Service cuts and risk of transmission affect those “who have no other choice”
By Ginger Christ
Nia Davis is headed home. It’s 7:30 a.m. at the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) station, in Shaker Heights, and she is the only passenger in sight. Davis is waiting for a train to downtown Cleveland, where she lives with her sister. A mask dangles at her chin, and a backpack rests beside her on the bench. A transit officer is stationed nearby, and bus drivers wearing gloves and masks idle the No. 34 and No. 94 buses. The parking lots are nearly empty.
Davis works full-time at a residential treatment facility serving youth with mental health and substance issues. Her job has been deemed essential, which means, among other things, that she has to continue her usual commute via public transit. Usually, the platform is crowded with people in suits headed to downtown offices at this hour, Davis said. Now, “The only people who are typically taking it are people who have no other choice.”
Since the novel coronavirus pandemic took Ohio and the rest of the Midwest in its grasp, RTA ridership has plummeted seventy percent, said Steve Bitto, RTA’s executive director of marketing and communications. In response, and to cut costs, the transit system reduced service by fifteen percent in early April. For years, RTA passengers have swallowed service reductions as the local transit agency has tried to balance a budget hit by severe funding cuts from the state. The people I spoke with told me recent changes make service even less reliable.
In its public communications, RTA has said riders should only be making essential trips for work, groceries, or medical reasons. Yet those who rely on public transit for those vital needs worry about how reductions in service will affect them and their safety. “Whether it’s essential workers or people going for essential services like groceries or to pick up a prescription from a pharmacy, they still need to get there,” said Dana Beveridge, lead organizer for Clevelanders for Public Transit, a local riders’ advocacy group. “It’s affecting riders who now have to be in transit longer, especially if they’re transferring between routes.”
Will Lucious is one of those affected. Just before 8:30 a.m. on a recent weekday morning, he stood outside the Stokes-Windermere transit station, waiting. “Usually, I’d be heading downtown now,” he said. Lucious takes the No. 28 bus from his home in Euclid to the East Cleveland station, where he catches the HealthLine, a bus rapid transit line that carries people to the main campuses of the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, Cleveland’s two largest health systems. He is part of a skeleton crew still reporting to work at a downtown business where he is an office clerk.
RTA’s service changes reduced the frequency of the HealthLine, among thirty-one other mostly weekday bus and train routes. Bitto said schedulers tried to make sure there were still connections between routes to minimize wait times. Jarrett Walker, a national public transit consultant who completed a redesign study on RTA last year, called RTA’s recent service reduction an example of “carefully designed service cuts” being made in light of the coronavirus pandemic. RTA, he said, “has completed a service cut with revised schedules reflecting detailed thought about every route and how to make a minimally functional and connective system.”
Yet for riders, fewer routes still mean more waiting. The No. 8 bus, on which La Queta Worley-Bell relies, already only came once an hour. Worley-Bell, who lives in Cleveland, said she’s been trying for months, even before the pandemic, to get RTA’s CEO and General Manager India Birdsong to go on a ridealong with her on the No. 8 bus, to see firsthand what the lack of frequency means for riders. “I would like to have it every thirty minutes,” Worley-Bell said. “It would be much better.”
Worley-Bell uses transit for everything. To do laundry, she lugs two carts onto the bus with her. It takes two buses to get to the laundromat. Worley-Bell typically sits in the back of the bus and has appreciated how much emptier her rides have been lately. Often, teenagers will openly cough, and other passengers will reach across her to ring for their stops. “A lot of people don’t care. A lot of these teenagers, they don’t believe something can happen to them,” she said.These days, Worley-Bell wears gloves and puts on a mask every time she gets on the bus. (Lucious and Davis both also carry masks with them on the bus and train.) She wants to protect herself from a virus that has infected more than sixteen thousand people in Ohio and killed more than seven hundred in the state. “I don’t like to wear [the mask]. I feel like I have to hold my breath,” she said. But “This COVID-19 stuff really gets to me.”
RTA is taking steps to reduce exposure. Every day, the transit agency cleans and disinfects its trains and buses, especially commonly-touched surfaces. Drivers have been given gloves and masks and have their temperatures taken at the start of their shift. RTA, which is installing plastic shields that separate drivers from riders, encourages passengers to wear masks and to sit spaced apart. “We’re doing our best to provide the service but do it in a manner that folks are safe,” Bitto said.
But the agency could be doing more, Beveridge said. In other cities in Ohio and across the Midwest, transit agencies have stopped collecting fares and have encouraged riders to enter from the back of the bus, to limit exposure between riders and drivers. The Stark Area Regional Transit Authority, in Canton, Ohio, was an early adopter. SARTA stopped collecting fares March 16 and required passengers to board using the rear doors on buses to encourage physical distancing. (On the other hand, in Cincinnati, the Metro system recently reinstated fares after city officials suspected free transit rides were contributing to large gatherings.)
In Cleveland, Birdsong has said RTA can’t afford to not collect fares, especially as sales tax revenues are projected to nosedive from the coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders that have kept people from traveling, shopping and, in general, spending money. RTA expects to receive $111 million in aid from the federal CARES Act, but estimates that money will fall short of what the agency will lose in sales tax and fare revenue. “If RTA is to continue to fulfill its mission for Clevelanders who depend on public transit, the system must continue to collect fares, even through these difficult times. Its very existence depends on it,” Birdsong said in a written statement.
Beveridge argues that RTA’s insistence on collecting fares puts drivers and riders alike at risk, because passengers are forced to enter through the front of the bus. “By necessity, if you’re going to pay a fare, you need to be within six feet” of the driver, she said. And beyond that, riders all will be touching the same fare box. “There’s your transmission right there.”
Seven RTA workers already have tested positive for COVID-19, including two sets of married couples. Bitto told me only two of those who contracted the virus dealt directly with customers. “We’ve been very lucky,” he said. But drivers are scared. “Thank God no one passed away,” said William H Nix, Sr., assistant trustee for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 268, which represents organized RTA workers. “People have a right to be afraid. Their lives are on the line picking these people up daily,” Nix said. “I want my members to go home to their families.”
Transit employees, like other essential workers, can’t stay home. And for many, the nature of their jobs puts them at risk. In Detroit, a bus driver, Jason Hargrove, posted a viral video about a woman coughing openly on his bus. In the video, Hargrove said he was worried about himself and his passengers because people weren’t taking the virus seriously. He died, eleven days later, of COVID-19.
Elsewhere, members of transit unions have threatened to stop working if agencies don’t properly protect workers and passengers. The Transport Workers Union Local 234 in Philadelphia recently made a number of demands of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, SEPTA, including passenger limits, more safety precautions and a death benefit for anyone who dies from coronavirus. In a video, TWU Local 234 President Willie Brown said SEPTA workers “will choose life over death.”
In Cleveland, drivers hope the new shields protect them from the virus. They hope Ohio’s latest directives, from Gov. Mike DeWine, will encourage passengers to wear masks on buses and trains. “I’m praying for a miracle,” Nix said. At the end of the day they, like the passengers they transport, just hope to get home safely. ■
Ginger Christ is a freelance journalist in Northeast Ohio. She’s been a reporter in Ohio for thirteen years, most recently at The Plain Dealer. When she’s not writing, she’s asking questions, walking her cat on a leash, and eating Brussels sprouts. Connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.
Cover photo by Tim Harrison for Belt Magazine.
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