It may have been rush hour aboard the Green Line one morning last week, but the sparse number of passengers suggested otherwise. A few solitary riders — some masked, others not — stuck to the train's distant corners, studiously avoiding one another.
"For the last year and a half, I've often had the whole car to myself," said Erin Oliver of St. Paul. "It gives the feeling that the entire state moved away."
The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated demand for public transportation in the Twin Cities, as it has in other American cities and around the world. Before the pandemic in 2019, an average of 251,600 weekday trips were taken on Metro Transit buses and trains; last year that number plunged by 56%, to 111,700.
While vaccinations are on the rise and businesses are starting to reopen, many believe the pandemic will create a permanent shift to remote work for thousands of downtown employees. If so, that could significantly change an agency with an annual budget of about $475 million that employs more than 3,000 people.
Many see Labor Day as a tipping point for employers to roll out the office welcome mat. But the extent to which returning workers will take the bus or train remains unclear.
"Yes, the economy is opening up and people are traveling more," said Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy at the American Public Transportation Association. "Big picture, we'll come back differently. We'll have to adapt to the changes."
Hints of those changes already have emerged on local buses and trains. People now tend to take transit throughout the day, as opposed to traditional morning and afternoon rush hours — a pattern more akin to weekend service.
"It's about the way people travel, and as those patterns change, we expect our service to change as well," said Wes Kooistra, Metro Transit's general manager.
Local bus routes, light-rail trains and newer rapid buses, including the A and C lines, saw less of a ridership decline since March 2020 than commuter bus service and the Northstar rail. As a result, some Republican lawmakers have suggested mothballing Northstar, which has seen ridership drop by 95% between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake.
All told, Metro Transit ridership last year plunged to 36 million passengers in 2020, compared with 78 million the previous year. Routes were pared by 20% during the throes of the outbreak, though most service continued because of an expected $725 million COVID bailout from the federal government.
"Until we get the pandemic under control, and there are good signs in that direction, and the ... unrest downtown gets past us, a lot of businesses are very reluctant to bring people back," said Len Simich, chief executive of SouthWest Transit, a public transportation firm.
Patterns forever changed?
Some see tentative signs of normalcy returning to downtown Minneapolis and other employment hubs. Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber, said they're starting to see more people downtown during the day "and we're also hearing significant amount of planning [by employers] heading into fall."
But it's unlikely the workplace will mimic pre-pandemic norms. A Harvard Business School study released last summer estimated that at least 16% of American workers will work from home at least two days a week in the post-COVID economy. Earlier this year, retail giant Target Corp. said it was moving some 3,200 people out of downtown Minneapolis to work elsewhere, including their homes.
"Work from home will stick around for some, but I also think that a very large portion of companies and employees are ultimately going to want to go back to commuting to the office," said Christof Spieler, vice president and director of Planning at Huitt-Zollars, a Texas-based consulting firm.
"But it's not within the control of transit agencies," he said. "It's an outside force."
Last week, a young man methodically approached passengers on the Green Line with the line: "Do you have an extra dollar?" Some ignored his request, others dug in their handbags and pockets. Nearby, a dozing man clutched a bottle.
Issues ranging from nuisance interactions to overall safety and a lack of cleanliness, particularly on the Green and Blue light-rail lines, were dogging Metro Transit even before the pandemic. Those factors now could discourage a return to transit by some passengers who have other means of getting to work — such as a car — even though Metro Transit has taken steps including more cameras to monitor crime.
Beyond concerns about parking and highway gridlock, the prospect of more cars comes as the Biden administration seeks to cut greenhouse gas emissions — partly by encouraging the use of public transportation.
Before the pandemic, about 215,000 people commuted to downtown Minneapolis. But there are just under 60,000 parking spaces available at metered spots, in city-owned ramps and at private operations.
"We obviously don't want people to drive downtown," said Mary Morse Marti, executive director of MOVE Minneapolis, which promotes sustainable commuting.
In an effort to create a more welcoming commuting environment, Metro Transit has pushed state lawmakers to establish a workforce of unarmed transit agents to check fares and connect people experiencing homelessness with available services for substance abuse and mental health issues. But that effort fell flat in last year's legislative session, and its fate this spring is unclear.
"Those who come on trains who are homeless, or needing social services, goes beyond the sphere of Metro Transit. It's a societal issue," said Charlie Zelle, chairman of the Metropolitan Council, which oversees public transportation in the Twin Cities.
Not everyone supports the idea. David Rocha, who takes two buses and light rail to get to his job in St. Paul from his home in Crystal, asked: "How will that work if they're not armed? What authority would they have?"
Another potential concern among returning commuters is the proximity of other passengers, even though transit officials insist trains and buses are not a petri dish for the coronavirus. Metro Transit officials said they have stepped up cleaning of trains and stations, and note that they still limit the number of people who ride.
Last week, the Transportation Security Administration extended the mask mandate for public transportation to mid-September, though compliance on Metro Transit of late appears to be uneven.
Not everyone telecommutes
Before the pandemic, just over half of Metro Transit's ridership took public transit to work, about 30% of whom were day-shift commuters. As Spieler notes: "Grocery workers aren't working from home and they're not working 9 to 5."
That means about half of Metro Transit's passengers use it to get to school, medical appointments, shopping outlets, and for recreational purposes. "People are using transit to get to work, but also to live their lives," Zelle said.
Despite concerns about an impending multimillion-dollar deficit hitting the agency by 2025 amid uncertainty about public funding, the Met Council still plans to open 11 new transit lines over the next decade. They include the Southwest Green Line and Bottineau Blue Line light-rail extensions; the Rush, Gold and Orange rapid-bus transit lines; and the Riverview streetcar in St. Paul, all of which would cost billions to build and operate.
Plans also call for at least five additional rapid-bus lines — service that mimics light rail in terms of service and reliability but for a fraction of the cost.
As society eases into a new normal, said Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C., "Transit agencies and the political leaders that support them need to stick to the fundamentals, more frequent and reliable service. That was the best way to attract transit riders before the pandemic. It is still true now."