COVID-19 update, Monday, August 3

Good morning. It’s been a while since we’ve perused the headlines and looked at where things stand at Metro. I had some time off and have been busy with some other work. But with lots going on, I’ll try to get these post up more often.

•Metro’s current messaging is “we’re here for you,” which I think neatly sums up the current state of affairs of our region. With COVID-19 cases surging this summer, we’re continuing to focus on providing essential trips that we know people need.

This pic sums up 2020 pretty well:


•With feedback from riders and based on staff observations, Metro added more trips to several bus lines on July 27. Please see this post for more info.

•We know that ridership increased in June to an estimated average of about 518,000 on weekdays — still far below the almost 1.2 million average weekday boardings we had pre-pandemic. We’ll have the July numbers fairly soon and they’ll probably be similar or a bit lower than June due to the virus surge.

Now let’s get to some notable transit news from recent times:

•The NY Times ran an article Sunday headlined “Is the Subway Risky? It May Be Safer Than You Think.” Excerpt:

In countries where the pandemic has ebbed, ridership has rebounded in far greater numbers than in New York City — yet there have been no notable superspreader events linked to mass transit, according to a survey of transportation agencies conducted by The New York Times.

Those findings could be evidence that subways, commuter railways and buses may not be a significant source of transmission, as long as riders wear masks and train cars or buses never become as intensely crowded as they did in pre-pandemic rush hours.

If the risks of mass transit can be addressed, that could have sweeping implications for many large American cities, particularly New York, where one of the biggest challenges in a recovery will be coaxing riders back onto subways, buses and suburban trains — a vast system that is the backbone of the region’s economy.

The article also cites studies that have been done in Paris, Austria and Tokyo that found no virus clusters tied to local transit systems.

That’s the good news. But the article dedicates much space to experts who are skeptical to declare transit — or anything — safe from the virus. The article notes, correctly, that 131 transit workers in New York have died of COVID-19 and that officials in New York have not been able to determine whether the March and April surge there was tied to transit.

There are more than 600 reader comments and they, too, tilt toward skepticism over the article. Many readers say that while most riders in New York are wearing face coverings, enough are not that it’s worrisome. Others worry about what happens if ridership in NY increases.

AlI think it’s safe to say that the American transit industry is well aware of all concerns and we’re trying to keep frontline staff as safe as possible, strengthen cleaning and air circulation and educate riders to the point that face coverings are worn by everyone. We know that many people still rely on transit for essential trips and we’re trying our best to provide those in the same way other essential services — grocery stores, for example — are keeping their doors open and trying to offer as many mitigations as possible.

Your thoughts?

•In an article that appeared last week at Streetsblog LA, local transit experts Martin Wachs and Brian Taylor argue that transit agencies should plow the money they do have these days into bus and rail service rather than future projects. It’s a matter of equity, they argue. Excerpt:

Elected officials may also argue for pushing ahead with planned rail and highway projects because construction creates jobs. But it takes years to get big new projects started, while funding expanded transit operations maintains and grows employment locally and almost immediately.

Wachs and Taylor note that transit riders and transit front-line workers tend to be people of color. These are certainly issues that will likely be in play in our region and around the country (and world) in the coming months.

Nice article and video of essential workers in action in the LAT with the A (Blue) Line in South L.A. included.

•The New York MTA is facing a $16-billion deficit through 2024 due largely to the ongoing pandemic, an 80 percent drop in ridership and increased costs. Unless the federal government provides billions, cuts to service, projects and the workforce are likely, reports the NYT.

Of course, the New York MTA is by far the nation’s largest transit agency but the fact is most agencies around the country, including LA Metro, are facing deficits of some order (ours is over $1 billion) because of the coronavirus. Congress is working on another stimulus

•Directly related from the person who oversees San Francisco Muni:

•Caltrain commuter rail service in the Bay Area — their equivalent of Metrolink — could be facing a shutdown in service if funds aren’t found to operate the service. Officials in San Francisco declined last week to put a sales tax measure on the November ballot, meaning Caltrain needs to scramble for money to replace the loss of fares. The railroad has seen a 90 percent drop in ridership at times due to the pandemic and the loss of many white collar riders who may not come back due to telecommuting or the option of driving, reports the Mercury News.

•Speaking of commuting, at least some workers have the luxury to consider whether they really need to live in hot job markets when their commute is little more than between bed and laptop (and one can fit into the other), reports the Wall Street Journal.

That picks up on a theme I’ve seen elsewhere during the pandemic: the idea that people will flee the expensive big urban areas for parts of the country where housing and land are more affordable. My three cents: in the coming decades there will be a revival of many small farming towns and maybe even family farming or small towns.

In the West, we’ve seen some small towns that were once dependent on resource extraction turn into outdoor-minded destinations. Not quite the same thing as back-to-the-farm as these towns tend to be heavily reliant on second homes and tourism, meaning the locals tend to get priced out. But our region was already a stretch in terms of affordability for many people and the pandemic can be the proverbial straw.

•On the equity front, I highly recommend the interactive “1619 Project” that ran in the NYT last year on the 400th anniversary of the introduction of slavery to the United States. As has been noted in many places, there are wide differences in the ways that Americans are taught are own history — and many events are omitted or whitewashed, pun intended.



4 replies

  1. Metro should reconsider some of their large rail projects. I would look at converting the planned east san fernando valley light rail project to an enhanced bus rapid transit project. It would save Metro nearly $1 billion dollars and connect to the already very popular orange line busway. It can be done cheaper and with less impacts while servicing front line workers much sooner than 2028.

    • Uhh, that decision has pretty much been made final and have fun convincing people in the valley who voted for both Measure R and M that they will need to be duped out of a rail line again because of “money reasons.” Also, the Orange Line will be converted to rail at some point, and Metro is already (very slowly) starting that process.

      Also, I don’t think you’re seeing the bigger picture with the Van Nuys Rail Line. It can and WILL be expanded beyond its initial build, believe that.

      This whole thing will come to an end within 12 To 18 months. While what the long term effects will be remains to be seen, one thing is for sure, people WILL ride again.

      • I’m from the valley and I feel for the people around me. Metro has left us behind before but I want to get something that will work best for us.

        The long term effects of COVID-19 remains to be seen and it looks like Metro is doing the smart thing and pausing projects that aren’t already “shovel-ready”. I’m not sure what the status of the east san fernando valley project is. As far as I can tell the environmental document hasn’t been finalized yet even though it was supposed to be completed in 2019. It hardly seems final.

        But I TOTALLY agree with you. The people WILL ride again but WHAT will people ride? I think the future is going to look very different and it is a time for Metro to be innovative. I have heard about the Orange Line conversion. I think the Orange Line model is great! Start off with a Median Running BRT and convert to LRT at a more appropriate time.

        Anyways I’m just thinking out loud on the internet (covid has given me a lot of free time). I know Metro has their plans and I’m glad this blog exists to shed some light on them.

  2. Until LA Metro’s ventilation systems are up to par with New York’s, how about instructing bus drivers to leave windows open for fresh air? In June the New York TImes reported on a study of an outbreak after an outdoor event in China where most of the people infected rode a bus together with an infected person — the fresh air at the event saved lives, as did open windows on the bus. No one sitting by a window got sick except the unlucky person sitting right next to the carrier.