For John McManus, a cutback in transit service because of the coronavirus is a minor inconvenience.
The St. Paul tech worker relies on the Green Line for his daily commute, but light-rail and bus service hours have been pared amid the COVID-19 outbreak. With limited hours, “if you miss a train, you’re kind of screwed, you have to wait longer for the next one,” McManus recently said with a shrug.
But Metro Transit officials are wondering how public transportation in the Twin Cities will recover once the coronavirus threat eases. And, as commuters grow accustomed to working from home and heightened cleanliness, will demand for transit service forever change?
“We’re expecting a gradual return of ridership as the governor’s directives soften and as the workforce gradually returns,” said Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra.
Longer term, “we’ll have to show [people] transit is safe,” Kooistra added. “We can do all the talking we want, but this has definitely heightened people’s concerns.”
When the outbreak took hold in the spring, the number of people taking public transportation plunged in the Twin Cities and beyond.
As of June 19, overall ridership was down 69% — with demand for bus service declining 62%, light rail 80% and Northstar commuter rail 98%. The bright spot appears to be a slight uptick recently in demand for local bus service, Kooistra said at a recent Metropolitan Council meeting.
As the contagion spread, Metro Transit cut service hours, stepped up cleaning on buses, trains and stations, limited the number of passengers on buses, and restricted trips to those deemed essential, such as job commutes and forays to the grocery store or medical appointments.
More recently, Metro Transit began testing employees’ temperatures. So far, 41 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, but no deaths have been reported.
Sneeze guards are being installed to protect drivers on buses that don’t have permanent barriers protecting them. This will allow onboard fare collection again, a practice that was suspended with mandatory rear-door boarding. It’s unclear how much fare revenue has plunged since March, but Metro Transit has described the decline as precipitous.
To help weather the challenges, Metro Transit received $214 million from the federal CARES Act to keep operating, part of a $25 billion bailout nationally. It’s unclear whether more federal money is forthcoming.
In addition, the unrest following the death of George Floyd prompted Metro Transit to suspend service for up to a week to “protect riders and operators.”
The Floyd-related protests, concentrated in the transit corridors of Lake Street and University Avenue, resulted in damage to nearly 100 bus shelters. It will cost about $1.9 million to repair them, an effort that began in earnest last week.
The pandemic and civil unrest come at a time when Metro Transit’s operations had already attracted increased scrutiny among state lawmakers alarmed at increasing levels of serious crime on the Green and Blue light-rail lines. But as the contagion took hold, measures at the Capitol to improve passenger safety fizzled.
Now, an enduring challenge for transit systems will be attracting skittish riders back to the fold.
“People are fearful, for good reason,” said Paul Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association. “Transit has been an industry hit hard by people’s reluctance to use the systems, much like restaurants, movie theaters and professional sports” stadiums.
“Until there’s a vaccine, people will be very wary,” Skoutelas said. “We’re taking every precaution for cleanliness, but [passengers] have to do their part by wearing masks and social distancing.”
“We are still looking for a scientific study that indicates transit is unsafe,” said Mary Morse Marti, executive director of Move Minneapolis. In cities with greater density, “you’re not hearing reports that transit is unsafe. So the future of transit really depends on getting answers from sources of legitimate science.”
Another unknown for transit systems is whether telecommuting is here to stay. A recent survey among 825 Metro Transit users found 58% are now working from home. Regarding safety, about half said they were neutral or unlikely to ride transit without access to a COVID-19 vaccine.
“We know the transit marketplace will change,” Kooistra said. “We do expect employers to introduce workplace changes, like staggering work schedules and continuing teleworking.”
But, as Amity Foster of the Twin Cities Transit Riders Union, which represents passengers, points out: “Our transit system isn’t just for getting to work and back.”
The wholesale disruption to transit is an opportune time to rethink how broader transportation systems work in a way that better serves customers, said Alice Grossman, senior policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C. That includes integrating bikes, walking, and more bus lanes to improve mobility.
Grossman notes that transit ridership has been declining for years — and that’s been the case at Metro Transit, too.
“This is something we needed to solve anyway,” she said.