Social distancing measures will get more visible for bus drivers and riders starting Saturday, as King County Metro eliminates fare payment and instructs most riders to board through the back doors to avoid close contact.
The changes, announced by Metro on Friday, are an attempt to reduce hand-to-hand interactions aboard buses while still keeping service running as the coronavirus outbreak continues to upend daily life.
Transit ridership in the Seattle area has dropped dramatically as officials urge people to stay home and avoid nonessential travel. At the same time, bus routes can be essential for people whose jobs continue and who can’t work from home.
Metro and other transit agencies have announced extra cleanings and urged riders to stay home when they feel sick. Skagit Transit and Community Transit in Snohomish County have already gone temporarily fare free.
For now, fares will not be required on King County Metro buses, water taxis or Access paratransit. Riders will be directed to use a bus’ back door to board unless they use a mobility device or boarding ramp.
Monday will bring other big changes for Metro riders.
The agency will enact broad service cuts, reducing bus service by about 25%. Most Metro routes will be affected in some way, with certain routes running less frequently and a small number of routes not running at all. The South Lake Union streetcar also will not run.
“This is our effort to make sure that the workforce remains resilient and stays healthy,” said Metro General Manager Rob Gannon. “It’s also matching the ridership level we see on the street.”
Metro service has fallen by about 60%, according to the agency. Before Friday’s announcement, Metro estimated it was losing about $6 million a week in fares and sales taxes due to the coronavirus outbreak, plus the cost of extra cleaning. “That will add up quickly,” Gannon said.
Eventually, fare payment will return, Gannon said, though it’s not clear when. Riders who have already purchased transit passes may eventually get a refund of some kind, but details are still to come.
Without a car, Northgate resident Wes Mills uses transit not only to commute to his job at Microsoft in Redmond, but for his family’s errands, seeing friends and any other transportation needs. “Basically if you can’t get there by bus, train or walking, we’re probably not going,” Mills said.
Mills’ usual routes are on the list for reductions, and while he understands why cuts are necessary, he worries about long-term fallout.
“The bus network we’ve built over the last few years has been really great,” Mills said. “I really don’t want to go backward … For those of us having to get places not served by the train, the bus is it.”
Metro designed the service cuts in an effort to account for areas where people still rely on transit, said Bill Bryant, Metro’s managing director of service development.
Three routes through South Seattle, the 7, 36 and 106, for example, have seen less of a decline in ridership than other routes during the coronavirus outbreak and so will see less severe cuts, Bryant said. The 7 will reduce to about 72% of its regular service; the 106 will lose one trip off its normal weekday schedule.
Routes that were cut entirely may be served by other routes, Bryant said, and untouched routes include service on Vashon Island, where there is less transit.
Metro is attempting to preserve service to hospitals, executives said. “We are keenly aware a lot of people are going to keep needing to ride to those facilities on First Hill,” Bryant said.
Still, the reductions are widespread and will affect many areas.
Riders should be careful to check for updated information about when their bus route is running. Google Maps and One Bus Away may not have the most updated timetables. Find information at kingcounty.gov/reducedschedule.
Metro’s website includes a trip planner, where the “next departure” section should show accurate times. Riders can also sign up for alerts on Metro’s website or text their stop number to 62550 to receive a message about when the next bus is coming.
Drivers whose routes are reduced or canceled will still be paid, Gannon said. Metro does not know of any employees who have tested positive for the coronavirus, but expects there will eventually be cases in the agency, he said.
Metro is not yet experiencing a rash of people calling in sick, but “we do have some indications the level of sick call-outs is increasing moderately,” Gannon said. Metro is “not contemplating layoffs,” he said.
Other service changes were already set to take effect this weekend, as part of regular adjustments, but Metro now does not plan to have its usual on-the-street staff presence letting people know about the changes because of social distancing recommendations.