Public Transit Systems Adapt to Plummeting Ridership

Train ridership in New York has plummeted during the pandemic.

Train ridership in New York has plummeted during the pandemic. Shutterstock


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Cities are struggling with concerns about safety and low ridership. In some places, officials are taking advantage of the situation to finish long awaited transportation projects.

In a historic first, New York City’s subway system will not run 24/7, a change that will last for an indefinite period of time. It’s an unprecedented step that reflects the adaptations public transit systems across the country are making as they adjust to plummeting ridership and concerns about safety during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Trains in New York have run 24 hours a day for 115 years, except during severe weather and power outages, emergencies like the terror attacks on September 11, and worker strikes—but all these closures were temporary. Starting on May 6 and lasting for the duration of the pandemic, the subway system will close down between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. each night so that workers can disinfect train cars and subway stations, a step officials say is necessary to prevent the spread of a virus that has already killed 95 Metropolitan Transit Authority employees with confirmed or suspected cases.

In announcing the changes, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said trains must be cleaned daily to make them as safe as possible. “We know the virus can live for hours or even days on a surface, which means if somebody positive walks onto a train this morning, that virus can be there tomorrow and the next day,” he said.

The daily cleanings have prompted an outcry from homeless advocates who say the city isn’t doing enough to provide alternative arrangements for those who use the trains for shelter at night and during inclement weather. Giselle Routhier, the policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, said that directing homeless riders to shelters isn’t a solution.“Many homeless New Yorkers are rightfully afraid of crowded congregate shelters, where coronavirus continues to spread and where the COVID-19 mortality rate is 50% higher than the NYC overall population," she said in a statement. "Punitively closing the subways and sending in more police will only make things worse."

Homeless riders are sometimes the only ones on train cars now. On a normal weekday, MTA ridership is over 5 million, but that number is down by 90% in recent weeks—and the story is the same in other cities. 

In Chicago, ridership is down from about 1.5 million riders on an average weekday to only 200,000 customers now. Dorval Carter, Jr., the president of the Chicago Transit Authority, said in a statement that the service is committed to running 24/7, even through the pandemic. “Public transit is an essential service on which Chicagoans depend,” he said. “Despite our ridership losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, each day CTA continues to carry hundreds of thousands of riders, including seniors and other transit dependent riders accessing essential services. This is more total riders than many other major cities carry under normal circumstances.”

Officials worry that any cuts in service could force the few riders who are left onto more packed buses and trains, a situation that could lead to the highly contagious coronavirus spreading more easily. Like many other cities, CTA authorities are encouraging residents to only use public transit when absolutely necessary, and to otherwise leave train cars empty for medical workers and employees of essential businesses.

The Los Angeles Times reported that bus drivers in that city are terrified of their working conditions, with a dozen drivers describing buses that are too full for proper physical distancing of passengers and many riders aren’t wearing masks. In Seattle, the transit system added back buses to popular routes after new rules limiting the number of passengers meant people were being passed by as they waited. 

Across the country, unions representing transit workers have complained that systems need to step up and provide hazard pay, make available more plentiful personal protective equipment and require riders to wear masks. 

In some cities that have reduced routes and regularity in the face of low ridership, officials are reconfiguring to meet changing needs during the pandemic.  Atlanta’s bus system, dealing with an 80% drop in ridership, was forced to eliminate most of its 110 bus routes, but added more buses to its remaining routes and launched a new circulator route with stops at hospitals, urgent care centers, grocery stores and job centers. Sacramento is repurposing its empty buses into wifi hotspots and parking them in “digital deserts” where rates of broadband connection are low. New York is offering free door-to-door taxi or Uber rides to essential workers whose routes have been disrupted by closures and who otherwise would have to transfer several times or take a bus for longer than an hour and a half.

In other places that have had to make significant service cuts, officials are using the closures to their advantage. Philadelphia’s SEPTA regional transit system is currently running on a "lifeline service schedule" which includes the closure of numerous subway stations and the suspension of several full lines. In the meantime, construction crews are pushing forward on major infrastructure improvements.

Similar projects are underway across the country. In Washington, D.C., the pandemic had forced the closure of several Metro stations where ridership was down to only a few hundred people per day. But having a system at less than 5% of normal ridership has turned out to be helpful for a long-awaited project to extend and revamp certain lines around the nation’s capital. Projects that were originally scheduled to be completed in 2021 are being moved forward as the transit system implements a complete shutdown of some stations for a few weeks instead of doing partial weekend closures for several months.

"This is about two things: working smarter and working safer," said Metro CEO Paul Wiedefeld in a statement. "Closing the stations to get the work done while ridership is historically low allows us to limit the exposure of our frontline staff and contractors, mitigate delays … and minimize inconvenience to the public."

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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