Ticket To Ride: Officials, Riders Debate RTA Safety During Pandemic
By Sydney Kornegay and Conor Morris, for the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative
Updated: 2:20 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020
On a sunny morning in September, Tremont resident Gail Cox gets ready for work, puts on her mask, and walks past a busy construction site to get to her bus stop on West 25th Street.
She gets on the mostly empty bus — with about four other people, also wearing masks — flashes her pass to the masked Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) driver waiting behind an open vinyl curtain, and sits down for her commute to her cashier job at a store in Downtown Cleveland.
Cox said she’s glad to have the bus as a commute option because otherwise she’d be walking for almost an hour. But at the same time, being on public transit during the COVID-19 pandemic does concern her.
“People are still not wearing their masks all the time,” she said. “They have it when they get on the bus and then they take it off.”
Masks are required on all public transit in Ohio, but it’s up to the individual public transit authorities to encourage riders to wear them. And for thousands of essential workers and other daily commuters like Cox, public transit is their lifeline to get to work, school and elsewhere, even if they feel like they’re risking their health by riding.
Worried about that risk, some riders have chosen to eschew public transit entirely, worsening RTA’s years-long trend of declining ridership. Transit advocates say RTA should be doing more to foster a sense of safety and bolster services for the essential workers who need it during the pandemic. RTA, meanwhile, says it’s doing all it can to keep people safe, and points to a system-wide redesign as a sign of hope for better services.
RTA’s ridership dropped 56 percent in August 2020 compared to the RTA’s ridership in August 2019; in April 2020, ridership was down about 72 percent compared to April 2019, said Joel Freilich, director of service management for RTA. Part of the trend, he said, is due to many losing their jobs or changing to working from home during the pandemic.
The Clevelanders for Public Transit advocacy group found a similar trend of declining ridership last summer with an unofficial survey of riders between June 3 and Aug. 24. In that survey, many riders said they’d consider riding again if more people were wearing masks and RTA improved social distancing and other safety measures.
Freilich, 64, said RTA has taken a number of steps to protect riders and drivers alike, and said he feels safe riding it daily when he goes to work.
“Nothing is completely safe while there’s a pandemic,” he said. “But, in terms of ‘safe enough,’ so that you can get to your job, to your medical care, you can ride the bus safely.”
Various studies and other pieces of evidence from the past six-plus months have shown that public transit is not a big transmission point for COVID-19, as long as people are wearing masks and keeping a safe distance from each other.
One study from Paris traced only 1 percent of COVID-19 clusters back to public transit. In Japan, not a single cluster was traced back to the country’s commuter trains. In China, another study found that of the 72,000 passengers who unknowingly rode with an infected person in the same train cars, only .32 percent contracted the virus.
These studies did not indicate whether masks were worn, but, countries like Japan and China have had significant rates of the overall population wearing masks while in public.
Scientists believe low transmission on public transit has to do with the way air circulates throughout buses and trains. Many public trains, buses, and commuter rails — like Cleveland’s RTA — rely on high-frequency air exchange systems, which filter and change the air inside the vehicle every two to three minutes.
RTA requires all employees to wear masks and for customers to wear masks while riding or waiting for transit, Freilich said. RTA also has given away more than 6,000 masks at distribution events as of late September.
The transit system also disinfects its vehicles every 24 hours, a practice that started in early March. Finally, vinyl barriers were installed in May to provide a protective barrier between bus drivers and riders — although when Cox was riding the bus in mid-September, the driver had the vinyl curtain open.
Freilich said he believes most riders are in fact wearing masks, based on his observations during daily rides.
“Mask compliance is high; of course, it’s not perfect, it’s not perfect anywhere, but it is high,” he said.
Not all riders feel the same. Terry Ross, who used to occasionally ride the bus between Cleveland's East Side and Downtown, said he stopped riding the bus altogether because of a lack of mask compliance. At the age of 70, the retired business owner feels like public transit is no longer worth the risk.
“I might get on the bus at one stop, and everyone’s wearing a mask,” Ross said. “And then at the next stop, everyone gets on without it.”
He is reluctant to ask riders to put on a mask, he said and believes that is RTA’s responsibility.
“I don’t want to upset people [by asking them to wear a mask], because the pandemic is upsetting enough for so many reasons,” Ross said. “So I just felt like it wasn’t worth it to ride.”
Ross wishes RTA would do more to enforce mask wearing and protect riders. Linda Krecic, RTA spokesperson, said the transit authority is not able to “enforce” the mask mandate, but is doing its best to encourage mask wearing with signage.
Clevelanders for Public Transit Chairman Chris Stocking suggested RTA place mask dispensers on the buses and trains, or at terminals and stops, to ensure everyone has access to a mask, instead of forcing drivers or other RTA workers to enforce the mandate.
Another idea that could protect riders and drivers: Changing the fare collection system. Stocking said switching the boarding of buses to rear-door entry only would keep riders away from the driver and cut at least one contact point.
Such a change could be paired with switching from paper tickets to smart cards, like the Ventra system in Chicago, so people could simply scan their fare cards instead of showing them to the driver. Or, RTA could simply not charge fares, like some transit systems have done.
The loss in fare revenue would not significantly impact the RTA financially, Stocking said.
“The fare revenue doesn’t make up a huge portion of the budget — it’s about 15 percent, maybe 14 percent, of the RTA’s overall budget,” Stocking said, “where the 1 percent sales tax is 70 percent or more of the budget.”
Still, Freilich said RTA did consider the potential for a rear-door entry system for buses, but the transition would have meant a hit to fare collection and to the system’s finances, with no one in the back of the bus to police fare collection.
As far as mask dispensers on buses and trains go, Freilich said his agency considered that move, but worried the dispensers would encourage people to come to waiting areas without their own masks.
“We thought it would make it likely that people would be hanging out in the shelter without a mask on,” he said.
However, transit systems in Lake County and other U.S. cities like Detroit have seen success with installing mask dispensers on their vehicles, Stocking said.
So far, Freilich and Krecic said they’re not aware of any COVID-19 cases traced back to people riding the RTA system. However, as of late September, RTA had confirmed 37 cases of COVID-19 among its roughly 2,300 employees — 15 of whom were drivers of RTA vehicles. None have died of the virus so far.
RTA has “no evidence” that the employees who were exposed to COVID-19 contracted the virus while working, Freilich said. On the contrary, he argued that since there was an even balance of employees getting the coronavirus — drivers versus those in administrative functions — it suggests that physically being present on the RTA vehicles isn’t a greater risk factor.
Krecic added that RTA is following all protocols from the Cuyahoga County Board of Health on contract tracing, and did not find any reports of the infected employees infecting others they worked with.
“It’s very encouraging; we believe that the safety protocol in our work locations are helping keep the case number down,” Krecic said.
However, personal safety is just one of the challenges facing RTA’s riders in the midst of the pandemic. Years of service cuts and fare increases have made Cleveland’s public transit expensive and inefficient for many of the essential workers who ride it, Stocking argued.
Although service was cut at the beginning of the pandemic, the RTA system is back to about 93 percent of what it was before the pandemic, Freilich said.
Since 2005, fares on the RTA have doubled from $1.25 to $2.50, while the service area has decreased by 25 percent, Stocking said. The result: Riders wait longer for transit while paying more for services.
This is particularly challenging for riders who work weekend and night jobs, during which buses and trains run even less frequently, Stocking said.
“We’re seeing drops of around 50 to 60 percent during the weekdays, but on the weekends we’re only seeing drops of like 30 to 40 percent,” he said. “What this tells us is [the people] who ride transit during COVID-19 are a lot of essential workers. They’re in jobs that are all hours, seven days a week, working in grocery stores, hospitals, pharmacies.”
Simon Ya has firsthand experience with commuting as an essential worker during the pandemic. It takes the Lee-Harvard resident more than two hours and three different buses and trains to get to work at a fresh food supplier in Willoughby. There, Ya chops fruits and vegetables for grocery stores — often working weekends and overtime to help meet demand throughout the pandemic.
Ya sometimes doesn’t leave work until midnight on weekends, and waits almost an hour and a half to catch his first connecting bus. He arrives home at 3 a.m., only to wake up and leave again by 6 a.m.
Sometimes he prefers to sleep at the train station to make it to work on time the next day, Ya said.
It’s scheduling systems like these that Stocking said must be altered to provide better service and coverage for workers at all times of day and night.
RTA has been moving toward a redesign of its system for at least two years, with an eye toward those topics. On Oct. 21, the transit authority launched a new website devoted to informing the public about the redesign and collecting feedback.
A draft of the redesign presented last year — changing bus stop locations, along with the timing and frequency of routes — suggests the new system could connect upward of 167,000 more people to a high-frequency bus stop within a half mile walk of their homes, Stocking said.
“That is a 100 percent increase over the existing network and requires no new funding,” Stocking said
The point, he said, is to put transit stops closer to important amenities like healthcare agencies, grocery stores, places where people work and the homes of the riders who need to get to those places.
Stocking said a lot of the current bus routes are based on old street car routes that are now 50 or more years old.
According to RTA’s new redesign website, the main goals of the redesigned routes would be to present shorter wait times for riders, more cross-town routes and more routes that run seven days a week.
While the redesign could go a long way to bring in new and former riders, it’s no permanent solution to RTA’s COVID-related ridership struggles. With a vaccine still months away, riders will have to continue to weigh personal safety alongside their transportation needs.
Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find him on Twitter; Sydney Kornegay is a freelance reporter with FreshWater. This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets, including ideastream.