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COVID-19 and Drop in Ridership Transform Public Transport

Since the pandemic began, traveling by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) or bus has become a vastly different experience. 


For many Berkeley residents, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit) have been staples. BART has provided transportation for nearly fifty years, while AC Transit has been in action for over sixty years. The transit systems have shuttled tech workers back and forth, moved students from home to school, and provided people of all demographics with an efficient mode of travel. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Bay Area in March 2020, triggering a shelter-in-place order, public transportation was deeply altered, both in the short-term and the long-term.

“We’ve had quite a drastic drop in ridership,” said Jim Allison, Media Relations Manager of BART. According to Allison, BART only shuttles around 11 to 12 percent of the riders it previously did, as many Bay Area residents have transitioned to work-from-home situations. Because of this, trains are much more empty than in typical times, and nearly everyone wears a mask. “If BART police or other BART see people without a face covering, they’ll give them a face covering,” said Allison. BART’s other safety measures include thorough cleaning of trains and stations, the usage of 10-car trains to allow passengers to social distance, and reduced hours. 

AC Transit is taking similar precautions. They have added face covering and hand sanitizer dispensers, limited passenger thresholds, and installed protector shields sectioning off the drivers. They’ve also enhanced cleaning to include daily wipe-downs, and updated their air filtration system. 

“It’s a really different experience than before the pandemic,” said Daphne Korcuska, a Berkeley High School (BHS) senior. Korcuska has been using public transportation for most of her life, and continued to use it throughout the pandemic, up until the most recent shelter-in-place order. “There’s barely ever anyone on the buses, but when it’s crowded you just have to go and squeeze into a corner, and try to avoid people,” she explained. 

Lula Rosenbach, a freshman at BHS, has recently avoided public transportation because of the COVID-19 risk and crowds. “I used to take the bus and BART all the time, but since the first shelter-in-place order I haven’t used any public transportation,” she said. Korcuska, however, generally feels safe, because she doesn’t have to touch anything, she’s able to social distance, and the windows are open. “It can’t be much worse than being outside, in a public place,” she said.

Allison confirmed this statement. “Scientific studies have not proven that using public transportation is any greater risk compared to other public places one may go to,” he explained. “In fact, our air filtration system is much more efficient than in other places like grocery stores or offices.” Allison implores previous BART riders to continue paying attention to science, and to return to public transportation when they feel safe. 

Due to the drop in ridership, both BART and AC Transit have had to find alternate sources of funding. Previously, BART’s operating costs were covered mostly by ticket sales, but they’ve recently had to rely more on emergency funding from the government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). 

The same is true for AC Transit, especially due to their pause in their fare collection in April 2020 to allow passengers to enter through the rear of the bus and ensure distancing from the driver. However, in October, they resumed fare collection after installing shields to protect drivers. 

According to Allison, BART has been looking into a long-term shift in their funding model, including the option of a dedicated fund from the state or federal government to protect against the ups and downs of ridership. “One of things that we can’t predict is how people will work … will the shift to remote working be a long term paradigm shift for the Bay Area?” asked Allison. 

With so many tech workers now working from home, it’s uncertain whether commuting will be as prevalent in the Bay Area as it once was. As a result, it’s important for public transit officials to seek alternative funding, and for this potential shift to be taken into account by the government. 

For Korcuska, the return to public transit is a no-brainer. “I’ve been using public transportation since I was a little kid, and I know I’m going to use it for the rest of my life.” Rosenbach agreed, explaining, “I really love public transportation because of the freedom and responsibility it gives me, and once I feel safe, I’ll definitely start using it again.” 

Korcuska and Rosenbach’s sentiments are widely shared, for economic, environmental, and efficiency reasons. Public transportation reduces air pollution and traffic, increases fuel efficiency and mobility, and is statistically safer than driving a car. Public transportation is essential to daily life and the wider breadth of society, especially in metropolitan areas like the Bay Area. 

In other words, we must not allow the pandemic to affect our long-term transportation patterns too deeply. Allison said, “The best thing that people can do is to stay informed.” 
The BART and AC Transit websites outline essential information about response and prevention efforts, safety measures, ridership, and financial plans.