How Metro Transit Is Responding To The Coronavirus

A person on a bicycle waits for a Metro Transit articulated bus to cross the intersection at Lake and Pillsbury in South Minneapolis on the afternoon of March 18, 2020. As part of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, Metro Transit instituted a number of changes, which include service reductions and enhanced cleaning. Photo: Henry Pan

A person on a bicycle waits for a Metro Transit articulated bus to cross the intersection of Lake and Pillsbury in South Minneapolis on the afternoon of March 18, 2020. As part of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, Metro Transit instituted a number of changes, which include service reductions and enhanced cleaning. Photo: Henry Pan

Transit agencies across the nation are feeling the brunt of the coronavirus, and Metro Transit is no exception. While Metro Transit does not have definite numbers, Howie Padilla, Metro Transit’s spokesperson, says that “Ridership has definitely decreased.” 

But they’re not worried about how much ridership has gone down right now.

“Our priority is to serve (riders) in the safest way possible”, Mr. Padilla said. 

In an effort to stem the spread, Metro Transit began enhancing the cleaning process of the buses.

“We’re cleaning the horizontal and vertical touch points, places that we take for granted”, said Mr. Padilla.

WCCO reported that entire buses are being cleaned every three days, as opposed to once every 45 days before the outbreak.

Also, Metro Transit recommended that riders use it for essential travel only. They also recommended riders not board buses with more than 10 people on a standard bus, no more than 15 people to an articulated bus (pictured). This is in line with White House guidelines released earlier this week suggesting gatherings of 10 people or more get canceled. 

Metro Transit has also begun to reduce service. On Tuesday, Metro Transit began to suspend service between 11pm and 4:30am. In a statement on their website, they said:

“A disproportionate number of biohazard incidents (up to 60%) occur overnight. Biohazards can create unhealthy conditions in regular times; during a pandemic event, those health concerns increase.”

While operators won’t be driving overnight, Mr. Padilla told me that the operators will be paid, and that “they may help with other issues that may come up, but [it is] too early to tell after one night what those issues might be.”

There may be more cuts to come. Several Metro Transit operators, as well as ATU Local 1005, told me yesterday that they will need to choose new work, beginning yesterday. The new work represents a 40% reduction in weekday service, with no change to Sunday service. Most of the new work will have operators dispatched to different routes – and even routes originating out of different garages – every day. The idea, one operator told me, is that these operators can drive a bus to any point on a route and begin picking up passengers to ensure buses throughout a route do not get full.

But Metro Transit itself isn’t even sure if this new work will be implemented.

“There are no final decisions on any cuts other than night cuts”, Mr. Padilla said.

If and when they do have more cuts coming, Mr. Padilla said the agency will announce them through their website and social media channels. 

Some of the operators I spoke with were skeptical about Metro Transit’s efforts to contain the virus. Two of the operators I spoke with told me Metro Transit was “rationing sanitizers” and restricting the amount of wipes that operators are able to have every time they go out on a route. 

When I asked Mr. Padilla about the rationing, he shot back.

“I wouldn’t call it rationing”, he said. “They’re not small wipes.”

He told me that every operator receives 10 wipes, and that the wipes were enough for the operator to clean essential areas of their vehicle throughout their route. 

Some of the operators I spoke with were also skeptical about implementing social distancing on the buses.

“Not sure how there can be appropriate social distancing on a crowded bus”, said one operator I spoke with.

Another operator I spoke with said that, despite the orders and the threat of the virus, local bus routes are still getting full. The operator, who drives a top-10 high-ridership route, said, “my first two trips on this route were completely standing-room only.” 

I think anytime a person is coming into a group of strangers or even people that they know, it’s going to cause concern”, said another operator. 

Another operator expressed concern how working could impact their family. Every member in one particular operator’s family has a disability, and being stricken with the virus could be devastating for all of them. On Wednesday, Governor Walz suspended some collective bargaining rights of State Employees. Because Metro Transit operates under the purview of a state agency, this could impact the ability of transit operators to take time off to keep their families safe.

Yet another operator I spoke with thinks Metro Transit should do more to stem the spread.

“The driver area should be blocked off and passengers should be able to board in the rear, like in Europe, to limit operator and passenger contact”, they said.

This is something that agencies in Detroit, San Jose, Seattle, Vancouver (BC), Williamsburg, Calgary, Burlington, Montreal, Richland (WA), Monterey, Thousand Palms, Culver City, Billings, Des Moines, and Saginaw are doing. Many of these agencies are also waiving fares, because riders cannot get to the farebox or card reader, which is often located by the front door. 

Locally, MVTA is also actively encouraging Red Line riders to board and pay at the rear door. While agencies in the Twin Cities have not begun to waive fares or block off the front door, activists from the Twin Cities Democratic Socialists of America have demanded that Twin Cities transit waive fares. But will Metro Transit be doing this anytime soon? 

“You’re asking me to speculate“, Padilla said. “I don’t want to talk about ‘what-ifs’.”

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

About H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/theirs) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues. Find them on a bus of all types, the sidewalk, bike lane, hiking trail or perhaps the occasional carshare vehicle, camera and perhaps watercolor set or mushroom brush in tow, in your community or state or regional park regardless of season. If you can’t find them, they’re probably cooking, writing, curating an archive of wall art or brochures, playing board games, sewing or cuddling with their cat. Follow on Twitter: @h_pan3 or Instagram: @hpphmore or on BlueSky: hpan3 dot bsky dot social See bylines after March 2020 in Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Racket, Minnesota Reformer, Next City, The Guardian, Daily Yonder and MinnPost.

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