Washingtonians stayed away from a lot of places this past year and a half. Public transit was one of them. Overall ridership has been down 80% or 90% for some systems — a difficult but good trend which reflects our commitment to protecting one another during the pandemic.
Many riders are now looking ahead to a return to the office and a return to transit, too. In the last several months, scientists have learned a lot about COVID-19 safety on transit, giving us facts and information to guide future travel decisions.
Scientific studies performed in the U.S. and across the world have repeatedly shown that there is no evidence that mass transit poses a risk of coronavirus outbreaks. Cities like Milan that have reopened transit systems after being hard hit by the virus have not seen subsequent infection spikes, and a Stanford study modeling COVID spread in the largest U.S. metro areas makes no mention of transit.
“On the contrary,” Scientific American explains, “transit can play a crucial role in reducing air pollution that makes people more susceptible to COVID-19.”
This safety is thanks to transit agencies across the state and country that have been following the science on crisis response, health and safety for riders and operators, and keeping operations going throughout the pandemic. Transit agencies have sharply increased cleaning protocols, adjusted capacity and increased frequency to accommodate social distancing, mandated and provided masks, created automated barriers between the operators and riders, and installed air filtration upgrades. They’ve also increased communication so that riders can see for themselves what’s being done to keep them safe and moving.
And it’s working. Transit has continued to operate throughout the hardest of circumstances. People have gotten where they needed to go safely. Mask compliance is high, crowding is monitored, and slowly but surely the agencies are adding more service to the system to meet the needs of people as they go about their day. Last month, 40,000 more hours were added back to King County Metro and 200 drivers were rehired. These are key indicators and adjustments intended to make sure when riders are ready for transit, transit is ready for them.
As Seattle slowly reopens, we need to focus on the facts, not fears. The Seattle Times hurt this effort with an article focused on the opinions of a few individuals as a stand-in for scientific evidence [“With vaccination on the rise, Metro Transit plans for a rider rebound. But not everyone is eager to board the bus,” May 4, Northwest, ]. This article ignored the COVID science and painted transit as a danger with no data to back that up.
The reporting relied on personal anecdotes and anxieties, rather than science or facts. In a pandemic, that’s not helpful. By focusing on people with the most options, it promotes the elitist narrative that wealthy people can opt-out of our shared systems, further leaving the people who count on those systems out to dry.
That is not a feasible solution. There are approximately 250,000 jobs in downtown Seattle but only 35,000 parking spots. It is not physically possible for everyone to go back to work without well-supported transit. That’s just math.
It also erases the fact that people have been safely riding transit this entire time. Throughout the pandemic, our regional systems carried hundreds of thousands of people — essential workers, students, people who don’t or can’t drive — on transit safely every day. More than 140,000 trips are made on King County Metro alone every weekday. This is thanks to these agencies’ diligent work to keep us safe and each of us doing our part. Transit is essential and will need to be part of our recovery. We can all be part of making that happen.
Seattleites showed up for transit riders in November, voting overwhelmingly to approve a sales-tax measure to preserve frequent bus service, shuttle vans and free student fares. Recovery should absolutely be rooted in safety and responsiveness to rider needs, and people have legitimate concerns and anxieties to address. But this is a transit-oriented city in an increasingly transit-oriented region. Transit riders, and our collective future, deserve better reporting.