Twin Cities mass transit rolled on at full strength Friday, but providers are eyeing service cuts in the coming days as they brace for a downturn in ridership as more people work remotely and university students stay home due to concerns about the coronavirus.
Transit agencies also are taking extra efforts to keep buses and trains clean for those who use them to get around. Metro Transit said it is disinfecting its fleet of vehicles every three days instead of monthly. The Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA) is removing paper schedules from its buses and stations to reduce handling of materials. It is also changing air filters on buses more often. SouthWest Transit has put hand sanitizer on each of its 80 buses and is wiping down commonly touched surfaces such as handrails, doors and fare boxes twice a day or more.
Despite the increased cleaning protocols, the American Public Transportation Association this week warned that “fear of exposure to infectious disease may significantly curtail ridership” and “may increase rider anxiety” at a time when health officials are telling the public to avoid crowds whenever possible.
None of the local transit agencies had immediate weekly ridership numbers to report, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many people are ditching transit. Parking spots have been readily available at SouthWest Transit’s four park-and-ride ramps in the southwest suburbs this week. Calls for the agency’s on-demand ride service, Prime, have been way down, too, said CEO Len Simich.
Metro Transit also reported a decline in ridership this week but won’t have specific numbers until next week, said spokesman Howie Padilla.
Sierra Milker said she stopped taking Metro Transit to her job as a nanny in Minneapolis three weeks ago over fears of catching the virus. As of Friday, there have been 14 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Minnesota.
“I’m real nervous about riding the bus,” said Milker, 37, of Minneapolis, who now gets a ride or walks to work. “I’m not worried about my hygiene but other people’s. They are not as diligent as I am.”
The University of Minnesota was on spring break last week, and Metro Transit bus routes that serve campus ran less frequently than when class is in session. But with in-person classes canceled, Metro Transit announced in a series of Rider Alerts Thursday that routes serving the U will continue run on a “reduced break and intersession schedule” through at least April 1.
No other service reductions were immediately announced. Depending on what the ridership numbers show this week, some service adjustment may be needed. Announcements will be posted on Metro Transit’s website, Padilla said.
Richard Crawford, a spokesman for MVTA, said the agency serving eight suburbs south of the Minnesota River will be “taking a close look at scaling back service” if ridership to the U or on other routes drops off.
Simich said SouthWest will continue all of its routes “until things become more clear” but will modify operating plans based on the severity of the situation.
Transit agencies in other U.S. cities are also seeing fewer riders.
Last week BART, the transit system in the San Francisco Bay Area, reported ridership was down 8%. In New York on Wednesday, subway ridership was down 20% and bus ridership was down 15% compared with a typical day, according to the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. A poll conducted by Northstar Research Partners found nearly 50% of Americans believe using public transit poses a high health risk due to the virus. And as many as 40% of Americans report decreased usage of public transportation as a direct result of COVID-19, according to the poll conducted March 6-8.
“The ultimate question is whether these riders will return to public transit or stick with their cars long-term,” said Jennifer Yellin, senior vice president and co-lead of Northstar’s Transportation Practice. If riders stay away, transit systems could lose much-needed revenue, and there’s potential for increased traffic and environmental impacts.
The Rev. Travis Norvell, a pastor at Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis, hasn’t stayed away from transit.
“What a sight to see a completely empty No. 5, not to mention an immaculately clean bus,” he said in an e-mail referencing what is usually the state’s busiest line, running between the Mall of America in Bloomington and Brooklyn Center. “The emptiness has given me an opportunity to talk with the drivers about how to improve public transit.”