus and/or reducing the testing cost enables the operator to both test drivers more frequently and allow more passengers in each bus; (iii) If passengers weigh the risk of riding bus relative to taxi, a higher prevalence of infection has a negative effect on transit operation, whereas a higher baseline transmission probability has a positive effect; (iv) The benefit of improving service capacity and/or testing more frequently is limited given the safety requirement. When the demand rises beyond the range of the capacity needed to maintain sufficient social distancing, the operator has no choice but to increase the service frequency; and (v) In the multi-line case, the lines that have a larger pre-pandemic demand, a higher penalty for each unserved passenger, or a greater exposure risk should be prioritized.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)221-240
Number of pages20
JournalTransportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice
StatePublished - Jul 2022


  • Baseline transmission probability
  • Infection risk model
  • Pandemic
  • Prevalence of infection
  • Transit

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Business, Management and Accounting (miscellaneous)
  • Transportation
  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Management Science and Operations Research


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