Philbrick: Transit workers put their lives on the line for us
VTA's "Street Team Ambassadors" spoke with riders at Diridon Station on Thursday about the new service plan. Photo courtesy of VTA.

On Caltrain, it’s quiet. There are no hurrying commuters, no noisy tourists, no need to rush to snag a window seat or grab a spot in the bike car. Empty.

In the midst of COVID-19, crowded busses, trains and subways have become reminders of a pre-pandemic daily routine that for more than 300 million people in 42 states has been replaced by an order to stay home. Still, essential transportation workers put their lives on the line to keep people and goods moving.

Although our understanding of the novel coronavirus continues to evolve, one thing is clear: it spreads easily between people in close contact. Schools and colleges have moved to online instruction or shut down entirely, many businesses have shuttered for the foreseeable future and everyone has hunkered down at home to get this crisis under control. Almost immediately, and expectedly, traffic patterns changed dramatically.

In the first week of the shut down in the Bay Area, traffic fell by 50 percent, the most significant drop nationwide. In the weeks following, traffic collisions reduced by half and there was a 31 percent drop in smog statewide.

Another massive change to transportation in the Bay is reflected in transit ridership, with BART experiencing in excess of a 90 percent drop since the stay at home order was issued in mid-March. But our transit agencies continue to operate; if they were unable to do so, it would be a disaster for a significant number of low-income households that depend on these systems to get to work.

In fact, changes to transit would disproportionately affect people from low-income households and other highly vulnerable populations that predominantly work in the essential service industry. Simply put, without these workers, society cannot function, and without transit, they cannot get to work.

Despite shelter in place orders across the United States — where more than 1 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported — the nation must continue to move. The Bay Area and the nation must be fed, clothed, medically cared for, and yes, supplied with toilet paper. The only way this is possible is through the dedication of our essential workers and those in transportation are at the crux of crisis response.

Public transit agencies across the nation have implemented safety protocols to combat the pandemic. Steps taken to protect riders and employees include frequent cleaning of high-touch points like handrails, increasing hygienic supplies, procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE), reducing operating hours and giving bus operators discretion to bypass stops if their vehicle becomes overcrowded. Beginning mid-April, some transit systems began requiring riders and employees to wear face coverings at all times.

One of the largest transit systems in the nation, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) — which boasts an annual ridership of 1.68 billion — recently deployed “Temperature Brigades.” Those medically trained personnel check the temperature of frontline employees to help reduce the spread of the virus.

As of the end of April, 83 MTA workers have died from coronavirus, proving that transit employees are literally putting their lives on the line to keep society running during the pandemic. Transit workers, like grocery store clerks and others, have become frontline fighters.

Through all of this, a new way of moving is emerging from the midst of the pandemic. Stay-at-home orders and social distancing directives mean city streets and pathways are being reallocated and repurposed for people.

One such measure, the Oakland Slow Streets program, intends to support safe (social distanced) physical activity by closing all neighborhood bike routes to through traffic. One of the more ambitious initiatives, in Milan, Italy, will transform 22 miles of streets into walking and cycling only areas over the summer.

Other major cities, including Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Denver and Minneapolis are “closing” streets to open them up in news ways. And these safe places to play are becoming increasingly important as “quarantine fatigue” has people becoming more and more restless and itching to venture outdoors.

The crisis of COVID-19 is unprecedented and, at times, overwhelming. But someday soon, trains and buses will once more be bustling with conversation, albeit from a socially safe distance. In the meantime, transit agencies will continue to operate as possible, providing an essential service that keeps our cities, and our country, running. Transit keeps moving. We keep going.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. 

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