How COVID-19 Hit Bay Area Public Transit Hard — and What That Means for You

Passengers wait for the 14-Mission on 4th and Mission Streets in San Francisco on April 6, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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There’s no other way to put it: Bay Area transit agencies are struggling.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, many businesses told employees to work from home. Local public health authorities mandated that non-essential workers stay home, too. Ridership on all Bay Area public transit systems plummeted as a result.

Agencies have struggled to maintain basic service, keep riders and workers safe and avoid mass layoffs. An infusion of emergency aid from the federal government allowed transit systems to survive, but getting back to “normal” is still far in the future. “We are now facing the complete economic devastation that is the aftermath of this pandemic,” San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin said on Tuesday’s KQED Forum.

What About Safety?

Transit operators have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue since shelter-at-home orders were imposed in March. One of the major challenges they face now is convincing patrons that it’s safe to ride again, even with the coronavirus pandemic still simmering.

There’s some evidence that transit isn’t to blame for as much transmission of the coronavirus as authorities and the riding public might believe. Studies of outbreaks in various cities around the world have not detected infection clusters linked to public transportation. And a new article from The Atlantic notes that the incidence of COVID-19 has been low in one of the world’s most crowded, transit-reliant cities:

If transit itself were a global super-spreader, then a large outbreak would have been expected in Hong Kong, a city of 7.5 million people dependent on a public transportation system that, before the pandemic, was carrying 12.9 million people a day. Ridership there … fell considerably less than in other transit systems around the world. Yet Hong Kong has recorded only about 1,100 COVID-19 cases, one-tenth the number in Kansas, which has fewer than half as many people. Replicating Hong Kong’s success may involve safety measures, such as mask wearing, that are not yet ingrained in the U.S., but the evidence only underscores that the coronavirus can spread outside of transit and dense urban environments—which are not inherently harmful.

Scroll down for a status report on the Bay Area’s biggest public transit providers, and see how your local service is being impacted — whether that's SF Muni, BART, AC Transit, Bay Area ferries or Caltrain.

We've also got a look at what could be next.

San Francisco Muni

A Muni bus stops in front of the nightclub Bruno's, which has a sign that reads, 'Save Lives. Stay Home,' on Mission Street in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Muni has suspended its cable cars, streetcars and subway and light-rail lines — in addition to canceling service on 70 of 89 bus routes. Now, some service is returning, with a total of 25 lines running. Tumlin says the current all-bus system is safer because vehicles can operate with windows open, which circulates fresh air and reduces the chance of virus transmission on vehicles. However, he says maintaining 6 feet of social distancing on buses translates into an unsustainable 80% reduction in system capacity that will limit the agency's ability to resume more service.

“Our financial reality is that all of our sources of revenue are down by 30 to 100%, and many of those will not be coming back for a long time,” Tumlin said. That means he doesn’t expect Muni will be able to restore all the lines it suspended for up to two years.

“This is the financial calamity that’s affecting so many households across the nation, and is also affecting every public agency,” Tumlin said.

He said Muni is doing everything it can to make buses safe to ride and to operate. Drivers have protective barriers, wear masks and keep the windows down to increase air circulation. Most buses have rear boarding to facilitate passengers spreading out. The buses are cleaned and sterilized at the end of every shift, about three times a day.

“And as far as we know, there are no cases of passengers having contracted COVID-19 on Muni,” Tumlin said. He added that there have been just 14 COVID-19 cases among the agency’s 6,000 employees, and all have recovered. None of those are believed to have contracted the virus in the workplace.

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The pandemic has also revealed interesting equity patterns in ridership. Some lines, like those that run along Mission and out to Visitacion Valley have ridership levels almost at pre-pandemic levels. Muni has been adding service in those areas to reduce congestion.

“COVID has revealed the geography of essential workers,” Tumlin said.

Tumlin also noted that the SFMTA was not allowed to work on any street projects during shelter-in-place, which set the city back in terms of infrastructure to support biking and walking as alternatives to public transportation. However, the agency has closed streets like the Great Highway, Page, Shotwell and Sanchez to traffic — part of the Slow Streets program — in order to make more safe spaces for residents to get outside and move.

“Our next step is to try and knit those pilot projects together, filling in critical gaps, to allow most San Franciscans on their own steam, to get to work, to get groceries, etc,” Tumlin said.

SFMTA is considering a massive network of protected bike lanes that could help make many more San Franciscans feel safer getting around by bike, scooter or on foot. He said they are beginning the political process to get approval for such a plan, but noted similar efforts in the past have come up against stiff pushback from citizens that don’t like change.

Many people wonder how agencies like Muni and BART will enforce safety protocols like mask-wearing. Tumlin acknowledges this is a delicate matter. Right now, most agencies do not want their frontline workers confronting passengers in order to make them wear masks. Tumlin says Muni drivers have even been assaulted when they tried to shame passengers into wearing masks. And the conversation about mask enforcement comes in the middle of a national reckoning with policing, making the matter even more complex.

BART

A mostly empty BART train travels from Oakland to San Francisco on Tuesday, Mar. 10, 2020.
A mostly empty BART train travels from Oakland to San Francisco on March 10, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

BART ridership, which averaged over 400,000 people per weekday in pre-pandemic times, dropped to the low 20,000s in April. It has inched up to about 40,000 now — but that's still 90% of its former level.

Because the agency depends heavily on fare dollars for daily operations, BART, too, slashed service on both its weekday and weekend schedules. The system is currently open from 5 a.m. through 9 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. And instead of running trains every 15 minutes on each of its five lines, it cut service to once every 30 minutes, effectively cutting the number of trains it runs by half.

The agency, like others, is working hard to persuade riders it is safe to return to the trains. It has a 15-point plan to ensure the safety of passengers, including things like fogging the trains every night, sanitizing all touch points at the end of every run, using the longest trains possible so riders can spread out and requiring masks. Some “Forum” listeners commented, though, that they haven’t seen much enforcement of the mask requirement.

But one sign of recovery: BART responded to increased ridership on its “Yellow” line, from Antioch to San Francisco International Airport, and has added trains in both the morning and afternoon between Pleasant Hill and Daly City. The new trains restore the former 15-minute headways between Pleasant Hill and the West Bay from 5 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. and from 3:40 p.m. to 5:10 p.m. weekdays.

AC Transit

An AC Transit bus in downtown Oakland. (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

AC Transit has not suffered quite the ridership loss that Muni has experienced, with patronage falling a maximum of about 83% in April and rebounding to a 72% loss by the end of May. But like Muni, the East Bay operator is running an essentially free service, with riders required to board through rear doors to maintain physical distancing from drivers.

AC Transit is running a Sunday schedule on its East Bay lines and is operating just three of its nearly 30 transbay routes — the F from Berkeley and Emeryville, the O from Fruitvale BART and Alameda and the NL from East Oakland. Popular routes like the double-decker J line through Berkeley are sidelined indefinitely.

Ferry Service

The Richmond ferry terminal at the Craneway Pavilion, July 2019. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Many Bay Area residents say the ferries are their favorite mode of public transit, but a 98% to 99% loss in ridership has forced both San Francisco Bay Ferry and Golden Gate Transit to suspend some service and significantly cut runs that continue.

But things are starting to turn around. S.F. Bay Ferry has restored some runs on its popular Vallejo-San Francisco route, and it resumed service Monday on its Richmond-San Francisco route with five weekday runs each way.

One piece of good news on the ferry front is that more money may be on the way to help facilitate S.F. Bay Ferry’s planned expansion. Regional Measure 3, a 2018 bridge toll increase to raise funds for dozens of regional transportation projects, would provide $300 million for the system. A lawsuit challenging the measure — and blocking release of funds — lost in San Francisco Superior Court and is now on appeal.

Caltrain

Caltrain locomotives at San Francisco's Fourth Street/Townsend station. (Todd Lappin)

Caltrain is in an even more precarious situation than other local transit agencies because it has no local tax revenue to help fund it.

There is discussion of a one-eighth cent sales tax in counties that Caltrain serves on the November ballot, which would help. However, during the pandemic Caltrain cut down to run fewer than 50 trains, about half of normal. Recently they’ve increased service to around 70 trains.

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So... What's Next?

The 24th Street BART Station in San Francisco on March 20, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

All the local transit agencies are appealing for more federal funds to get them through the next few years. Without it, most agencies won’t be able to afford to return to pre-pandemic levels of service, especially because new cleaning and distancing rules cost money.

State Sen. Scott Wiener from San Francisco has introduced legislation that would allow local agencies with readily available funds to use them quickly, sidestepping the often cumbersome and drawn out California Environmental Quality Act process. That bill has only just begun to make its way through the legislative process, and wouldn’t produce change until September or October at the earliest.

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