Before the coronavirus pandemic, Susan Curhan would ride the bus anywhere she could.
Taking transit felt like leisurely travel, she said. She got to chat with other riders, and the thought of her car sitting in a parking garage while she was at work “felt really wasteful.”
For three years, she took transit from her home near the Washington Park Arboretum to her job in downtown Seattle. But last spring, when officials in King County reported the first known COVID-19 death in the United States, Curhan, 57, took serious precautions.
No restaurants. No outsiders allowed in her home. And no more trips on public transit.
Curhan, who does marketing for health-care startups, has been working from home since March 2020. Ideally, she’d like to work from her office, located near Pike Street and Sixth Avenue, one or two days per week. But as she ponders going back to the office, she’s hesitant about getting back to her routine commuting by bus.
“I sacrificed so much the past year to stay safe for both me and my family, so I’m not willing to blow it to take a bus,” said Curhan, who typically rode King County Metro’s Route 11. “I’m just not ready to take a risk like that.”
Transit ridership has plummeted in the past year as more people worked from home, and Metro and Sound Transit encouraged riders to avoid unnecessary travel.
The average number of boardings on a weekday in February on King County Metro fell to about 133,000, a 72% decline compared to the same month last year. Between October and December last year, ridership across Sound Transit’s entire system, which includes light rail, Sounder train service and Express buses, dropped by 8.9 million passengers — or 77.3%, compared to the same quarter in 2019.
Fear of transit has persisted even though studies, including one for the American Public Transportation Association, showed that transmission of the coronavirus is not spread more widely on buses and trains — as long as they are well ventilated and riders wear masks.
Both agencies expect riders to return to transit as COVID vaccination rates rise and service returns to pre-pandemic levels, but those predictions remain as uncertain as the future of remote work — which could permanently reduce commute trips. Even as access to vaccines expands and businesses slowly reopen, some riders say they aren’t sure when they’ll go back.
Earlier this month, Metro increased the number of passengers allowed on buses, up to 70% of pre-pandemic levels, but some commuters who have switched from transit to other ways of getting around don’t plan to go back even as the pandemic eases.
Octavio Preciado, 26, bought an electric bicycle last spring to get from Beacon Hill to the Virginia Mason Medical Center in First Hill, where he works.
He rode Metro’s Route 60 bus for about month last spring, but “sometimes there were just way too many people on board than I felt comfortable with,” he said.
His co-workers encouraged him to buy a bike instead, and he plans to continue riding after the pandemic ends.
“It’s great to get up in the morning and feel a sense of accomplishment before you get to work by biking in,” Preciado said. “It feels a little bit more free. You’re feeling nature through the breeze. You hear the sounds, you hear the birds. You’re more in tune with what’s around you.”
For other trips, such as going to the grocery store, Preciado said he plans to drive his car.
Heather Zamudio, 25, has switched to driving full time. Even though she said transit provides a more affordable commuting option, she doesn’t yet feel comfortable on the bus.
“Especially when it’s full, you can’t help but stand closer than 6 feet from the other riders,” said Zamudio, who took the bus a few times early in the pandemic. “Sometimes they would wear their masks, sometimes they wouldn’t. So that was why I felt unsafe,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Zamudio would drive to the Northgate Park & Ride and take Metro’s Route 41 bus to her office downtown, where she works as a legal assistant.
Now she drives all the way in. Parking downtown costs her $175 per month, so Zamudio looks forward to going back to transit to reduce expenses. But she doesn’t know when that will be.
In a report published in January by the U.S. Department of Transportation, authors Steven Polzin and Tony Choi said transportation planners need to monitor the trends that have developed in the last year, such as increased remote work by more affluent employees, so that future service is informed by post-pandemic travel behavior.
They suggested changes such as replacing fixed-route service in some areas with more flexible, on-demand service for people dependent on public transportation and exploring transit subsidies for people in need.
But even as ridership remains low, some essential workers have continued to rely on transit to get to their jobs.
My-Huyen Pham, 26, takes Metro’s Route 2 bus to downtown or light rail from Columbia City to the University Street station. She said the frequent cleanings have made public transit feel much more sanitary, and now that she’s vaccinated, her “hesitancy toward riding the bus is reduced to almost none.”
Pham used to walk from the University Street station to Virginia Mason, where she works as a medical assistant, but she prefers to take the bus now, in light of recent attacks on Asian Americans. She feels safer with fellow passengers as witnesses on the bus, she said.
Transit had been Ciara Haider’s primary means of getting around for the past six years she’s been in Seattle.
She rode Metro’s Route 26 bus to get from Green Lake to Fremont, where she works as a designer. To visit her family in Vancouver, Washington, she rode the Bolt Bus from Seattle to Portland.
The bus is an “incredibly awesome way to just sit for a few hours, listen to books or podcasts, and just make better use of that time,” she said.
In fact, she hopes to sell her car and rely on transit full time when the pandemic ends.
But after a few unsettling experiences early in the pandemic, she said the bus “didn’t feel safe to me.”
“It just feels like a really exposed place because not only are you like sitting in a space, fairly close to people, you have no idea who you’re with,” Haider, 29, said. “When I go to work, they have COVID protocols where you check in and tell them where you’ve been every single time you come in. Obviously that kind of contact tracing isn’t available on a bus.”
For now, her car-free plans are on hold.
“I’m planning to just kind of wait it out and see what happens and take it one step at a time,” Haider said.
This story has been amended to note that research has found the coronavirus does not spread more rapidly on buses and trains as long as they are well ventilated and riders wear masks.