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Transit agencies should reduce service, promote safer options during COVID-19 outbreak

The global COVID-19 outbreak is an unexpected shock to our way of life. Federal and local governments are implementing strict “social distancing” measures that, while stressful to our economy, could save thousands of lives. The myriad trade-offs of these directives can be overwhelming.

In Washington State, residents have been ordered to stay home unless they need to purchase groceries, go to a doctor’s appointment or travel to an “essential” job. Schools are closed, along with restaurants, theaters, salons, and civic activities.

Adjusting to this new reality requires new, creative thinking and partnerships in many quarters – and that includes ways to provide safe transportation. Our community is equal to the task.

During this global pandemic in which the CDC is now discouraging gatherings of more than 10 people, buses and trains are risky ways to travel. Even if buses were wiped down hourly and operated mostly empty, many riders and transit employees would still be rightly nervous.

Public officials must be honest about this point of vulnerability and acknowledge that the current situation requires a temporary change to public transit. Safer mobility options do exist for riders; insisting public transit is the only option in this case is both inaccurate and fraught with risk. Transit advocates who value giving people the best possible transportation choices should also be called on to contribute the new thinking that this public health crisis requires.

While citizens have been doing their part to stop the spread of the virus, by way of contrast, the response from public transit agencies has sent mixed signals that could undermine community health guidelines. As ridership has dropped to historic lows across the country, transit agencies have struggled to respond accordingly. When service was reduced it wasn’t by much, with agencies maintaining they’re doing their part by “wiping down handrails,” “putting posters on vehicles reminding everyone to follow critical health guidelines,” and “disinfecting stations and high-touch surfaces…twice a day.”

Unfortunately, these measures are inadequate. A new, adaptive transit model is needed during this time.

Consider: in the Puget Sound region, Sound Transit’s total system ridership has declined by nearly 70 percent. The agency is scaling back service by running light rail trains every 14 minutes instead of every six to 10 minutes, reducing express bus service by 15 percent and Sounder commuter rail service by about 40 to 50 percent. To its credit, King County Metro, which has seen a 60-percent decline in ridership, is reducing or fully cutting bus service on over 80 percent of its bus routes.

Some of the larger transit agencies in the United States also appear resistant to steeper service reductions. In San Francisco, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is reducing service slightly by stopping service at 9:00 pm instead of midnight. In New York, Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) officials have now decided to reduce service, as ridership has dropped by 87 percent on subways and more than 70 percent on buses. However, they indicate “most people won’t notice the difference,” as service will only be reduced by 25 percent.

If public officials are serious about “flattening the curve” by reducing person-to-person transmission of the disease, mass transit agencies should not be exempt from the aggressive measures required of every person and business sector at this time.

What then, should be done?

First, transit agencies should put politics aside and work with their competitors. Second, in addition to significant reductions in service, partnerships with ridesharing and car rental companies should be maximized to allow people access to private – and safer – travel options.

Those who do have a driver’s license could get vouchers to rent a personal vehicle, while those who cannot drive could get vouchers to be picked up at home by a taxi, Uber, Lyft, or local vanpool. The benefits of such an approach are clear: limiting contact with high-touch surfaces, transit stations, and people.

To minimize exposure, taxis, rideshare vehicles, and vanpools can (and should) be ventilated, sanitized before each trip, and operate with very limited occupancy – including suspension of shared ride options. Uber is partnering with manufacturers and distributors to provide drivers with disinfectants, and Lyft has partnered with EO Products to distribute hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies to drivers so they do not have to pay for products out of pocket. To protect themselves and their passengers, some drivers are asking passengers to leave their doors open when they exit the car so the driver can immediately disinfect every surface that was touched. Disinfectant products should also be kept in the vehicle so passengers can wipe high-touch surfaces before boarding.

Logistically, trips would be more direct, without transfers that require time spent at stations and in additional buses and trains. Such direct routes that avoid transfers, increased contact, and interaction would better align with current guidelines from public officials.

Even if only for the next three months, this new model of service would meet the transportation needs of nurses, firefighters, and childcare workers better than traditional mass transit. Officials who simultaneously argue that the current situation is an emergency and issue far-reaching executive orders – yet continue to exempt public transportation from their sweeping directives – are unfortunately sending mixed messages to the public.

This public health crisis compels everyone to make difficult personal choices to protect our most vulnerable citizens. Transit agency officials must take every step necessary to protect the people who have no choice but to leave their homes while risking infection. Providing a comparably safer way to travel, through creative thinking and partnerships, would protect community health while keeping people and our economy moving.

Mariya Frost is the Transportation Director at the Coles Center for Transportation at Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization with offices in Seattle, Olympia, Spokane and the Tri-Cities.

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