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Less Frequent Bus Service Leads To Rider, Operator Stress During Pandemic

AP/Julio Cortez

Before Megan heads home from a grueling shift of treating patients with COVID-19, the emergency department nurse heads to a locker room. 

“I'll change totally, like head to toe into new clothes, new shoes, wash my hands. I'll put on a mask,” she said. “My hair is covered at work, so I'll take off that.”


The nurse, who asked that WYPR only use her first name and not name her hospital, makes sure that she’s as clean as can be before she heads to her bus stop, where she boards the same bus route she’s taken to and from her 12-hour shifts for years. But under the pandemic, Megan’s daily commute, as with many others’, has drastically changed. 

As people stay home, the Maryland Transit Authority’s bus ridership is down about 60 percent. The agency has dealt with fewer rides by changing many regular bus route schedules to Saturday ones, when fewer buses run. 

The agency has also given bus operators the discretion to limit bus capacity in order to promote social distancing. 


For Megan, fewer buses and fewer spots for riders means she’s always worried about making it to and from her shifts. 


“The other night I took [the bus] when I got off at like 11:30” at night, she said. “But if I missed that bus, there wasn't going to be another one for 90 minutes and there were no ride share backups.”


The experience was deeply stressful for the nurse, who spent her time waiting at the stop in hopes that the bus would arrive on time with enough room for her. 


“Like, I hope I'm one of the first 10 people on it,” Megan said. “And even at 11:45 at night, there are still eight people on it.”


Megan’s morning commute is even more of a gamble, so the carless nurse has started to arrange for rides to her shifts. 


“It's just put a lot of stress on me trying to figure out how to get to work,” she said. “If you skip people, then people can't get to their essential jobs. They can't get food. They can't get medicine. They can't get to or from the hospital.”


Some bus operators are also on edge. 


The MTA has taken precautions to protect them: riders must board and sit toward the back of buses to avoid contact with the operators. But still, operators said they can be exposed to hundreds of riders over the course of a shift. Several said they are deeply worried about staying healthy, especially when it comes to potentially exposing someone they live with to the virus. 


Riders must also wear masks at all times, under orders from Gov. Larry Hogan. But one operator says that a radio dispatcher told him to let people on, with or without them. 


“They came out, said ‘do not deny service to anyone,’ ” he said. “So it was like they were kind of contradicting themselves.” 


This operator quit his job in April because the stress of driving during the pandemic overwhelmed him. He was advised by his union not to give his name for this story, because he’d like to eventually re-apply to the job. 


“I always will want to come back in the future,” he said. “Right now with this whole pandemic going on, I can’t really put myself at risk.”


Just like grocery stores, public transit assumes what may feel like conflicting roles during this crisis: trains, subways, light rail and buses are a potential avenue for the spread of disease as well as a lifeline. Data from TransitCenter, a national transit advocacy organization, says that about 40 percent of transit commuters in Baltimore City are essential workers, and healthcare workers like Megan the nurse make up the largest share of that number. 


So, what is the proper balance between limiting human interaction on public transit while also providing a level of service that allows essential functions to carry on?


“On one hand it's keeping our employees safe and on the other it's really keeping the public safe,” said Kevin Quinn, the CEO and administrator of the Maryland Transit Authority.


Quinn, and other administrators throughout the country, is dealing with a crisis situation with no playbook.  


“It forces us, at times, to modify service and reduces our ability to provide service,” he said. “I think we're going to do the best we can to keep the region moving and operate as much as we can.” 


That includes strategic emergency planning, like coordinating with large essential businesses such as hospitals. Quinn said the MTA has developed new relationships with them and added extra buses during peak shift times in order to maintain core service along critical routes. 


“You look for silver linings throughout this crisis,” he said. “I think a big one is relationships that are built.”


Quinn said that safety is the MTA’s ultimate priority. When a bus operator came down with COVID-19 in late March, the MTA closed its Baltimore Eastern Division to try to prevent a spread. As a result, over a dozen bus lines were briefly suspended, leaving some riders stranded.


Now, bus operators receive a temperature check when they report and are encouraged to stay home if they feel sick. That means the MTA is dealing with a reduced workforce, Quinn said.


“Our operators, our mechanics and our cleaners are really kind of, in my opinion and our team's opinion, the unsung heroes here that keep Baltimore moving,” he said.


Brian O’Malley is the president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a transit advocacy coalition. Because riders’ needs aren’t slowing down during this pandemic, he said they simply need more robust transit.


“There are people who use public transportation who are able to work remotely now and who are able to put off trips that they would ordinarily be making under other circumstances,” he said. “But that's not everybody.”


He argues that because so many of the region’s essential workers are transit-dependent, a higher frequency bus schedule is one of the support systems that will allow the Baltimore metropolitan area to fight and survive the ongoing crisis. 


“It's helping people make essential trips even during this pandemic, getting health care workers to their jobs, getting people to work at grocery stores, to their jobs, helping people get to the pharmacy if they need medication,” O’Malley said. “So it’s not as simple as everybody staying away.”


Quinn, the MTA administrator, agrees. “The fact is that we really provide that lifeline service to the region,” he said.


So, too, does Megan the nurse. Though she’s managing to get rides to her early morning shifts, she knows that’s not the reality for everyone.  


Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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