Ticket to ride: Officials, riders debate the safety of riding the RTA during the pandemic

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 says she’s glad to have the bus option for her commute, 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.

Gail Cox, of Tremont, gets off a Greater Cleveland RTA bus after it arrives in downtown Cleveland where she works as a cashier at a store nearby and uses the bus regularly during the pandemic, despite her concerns that other riders do not always wear“People are still not wearing their masks all the time,” she says. “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 when they feel like they’re risking their health by riding.

Worried about that risk, some riders have chosen to eschew public transit entirely, worsening a trend of declining ridership the RTA has seen in recent years. Advocates say the RTA should be doing more to foster a sense of safety and to bolster its services to the essential workers who need it during the pandemic. The 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.

The RTA’s ridership dropped 56% 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), says Joel Freilich, director of service management for RTA. He said part of this is due to many losing their jobs, or changing to working from home.

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 August 24. Many riders in that survey said they’d consider riding again if more people were wearing masks and the RTA improved social distancing and other safety measures.

Freilich, 64, says the 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 says. “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% 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, a study found that of the 72,000 passengers who unknowingly rode with an infected person in the same train cars, only .32% contracted the disease. These studies did not indicate whether masks were worn, but, countries like Japan and China had significant rates of their overall population wearing masks while in public.

Scientists believe that low transmission on public transit has to do with the way that air flow circulates throughout buses and trains. Many public trains, buses, and commuter rails—like the RTA—rely on high frequency air exchange systems, which filters and changes the air inside the vehicle every two to three minutes.

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.Safe enough?
Freilich said the RTA requires all employees to wear masks, and for customers to wear masks while riding or waiting for transit. 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 pulled open.

Freilich says he believes most riders are in fact wearing masks, based on his observations during his daily rides.

“Mask compliance is high; of course, it’s not perfect, it’s not perfect anywhere, but it is high,” he says.

Not all riders feel the same. Terry Ross, who used to occasionally ride the bus between Cleveland's east side and downtown, says 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,” says Ross. “And then at the next stop, everyone gets on without it.”

He says he is reluctant to ask riders to put on a mask, and believes that is the RTA’s responsibility to do so.

“I don’t want to upset people [by asking them to wear a mask], because the pandemic is upsetting enough for so many reasons,” says Ross. “So I just felt like it wasn’t worth it to ride.”

Ross says he wishes that RTA would do more to enforce mask wearing and protect riders. Linda Krecic, spokesperson for the RTA, said the RTA is not able to “enforce” the mask mandate, but said the RTA is doing its best to encourage mask wearing with signage.

The chair of Clevelanders for Public Transit, Chris Stocking, suggested that the RTA place mask dispensers on the buses and trains, or at RTA’s terminals and stops, to ensure everyone has access to a mask, instead of forcing drivers or other RTA workers to enforce that mandate.

Another idea that could protect riders and drivers: Changing the fare collection system. Stocking says that switching the boarding of buses to rear-door entry only would keep riders away from the driver and reduce 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.

Stocking explains the loss in fare revenue would not significantly impact the RTA financially.

“The fare revenue doesn’t make up a huge portion of the budget—it’s about 15%, maybe 14%, of the RTA’s overall budget,” says Stocking, “where the 1% sales tax is 70% or more of the budget.”

Still, Freilich says 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 nobody there to police the collection of fares.

As far as mask dispensers on buses and trains go, Freilich said his agency considered that move, but they worried that 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 says.

However, transit systems in Lake County and other American cities like Detroit have seen success with installing mask dispensers on their vehicles, Stocking says.

Worried about the risk, some riders have chosen to eschew public transit entirely, worsening a trend of declining ridership the RTA has seen in recent years.Ongoing Challenges
So far, Freilich and Krecic say they’re not aware of any COVID-19 cases traced back to people riding the RTA system. However, as of late September, RTA confirmed 37 cases of COVID-19 among its roughly 2,300 employees—15 of whom were drivers of RTA vehicles (no one died of the disease).

Freilich says RTA has “no evidence” that the employees who were exposed to COVID-19 contracted the virus while working. On the contrary, Freilich argues that since there was an even balance of employees getting the coronavirus—drivers versus those in more administrative functions at RTA—it suggests that physically being present on the RTA vehicles isn’t a greater risk factor.

Krecic adds 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,” says Krecic.

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 public transit expensive and inefficient for many of the essential workers who ride it, Stocking argues.

But, although service was cut during the pandemic, the RTA system is back to about 93% of what it was before the pandemic, Freilich says.

Since 2005, fares on the RTA have doubled from $1.25 to $2.50, while the service area has decreased by 25%, Stocking says. 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 more infrequently, Stocking adds.

“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 says. “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 reach his 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.

Ya says he sometimes prefers to sleep at the train station to make it to work on time the next day.

It’s scheduling systems like these that Stocking says 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. The transit authority on Wednesday, Oct. 21 announced it had a new website devoted to informing the public about the redesign and collecting feedback.

For thousands of essential workers, public transit is their lifeline to get to work, school and elsewhere, even when they feel like they’re risking their health by riding.A draft of the redesign presented last year—changing bus stop locations, along with the timing and frequency of routes—suggests that 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 says.

“That is a 100% increase over the existing network and requires no new funding,” Stocking says.

The point, he says, is to put transit stops closer to important amenities like health care agencies, grocery stores, places where people work, and to the homes of the riders who need to get to those places.

Stocking says a lot of the current bus routes are based on old street car routes that are now 50 or more years old.

According to the redesign website, some of the main goals of the redesigned routes are 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 back new and former riders to the RTA, it’s no permanent solution to its COVID-19 related ridership struggles. With a vaccine still months away, riders will have to continue to weigh personal safety alongside their transportation needs.

This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets, including FreshWater Cleveland. Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America; Sydney Kornegay is a freelance reporter with FreshWater. You can email Conor at [email protected], or email Sydney at [email protected].