Using Data to Fight COVID-19

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Spokane, Senior Data Technician Damian Fleskes kept doing what he always does — riding the bus and observing passenger activity.

Fleskes is part of STA’s transit monitoring program. He’s involved in data collection, processing analysis and quality control of the STA’s fixed route bus service.

“STA planners need to not only study the data but report a lot of different kinds of information to the Federal Transit Administration,” he said. “So half my work week I’m on the bus, helping collect data and monitor the routes.”

At the start of the coronavirus emergency, Fleskes saw passenger numbers drop first-hand. He also watched each stage of STA’s emergency response policies being implemented, from free masks being made available to protective barriers installed between passengers and operators.

“At STA we’ve been doing everything we can,” Fleskes said. “The agency response has been a whole system of new policies to keep people safe. To me, it’s very obvious that these things have helped keep down the number of cases in Spokane.”

Fleskes is a familiar face to many STA coach operators. He can show up on any route at any time of the day or night. He usually takes a seat near the back and observes, entering data into a tablet outfitted with specialized software for transit agencies to monitor route and passenger activity.”

We collect very specific data,” Fleskes explained. “We watch the load of the bus and watch where people get on and off. All of that information is logged onto our devices and later input into different formulas.”

This sort of randomized data is crucial to STA’s Planning Department. Some of the most important pieces of information are passenger miles and average passenger distance. Passenger miles are the total number of riders on a bus multiplied by the distance the bus traveled.

“Passenger miles are very important,” Fleskes said, “but we really zero in on average passenger distance. We take the total bus passenger miles and divide by the total passengers on the trip to get that number.”

The data is reported to the FTA, and also goes into STA databases where planners can review information on bus loads — what loads are on different routes are, where the busy stops are and whether or not extra buses need to be put on the road.

When COVID-19 hit, the data proved invaluable. It led STA to switch the types of buses serving Sprague by deploying higher-capacity articulated buses. The reason wasn’t to accommodate more riders. Instead, it was to give riders more room to socially distance.

This is also why STA decided to maintain full service during the pandemic, even as passenger numbers dipped.

“I think if STA had kept the same procedures during COVID and not made any adjustments, that there would have been more cases in Spokane,” Fleskes said. “To keep full service, to provide masks on the buses, all of the things we’ve done have helped keep down the number of cases and has been a positive element in our community’s response to COVID.” 

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