VTA Service: Meeting the Challenges of COVID-19 and Beyond
Adam Burger

The COVID-19 pandemic is having an enormous impact on public transit. Ridership is down nationally as people rightly shelter in place. The funding sources that transit operators have relied on like fares, sales tax, payroll tax, and ride-hail fees are drying up. The things mass transit does well, moving lots of people space-efficiently, now runs contrary to physical distancing guidance. The need for caution and to take care of family members has led many transit workers to stay home, which is reducing the amount of service that agencies can operate.

VTA is no exception. Our ridership has decreased by 80 percent and funding sources have waned. Fare collection is suspended while we ask riders to board through the rear doors and sales taxes are down an estimated 50 percent. In addition to these impacts, a positive test from a light rail operator trainee led to the decision to suspend light rail service for two weeks out of an abundance of caution. With falling ridership and fewer operators available, VTA reduced service to a more reliable operating level during this time.

No one knows what the future will bring. Nevertheless, VTA remains committed to opening its doors to riders making essential trips. We are all counting on the health care workers, public safety officers, grocery store clerks, and restaurant employees—those who have long comprised the majority of transit ridership—to provide much-needed services at this time.

In that sense, we are all dependent on transit now. We thank these workers for what they do for our community. Continuing to serve them will require some changes and we want to provide insight into how VTA is approaching transit service decisions.

What’s behind VTA’s recent service change?

It seems like a long time ago now, but on December 28, 2019, VTA rolled out a comprehensive new service plan that took years of planning. During those “normal” times, we framed the design of public transit service as a tradeoff between maximizing ridership and providing geographical coverage. The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a new reality.

The purpose of transit now is to provide transportation for essential trips in Santa Clara County and to support the economic recovery once the pandemic has subsided.

With a suddenly reduced workforce, travel patterns changing overnight and the need to provide enough space to allow riders to practice physical distancing, we enacted a series of service changes. We started with the most obvious and least impactful cuts:

  1. Suspended school service once schools were canceled
  2. Reduced peak-period and Express bus service that had become unnecessary once the County issued shelter in place orders
  3. Suspended Rapid 500 service in Downtown San Jose and late-night trips after 9 p.m.

The current transit service is a modified version of our Sunday service, which allowed us to implement it quickly. Our resumed light rail service as of April 9 aims to provide enough space for physical distancing while being responsive to ridership levels.

Will there be more changes to transit service?

Changes to transit service will depend on many things that are currently unknown, such as how long the pandemic will last, its financial impact and how it continues to impact VTA’s workforce.

Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which will provide about $1.3 billion to Bay Area transit operators to offset revenue losses. Some of those funds will come to VTA. We will also be watching to see if new travel patterns emerge, which could necessitate service adjustments.

As we learn and grow during this challenge, our intent here is to continue to shed light on these future decisions where we look to you for input and ways you can help shape the future of VTA.

What can you do?

  • Travel on VTA only for essential trips during this pandemic. Please do your part to flatten the curve.
  • When riding, please leave at least six feet of space between you and other riders. Wear a mask over your nose and mouth if you can.
  • Share experiences, insights and ideas with VTA. We’re listening through our customer service center and @VTA on Twitter. We welcome ideas to help us get through this.
  • Be courteous to your bus drivers who are operating under increased safety concerns in addition to their usual responsibilities of safe driving and providing customer service. Drivers always appreciate compliments and a “thank you!”

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