Capital Metro's ridership has plunged by more than 60% since stay-at-home orders were put in place in response to COVID-19. But that means several thousand passengers are still riding the bus each day.
Those riders face a different experience than what existed just a few weeks ago. Routes have been cut to account for the drop in ridership, leaving some buses with more passengers and others with fewer.
“I mean, I certainly don't mind the space and the quiet, but it does feel a little bit otherworldly," Slade Bracey, who commutes from South Austin to the Camp Mabry area, said. “Sometimes you just look around and there's nobody waiting at the stops.”
Hundreds of passengers are still getting off each day near stores like H-E-B and Walmart, Cap Metro data show. Stops near medical centers like Ascension Seton Medical Center on 38th Street and St. David’s Medical Center near Red River and 32nd streets are not as busy by comparison.
Cap Metro says transit is supposed to be used for essential trips only. Bracey certainly fits the bill: He’s a nurse. He says he's doing everything he can to protect himself before going to work, mindful of the risks of being in public.
“You know, you think about it. But also, I kind of have to go about my day-to-day business,” Bracey said. “I try to just be mindful, [use] lots of Purell, touch a lot of stuff with my elbow through my jacket. Everyone's doing ... well to give each other space, not to be sitting next to each other or across from each other.”
Cap Metro is also taking steps to increase space among passengers and reduce interactions with drivers. This week, it will install yellow chains as barriers between drivers and passengers. It already lifted fares for the month of April, so passengers don’t have to use cash. Before that, it required most passengers to board from the rear of a bus.
“Boarding from the back, I think, is probably the biggest thing that took me by surprise. Until they got the notes on the door, I never knew whether they were gonna open the front or the back,” Ryan Prewitt, who works for a national discount retailer, said. “I can tell they're cleaner right now, and it's been pretty convenient not having to worry about it.”
But there’s plenty of worry among Cap Metro bus operators. At least three have tested positive for COVID-19. A mechanic who also tested positive died over the weekend.
“Operators are worried about their safety ... and security and their health,” said Darrell Sorrells, a bus driver and vice president of the union that represents thousands of Cap Metro employees. “Because people ... they’re coughing, they’re sneezing and they're not following the guidelines: If they’re sick don’t come out now – and they’re coming out anyway.”
Sorrells said the situation is adding to an already acute staffing shortage, as workers who interacted with those who tested positive are being asked to quarantine. Others have stopped coming to work, because of underlying health conditions or to care for sick loved ones.
Union President Brent Payne says it can create a long workday for some operators.
“You come to work at 5 in the morning. You may be scheduled to get off at 2 p.m., but because we have a severe shortage of operators, due to self-quarantine, you may have to work an additional three or four hours,” he said. “We've got operators working on average 12, 13 hours a day.
And with so many businesses closed or with limited operations, even bathroom breaks have become a challenge.
“Capital Metro has been working hard on finding different places and locations, but if they’re not on the particular route that you’re driving, it’s putting the operators in a very uncomfortable position,” Payne said.
Cap Metro is working with its contractor for bus operations, MV Transportation, to fill more than 100 driver positions. It’s also offering three weeks of supplemental sick leave to employees impacted by COVID-19.
The agency is allowing drivers and other frontline employees to wear face coverings and recently received a large donation of them. Staff members have even volunteered to sew masks. Those efforts are in addition to the already rigorous cleaning regimen under way for vehicles both before, midway and after routes.
“The way that we see it, this is their office,” said Sam Sargent, Cap Metro's deputy chief of staff. “It may be an office on wheels and different than most people’s offices, but we want to ensure that they have every protection that we can provide right now.”
Union members said they appreciate the agency’s efforts and that Cap Metro and MV Transportation are doing their best.
Those who still rely on Cap Metro, like Bracey, say they appreciate those who are keeping the buses running.
“For a driver driving maybe two or three people, it may not feel they’re accomplishing anything or that they’re wasting their time, but it is an essential service,” Bracey said.
The fare-free service also has another benefit: It's allowing regular users to save money in uncertain economic times.
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