• Jessica Adams

The Impact of COVID-19 on the MBTA

The Boston Public Transportation system is one of the largest public transportation systems in the United States. According to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) website, the transportation system spans over more than 200 cities and towns, and has over one million riders daily. In the middle of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the MBTA has been a leader in safe public transportation, employing new technology and frequent disinfection practices in order to prevent the spread of the virus. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens have shied away from using public transportation in fear of contracting the virus, as well as a lack of need for commuting. If the MBTA does not see an uptick in riders in the next few months, this could have a major impact on how the MBTA will run in future years.

Although riders have not returned as quickly back to public transportation, the MBTA has taken serious precautions to help limit the spread of Coronavirus for both employees and the riders. There is a new tool on the MBTA website that allows riders to see how crowded a bus or train is. A symbol of three bodies indicates how many people are on the vehicle, and the number of icons shaded reflects how full the bus or train is; light crowding, medium or heavy crowding. For example, if only 1 out of the 3 bodies is green, the bus or train is only slightly crowded. The MBTA is also disinfecting every vehicle and property daily to ensure maximum safety. Additionally, the MBTA has added a protective barrier between the riders and the operators in order to limit close contact, without removing the payment function.

As of October 12, all people using the MBTA system are required to wear a mask or face covering, with the exception of those who suffer from a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask. Certain routes are prioritized due to demand, allowing for physical distancing and avoiding crowded spaces. Shared trips on THE RIDE service are no longer being offered. The RIDE is a paratransit service that provides door-to-door shared ride transportation for people who cannot use typical means of transportation due to a temporary or permanent disability. In order to prevent overcrowding, MBTA operators can pass stops and will notify management to send more buses or trains on that route to limit the number of people per vehicle. Please see the MBTA website for further insight into their practices and for helpful tips on how to make your ride safer.

Due to the fact that most riders of public transportation are going to and from places, it is hard to pinpoint if the cause of an infection is due to riding a bus, a train, or from the passengers destination. However, public perception of the rate of transmission on public transportation is greater than it actually is. In Japan, Paris, and Austria, few to no outbreaks of COVID-19 were caused by public transportation. However, it does not mean that it is impossible. The risk of catching COVID-19 increases based on the length of commute, crowding, ventilation, and disinfection methods in place. The MBTA has been successful in limiting crowding, and disinfecting daily, and creating constant air circulation. The air is circulated on buses about 5 or 6 times as frequently as in most buildings and workspaces.

In an interview conducted this past August by WGBH Boston Public Radio, Massachusetts Director of Transportation Chris Dempsey explained that buses were only at 35-40% of typical ridership and trains were at 25-30% of typical ridership. This is much closer to normal and a much higher number than in March, but public concern for the virus still runs high. Dempsey argues that there are still a few things that need to be done to increase MBTA usage. The first is to re-instil a sense of safety on the MBTA. Dempsey says that more information needs to be more widely spread to more riders, and in more languages to reach more of the population, limiting anxiety and fear. Dempsey also calls for more political advocacy for safe public transportation. He also explains that although the MBTA requires masks, this rule is hard to enforce so it is up to the individual. The operators are not trained in how to enforce masks and decipher who is not wearing one due to medical reasons. MBTA police are not trained in this either, and it is a concern that if they were used to enforce this, it may not be enforced in an equitable way.

Free transit may work as an incentive for more people to begin riding public transportation again. However, allowing people to ride for free does not solve the budget problems that the MBTA is bound to face. During the pandemic, the MBTA lost a lot of it’s normal revenue, and is now nearing a financial cliff. However, the CARES act was enacted, which allocated 25 billion dollars to public transportation, and 800 million of which was given to the MBTA. Dempsey says that due to this stipend, the MBTA will be okay for this fiscal year until June 2021. However, next fiscal year, there will be a 300-400 million dollar budget deficit, which threatens cuts to service or increased fare. Additionally, an Atlantic article “The Workforce Is About to Change Dramatically” by Derek Thompson, discusses how even after the pandemic is “over” (a vaccine is open to the public and risk is very low), 1 in 6 people will continue to work from home. The pandemic has caused a shift in telecommunications, and has forced companies to go remote. Many companies and workers have experienced great benefits working from home such as money savings and increased productivity, which is causing companies to decide to stay remote. For the MBTA, this may mean that ⅙ of previous commuters will no longer use transportation to get to work. There will also be less incentive for young employees to move into expensive cities such as boston, as it has become easier to work from anywhere. Again, this means less revenue for the MBTA long term.

The MBTA has led the nation in safety and health protocols for safe travel. Public transportation has a fairly low risk for transmission, and especially so on the MBTA. Therefore it is imperative that more people begin riding public transportation to allow for the Boston public to be able to continue using the system they know and love, without route and service cuts, and without fares rising.