Silicon Valley transit agency reveals new plan for safety, renewed ridership
Photo courtesy of VTA.

    As people slowly venture out after months of sheltering-in-place, Silicon Valley’s largest transit agency is taking new steps to bolster public trust and safety on buses and trains.

    The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority this week unveiled a 10-point plan that includes enhanced cleaning and disinfecting of vehicles, required face coverings and social distancing on vehicles, stations and stops. Face coverings have been required on VTA transit since May 4, but a new survey of regular riders revealed 41% would be comfortable riding again if masks are required and social distancing is recommended. Of these same respondents, 54% said they would resume weekly rides if they were allowed to return to normal activities.

    The VTA took similar steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 by cleaning and disinfecting trains in early March, but still saw an 80% decrease in ridership. In mid-April, average weekly ridership was below 25,000 for all VTA transit systems, down from a benchmark of 121,000 in February before widespread shelter-in-place orders, according to VTA spokesperson Ken Blackstone.

    Fare collection was temporarily suspended on March 19 and VTA implemented a reduced service model, but now plans to resume fare collection on Aug. 1 and shift to a “COVID Service” plan. That plan focuses on demand and will be adjusted based on public input from riders, employers and educational institutions.

    In the past six weeks, the VTA has seen an incremental increase in average weekly ridership to just above 31,000 people, Blackstone said. The increase comes despite Santa Clara County being one of the 19 counties ordered to halt or reverse reopening plans by Gov. Gavin Newsom, though Blackstone doesn’t expect the order to affect transit since many precautions were already in place for Santa Clara County.

    “I believe all of the cautions mentioned were either already in place or something that we were already doing,” Blackstone said, citing required masks as an example. “I don’t see that there’s anything from the Governor’s order that would impact transit anymore than it’s already been impacted at the moment.”

    The new safety plan from VTA comes as Santa Clara County officials on Thursday issued a new health order that would reopen gyms, hair and nail salons and allow small gatherings.

    Among the other steps VTA is taking to keep riders safe is rear-door boarding, which helps protect both riders and operators, installing plastic partitions around the operators’ seats and providing protective gear such as face masks and face shields. Because VTA workers are classified as essential workers, they receive priority for COVID-19 testing and are required to stay home if they exhibit symptoms or feel sick.

    The VTA is also encouraging more riders to use contactless payment, by either downloading their EZFare app or using a Clipper Card that can be loaded with funds online prior to riding.

    Transit leaders are working with Santa Clara County Public Health officials to inform safety policies, and reaching out to community-based organizations to “engage and inform underserved, underrepresented and unhoused populations,” Blackstone said.

    With these steps in place and further instruction from county health officials, Blackstone said VTA officials hope the “incremental increase (of riders) continues.”

    Contact Stella Lorence at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @slorence3.

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