Public transport systems transitional periods and long-term disruptions, and the use of mitigation strategies: A systematic review of the academic and grey literature

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About the project

Governments around the world are allocating substantial funding to build, expand and upgrade public transit infrastructure to offer more attractive services that draw higher levels of ridership. Several public transport projects are currently under construction or will be soon in Canada. Completion of projects at this scale does not happen overnight and can take from a few weeks to several months or even years. The impacts of these transitional periods, in general, seem absent from the conversation, and are thematically and geographically dispersed. Similarly, a consolidated understanding of the impacts of long-term disruptions due to other causes such as labour strikes and structure failures on users’ behaviour seems missing from the literature. Both (transitional periods and long-term disruptions) impact travellers for an extended time horizon, building new travel habits (by changing users’ routes or modes) and altering users’ travel needs, while requiring users to acquire new information to adapt their behaviour to overcome increases in travel costs. This synthesis aims to provide a better understanding of the impacts of transitional periods and long-term disruptions on users’ perceptions, travel needs and behaviour. It also aims to review the effectiveness of previously applied mitigation strategies and technologies to address any negative impacts on users’ experience. To achieve the study goals, the project used two integrated approaches. The first was to conduct a comprehensive systematic review of the academic literature. The second was to review reports produced by leading industry and transportation research centres, in addition to transit agencies in Canada.

Key findings

A total of nine professional reports, 14 Canadian transit agencies documents and 19 academic papers were identified and analyzed. Out of the 19 identified academic papers, only three focused on long-term disruptions. Seven papers focused on construction-related disruptions, while nine papers focused on labour disputes. Given the wide array of types, durations, spatial coverage and modes impacted by transit system disruptions and transitional periods, this indicates a considerable lack of academic work and efforts in the grey literature regarding the topic. Nevertheless, 74% (14 out of 19) of the academic papers are very recent (developed over the past five years), showing that this key topic has been gaining more traction in recent years. According to the limited number of documents identified by the synthesis, there is wide agreement and overlap among academic studies, industry reports and transit agencies documents regarding the negative impacts of long-term disruption and transitional periods on users and the importance of using a range of mitigation strategies to address these undesirable impacts. Other key results from this report are as follows:

  • The effects of long-term transit system disruptions and transitional periods on travel behaviour, perceptions, satisfaction and needs are still relatively underexplored in the literature.
  • The academic literature on long-term transit system disruptions and transitional periods is currently quite divorced from the practice. There is a dearth of studies that seek to derive lessons from past and current practice to help advance the practice of using mitigation strategies in different contexts and for different purposes.
  • Most of the current studies in the literature used isolated case studies from the same context to draw conclusions or to make attributions about changes in users’ travel behaviour. While these studies are appropriate for recognizing context-specific trends, their results are hard to generalize and be used by other researchers and practitioners.
  • Most of the studies focused on measuring the short-term impacts of long-term disruptions in transit service that lasted for a few days or weeks. However, yet to be explored are both short- and long-term impacts of longer disruptions and transitional periods that last for a few months or even years.
  • There is a limited understanding of how long-term service disruptions impact equity issues and people’s participation in activities for equity-seeking communities.

Policy implications

  • With a limited number of academic and non-academic studies, cities and transit agencies are encouraged to work with the academic community to test different sets of mitigation strategies in different contexts and scenarios, and at different scales. This will help in guiding their future practice to maintain higher levels of attractiveness during such periods, while encouraging people to shift to using active transportation modes and reducing stress on public transportation networks.
  • Cities and transit agencies should work on articulating clear goals and expectations for how to manage these long-term disruptions and transitional periods to minimize long-term impacts on users, while developing detailed reports about changes in users’ behaviours, the mitigation strategies used and their relative impacts to help with future policy-making.
  • With the emergence of more academic studies and non-academic reports in this area, lessons from the literature and practice should be organized and used in a more systematic way to assist in developing a policy guide to help in managing such long-term disruptions.
  • Policy-makers should recognize that any mitigation strategy can entail long-term investment and benefits. Therefore, with proper scaffolding based on robust communication, public participation and proactive actions, these strategies can benefit local and regional development efforts in several ways, beyond solving planned long-term disruptions.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Ehab Diab, PhD, University of Saskatchewan:

Emily Grisé, PhD, University of Alberta:

Ahmed M. El-Geneidy, PhD, McGill University:

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, Infrastructure Canada or the Government of Canada.

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