(TNS) — C. Mikel Oglesby doesn’t think the end is nigh for public transportation.
Dire predictions have swirled about transit’s future as COVID-19 has upended the economy and kept commuters at home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested riding in a car alone is preferable to both ride sharing and public transportation, and ridership in general is down dramatically in many cities.
It’s been about two months since Oglesby took the reins as Detroit, Mich.’s executive director of transit, and it’s been an unprecedented period. Nothing in his 20 years in transit, he said last week, prepared him for a pandemic, but he said the Detroit Department of Transportation is working to meet the challenge.
Public transportation does have a future, Oglesby said, because of simple economics. New cars are expensive. Kelley Blue Book highlighted the affordability dilemma when it noted that the estimated average transaction price for a light vehicle in the United States last month was $38,530, up 3.1 percent from a year prior and 0.4 percent from May. This is also a time of high unemployment — 11 percent in June — and economic uncertainty.
“A lot of people aren’t making a lot of money and you know they can take what they can afford. ‘Hey, let me get on this bus,’ ” Oglesby said during a Transportation Riders United webinar, describing what a potential rider might say. “All of a sudden they realize this isn’t too bad. ‘I should have been doing this a long time ago,’ and then boom you have a rider. … We may lose some riders but gain others.”
That’s a rosy vision in a period of grim news. The developers of the popular Transit app, which helps transit users navigate their public transportation journeys, said on Thursday that transit demand was down 53 percent below normal. Demand was down in cities across the country. The San Francisco Bay Area, for example, was down a stunning 79 percent on Thursday. By comparison, Detroit saw a less dramatic but still significant decline in demand of 37 percent on the same day.
There’s no question the picture for transit and much else has changed from just a few months ago.
Downtowns like Detroit’s, which had seen dramatic, resurgent interest in recent years, are suddenly not the place to be, as many office workers explore what it means to truly telecommute, professional sports and artistic performances remain on hold, bars in this part of Michigan are closed and restaurants operate at partial capacity. That shift is clear in how Detroit’s transit systems have reacted, scaling back service even as they change how they handle the routes that they are maintaining, at least for now, with rear boarding, no fare collections and new bus cleaning protocols.
And Detroit’s suburban bus system, SMART, has stopped its commuter routes, meaning that aside from three limited-stop, express routes on Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan, and an advance reservation service, Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation buses are not running downtown.
Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, said people who have a choice will be slow to return to using transit and that some will be looking to work from home more. But right now, much remains unknown.
“How fast transit is going to come back, there isn’t a lot of data around that,” she said.
Those with higher incomes have more choices, and their future usage of public transportation is most in question.
Transit found in its data that more of those continuing to use public transportation in the pandemic are women, people of color, those with lower incomes and people who have been deemed essential workers.
“A lot of bus riders are essential workers that can’t work from home,” Owens said. “There’s no doubt that transit … will continue to be essential for those essential workers who are low income and don’t have other choices and honestly may become more important as this economic crisis continues.”
Owens also noted the pandemic has challenged the idea pushed by some transit opponents that ride sharing can replace public transportation. If there are fewer drivers available, service drops and prices rise. Scooters offer another example, Owens said, as many have been pulled off city streets in recent months.
The End of Car Ownership?
In June, Rob Alberts, the executive director of the North American International Auto Show and the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, described to a virtual crowd during an Automotive Press Association event a new era for vehicle ownership following earlier predictions that it might disappear. Alberts said he doesn’t envision ride sharing and “crowded public transportation” replacing personal mobility any time soon.
“Because of what we’re going through in this pandemic, the pendulum is swinging back to owning and leasing vehicles. Just a few months ago ridesharing was being touted as the end all. It was only a year ago that an editorial in the New York Times said owning a car will soon be as quaint as owning a horse. The article went on to say that owning a car would be a hobby, a cool thing to take out for a spin on a weekend. Sometimes it takes something like what we’re going through to rekindle a love affair with what we have.”
What we’re going through, the pandemic, is what prompted Kirk Sellke to cancel a planned trip to Colorado this summer. Instead, Sellke, his wife and their three children will be heading to northern lower Michigan from their home in Bloomfield Hills in August. They’ll travel to Colorado hopefully next year. Instead of flying, which was how Sellke planned to get there, Sellke now expects to drive.
Sellke, 45, is no transit opponent. When he lived and worked in Chicago early in his career, he regularly took the “L,” and he said he wouldn’t be hesitant to get on a train or bus now. He reasons that he and his family are healthy and don’t have compromised immune systems, and they take what precautions they can. He kept a car when he lived in Chicago, despite the hassles of parking and traffic congestion, because he’d visit his parents in the suburbs, and it was simply faster to drive.
Rather than affecting his choices on transit, pandemic considerations affected something else for Sellke, who works for a cyber security firm. He signed a lease in June at Matick Chevrolet in Redford for a 2019 Chevrolet Suburban, trading in a Chevy Traverse, and a payment of about $757 per month.
“We’ve made a conscious choice to get a larger vehicle, so we have the opportunities to take family road trips. The pandemic kind of motivated that,” Sellke said.
The Sellke family chose a larger vehicle in response to the pandemic, but they aren’t the only vehicle shoppers who have been influenced by the pandemic.
“This is clearly on people’s minds,” said Jenni Newman, editor in chief of Cars.com, which conducted a survey related to the pandemic’s impact on transportation choices and preferences. “There are a lot of people looking for cars.”
She noted that visits to the site were up 10 percent week over week in June.
The survey found that 67 percent of respondents — 516 people accessing Cars.com in early June were randomly selected — said the pandemic had increased their reliance on or need for a personal vehicle. That came, even as 70 percent said they’d experienced a reduction in commuting for work. 14 percent said their normal work commute had been permanently changed.
Deanne Austin hasn’t taken the bus in months, not since a DDOT shutdown over driver concerns. The 34-year-old academic interventionist working at a Detroit Public Schools high school was panicky, worrying about how she would get food and cat litter. It was stressful for the Detroit resident and transit advocate.
But Austin, who has never had a car, relying on family when she needs to, also had other worries about the virus because she has asthma.
So she’s stayed off the bus, and she doesn’t know when she’ll return.
“It’s the COVID disclaimer. I would be foolish to say everything will be back to normal. I definitely believe I’ll be back on the bus, but it might be a bit later,” Austin said. “I always look to the guidelines. I do have to take health into consideration.”
When she does return, Austin said she’ll look for routes with fewer transfers and once again blend a reliance on Uber and Lyft with public transportation. Those private services, however, are not cheap, and they’ve become less so, she said, since the pandemic.
“Ride share is expensive, and I’m not a millionaire,” she said.
Part of the reason rideshare has been in Austin’s life has been the state of the city’s public transportation system, which, she said, had seen recent improvements but still left much to be desired for people who rely on it. Despite its nickname as the Motor City, Detroit has many households without vehicles, so Austin’s transportation choices aren’t unusual.
She Wiped Her Hand on the Steering Wheel
Kevin Watkins has been a bus driver for almost a quarter of a century, and recent months have tested his resolve.
“I have like 24 years and 9 months and some days I feel like I can continue. Some days with this COVID-19 I feel like calling it quits,” he said.
Because of social distancing requirements, Watkins, 54, of Harper Woods has to pass up people who want to ride his bus. It makes it bad for the drivers and bad for those who have to wait longer. With much of the city opening back up, people get upset.
He said the city has stepped up its efforts to protect drivers, but still falls short on hazard pay, for instance, and not making sure all riders wear masks. He noted the death of driver Jason Hargrove, who died of COVID-19. That was after a woman had been coughing on Hargrove’s bus and he posted a video exposing bus driver concerns.
Recently, Watkins had a run in with a rider, a woman in her 30s.
Passengers — there were about a dozen on board — were complaining because the woman was sneezing and coughing. She wore a mask, but one of the quirks Watkins has seen with other mask wearers is that when they sneeze or cough, they automatically pull the mask down, exposing their mouths.
Those are typically inadvertent, but this woman was doing it deliberately. Watkins said he tried to get her to stop, even asking her to get off the bus, but she refused.
Watkins stopped the bus and called for help. Instead of just getting off the bus, the woman walked to the front, pulled down the chain that’s now used to separate the driver’s area from the rest of the passengers — DDOT and SMART are working to equip buses with sneeze guards — and wiped her hands on the steering wheel and other areas before leaving.
It was a troubling situation, but Watkins said mask wearing on buses has remained optional even if the department has been distributing masks to riders.
“It doesn’t make sense to have social distancing on the coach if you don’t require (riders) to wear masks,” Watkins said.
But masks are only part of the picture. In an attempt to maintain social distancing, boardings must be limited, meaning at busy stops not everyone can get on.
Glenn Tolbert, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, which represents DDOT drivers, said arguments will break out over those kinds of issues.
“I don’t want them to get in an altercation,” he said of his drivers. “It’s a very tricky, slippery slope.”
The system is also short on active drivers, many of whom are out because of COVID-19. That puts even more pressure on the system, which can’t staff all of its runs.
“Maybe by the end of the summer we’ll be up to full capacity,” Tolbert said.
Despite the issues, Tolbert said riders have been out in large numbers.
“The city’s back awake and alive, and people are back out,” he said. “We haven’t lost many riders, no not at all.”
And since the system is not taking fares for the foreseeable future — “It’s hard to open that fare box and still keep the workers safe” — plenty of people, including those who are homeless, are riding the bus, Tolbert said.
Looking beyond the pandemic, Tolbert said he sees a robust future for public transportation.
“Everybody’s not going to have a car. Everybody can’t afford a car. Everybody can’t maintain a car,” Tolbert said. “Public transportation’s a great way to get around if you make people feel safe and it’s clean and you can depend on it.”
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