Is Free Transit Safer? As Ridership Drops, Some Agencies Cut Fares.

The coronavirus’s spread has placed American transit agencies in a bind. Ridership has nosedived — as much as 70% on the Bay Area’s BART system — bringing a corresponding drop in revenue collected from fares. With millions of Americans working from home and sheltering in place, health experts and city leaders are trying to discourage unnecessary travel. But many essential workers rely on public transit. Even as agency leaders rearrange their budgets, they are struggling to keep their riders and employees safe while still providing service for passengers with no other way to get around. They are in an unenviable position, to put it mildly.

Several transit agencies have chosen a novel and counterintuitive strategy to weather the current crisis: Let passengers ride for free. On March 16, for example, agencies in Akron, Canton, Toledo, and Youngstown all announced that they are terminating fare collection until the virus recedes. (Disclosure: I’ve done consulting work for the City of Akron.) Many other systems, from Vermont to Nevada, are taking a similar approach.

These agencies’ leaders envision fare-free transit achieving two urgent goals simultaneously. First and foremost, the move can help protect transit passengers and employees. Since the coronavirus can spread easily among groups in close contact — which the CDC defines as individuals within six feet of one another — transit officials have been especially concerned about risks during bus boarding, when passengers cluster outside the door before standing inches away from a driver while paying their fares. There are also signs that the virus could live on paper and metal, which may include currency and farecards.

Dropping fares — along with instituting rear-door-only boarding policies — could make public transportation safer by limiting close interactions between bus drivers and passengers, and by removing the need for passengers to cluster together before boarding. Kirk Conrad, the CEO of the Canton area’s SARTA agency, says he noticed in early March that transit agencies in European countries like Switzerland had begun using tape to create space between bus drivers and riders. “I needed to eliminate as much contact with the operator as possible,” he says.  

Free transit can also offer another benefit: a financial cushion to riders struggling during the pandemic. ”Many riders have jobs in the service industry, but they’ve lost their job, and they are scrambling,” says Dawn Distler, the executive director of Akron’s METRO system. “They don’t know how they are paying bills, and we want to make it easier for them.”

Dean Harris, executive director of Youngstown’s WRTA, echoed that sentiment, saying in an email that his agency is dropping fares in order “to help passengers that are affected by the loss of wages from all the closures.”

To be clear, these agencies have promised to pause fare collection during the pandemic, not end it permanently like their peers in Kansas City and Olympia, Washington are hoping to do. SARTA’s Conrad says that in normal times, fares bring his agency between $150,000 and $200,000 a month, an amount he’ll eventually need to cover. “I can’t permanently give up fares,” he says. WRTA’s Harris says that his system will resume collecting fares once the State of Ohio ends its current state of emergency. Only METRO’s Distler demurred, saying “if we find that we could sustain going fare-free, it’s possible we would keep it.”

There’s a reason these relatively small Ohio transit systems are able to temporarily cease fare collection while maintaining service levels: Their operational costs are already heavily subsidized by government. The SARTA system covers about 15% of its operating costs from fares (the so-called “farebox recovery ratio”), while METRO collects only around 10%. If these agencies continued charging riders during the pandemic, their farebox recovery ratios would be even lower than normal because of ridership declines (around 25% for METRO, 30% for WRTA, and 40% for SARTA thus far).

Agencies with low farebox recovery ratios can potentially handle a short-term collapse in fare revenue without quickly cutting service, since most of their revenue comes from government sources. That’s not possible for larger one like New York City’s MTA, Chicago’s Metra, or New Jersey Transit: These systems get well over a third of operating revenue from fares. The New York MTA’s chairman has already requested a multibillion-dollar lifeline for his agency alone. As CityLab’s Laura Bliss writes, big fare-reliant transit systems in major cities will need some form of emergency funding to avoid catastrophic long-term damage from ridership plunges.

But public transportation consultant Jarrett Walker believes that going temporarily fare-free might be a savvy move for transit systems in smaller cities nationwide. “It probably makes sense to sacrifice a bit of fare revenue in order to make people safer using the transit system,” he says. “The amount of money at stake may be manageable.”

That’s not to say it will be easy for these agencies to find the money they need to keep going without collecting fares during a prolonged pandemic-related transit drought. None of the executives I spoke with offered specifics about how they might do so.

Then again, these transit leaders have other concerns top of mind. METRO’s Distler brushed aside a question about how much her agency’s move will cost: “Sometimes you just have to help our riders and our drivers. I hate to say we’ll worry about it later, but we will.”

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Are Suburbs Safer From Coronavirus? Probably Not.

Alexis Kaiser always planned on renting out the house that came with the 250-acre Oklahoma farm that she and her husband bought in 2015. Her sister thought the idea would never work — 65 miles from the nearest airport, the three-bedroom split-level house seemed too remote.

But the listing fared well on Airbnb. Now Kaiser is tapping into a new strain of social anxiety in order to hit it bigger. As cases of a respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus spread throughout the U.S., Kaiser is advertising her abode as a “Covid-19 Safe House” on Craigslist in cities with large infection clusters.

“Don’t just hunker down to get through the pandemic, turn this frightening time into a family get-away in the country,” urges the ad she about the urban frontiers where new infectious diseases flourish. Measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis and other viruses were particularly rampant in early 19th century cities, before better sanitation, vaccination and wider access to healthcare cleaned them up.

And in the pre-globalized era, the countryside did indeed confer some degree of defense. Eva Kassens-Noor, a professor of urban planning at Michigan State University, has studied the 1918 influenza pandemic to better understand the role that population density and other geographic variables play in pandemics. For a 2013 paper in the International Journal of Health Geographics, she and her colleagues found that a population density of 175 people per square mile served as a threshold between higher and lower mortality rates for influenza in India. People living in places with a population density above this threshold were better off getting out of Dodge.

For millennia, urbanites with means did just that. Back in the 14th century, writer Giovanni Boccaccio’s book The Decameron focused on a troupe of wealthy Florentines — the pandemic preppers of their era — escaping the Black Death that festered in the city by holing up in a country home on the city’s hilly outskirts.

But things have changed. Modern transportation networks have made the population shield that rural areas once provided much more porous. Now that humans and freight can travel from, say, Hong Kong to Los Angeles in less than 13 hours — and arrive by vehicle to somewhere sparsely populated hours after that — outbreaks can happen just about anywhere. New pathogens tend to arrive sooner in global hubs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t quickly reach rural locales and proliferate from there, says Benjamin Dalziel, a professor of mathematics at Oregon State University who studies population dynamics.

“Cities with big airports are definitely importing more cases than cities without,” he says. “But it’s not like all the epidemiological sparks would stay there.”

Or, in Keil’s words: “The idea that we can go to countryside to protect ourselves is a bit of a myth, because it doesn’t exist like it used to.”

Meanwhile, rural and exurban areas have their own unique health challenges. For one, new zoonotic pathogens frequently emerge in pastoral places where humans come into contact with animals. And in the U.S. (and many other countries), rural populations are relatively older, making them more at risk for falling seriously ill from Covid-19. More than one in five older Americans lives in rural places. Those living outside cities also have more limited access to health care generally: Rural residents live much further from hospitals than their urban or suburban counterparts, and more of them list access to good doctors as a major community problem. While a disciplined city can overcome its population density disadvantage by canceling mass gatherings, small towns cannot so easily tweak their spatial health disparities. San Francisco can live without Warriors games; a rural hospital can’t be built overnight.

“Rural populations have less means to contract it [coronavirus], but rural populations have less means to treat it,” Kassens-Noor says.

When it comes to other, more familiar infectious diseases, cities benefit from higher vaccination rates and the accompanying phenomenon known as “herd immunity.” If a large enough percentage of a population has received vaccination to an infectious disease, the community can effectively stop its transmission to vulnerable people or those who didn’t get the shot. In a 2015 paper for Infection Ecology and Epidemiology, epidemiologist Carl-Johan Neiderud showed how coverage rates differ across city and county lines. In Indonesia, for example, more people have the measles vaccination in urban areas (80%) than in rural areas (67%).

This isn’t a universal trend, and socioeconomic factors play an important role in both attitudes about and access to vaccines. (Famously, many high-income parts of California contain large numbers of unvaccinated households.) In Chandigarh, India, herd immunity tracks closely with residency and status: 74% of children in urban areas had full immunization by age 2, compared to 63% in rural areas and just 30% in slums. Herd immunity depends on everyone playing along, which is why anti-vaccination adherents are such a threat to vulnerable people in big populations. (There is no vaccine against Covid-19 yet, but herd immunity will likely matter a lot if and when this coronavirus resurfaces.)

Smaller cities can also suffer more acutely from infectious disease than big ones, at least when it comes to the flu. A 2018 paper published in Science, co-authored by Dalziel and Viboud, found that mid-sized metropolitan areas such as Nashville tend to experience shorter and more intense outbreaks of influenza relative to big cities such as New York or Miami. Larger urban populations, the researchers found, provide a greater degree of herd immunity, slowing the spread of the disease through the community and counteracting the role that humidity plays in the spread of flu. Larger urban hospitals also tend to be more capable of handling an influx of sick people.

Of course, Covid-19 is a different bug than the one that killed between 17 and 50 million people worldwide from 1918 to 1920, or the modern variants that resurface during flu seasons. The 1918 influenza outbreak was particularly brutal because it happened in 1918: Social support structures were limited, treatments were relatively primitive, global war fostered illness, and the germ theory of disease was still not well understood. The population-density threshold for influenza mortality in early 20th century India that Kassens-Noor identified doesn’t tell us much about what to do with Covid-19. After all, the population density of, say, Oklahoma City is much, much higher than 175 people per square mile. (The census gives the population density for broader Oklahoma County as 1,013 people per square mile — so OKC is far too urban to dodge an epidemic.)

Dalziel and Viboud both stressed that health researchers are just beginning to understand the transmission dynamics of Covid-19. But it looks like the first cases detected in Italy, Germany, and the U.S. were all on the urban periphery. Some U.S. hot spots — Kirkland, Washington, and New Rochelle, New York — are suburbs of major cities. While it’s too early to detect any consistent pattern in the spread of the novel coronavirus, “what those data underscore is the the fact that you’re not necessarily safe in the suburbs,” Dalziel says. “Those are counter-examples to the idea that it’s just happening in cities.”

Kaiser, the Oklahoma Airbnb host, acknowledges that no one place can guarantee invulnerability to this new pandemic. Still, her listing sounds like an idyllic locale for a destination quarantine — there’s a 14-acre fishing pond and a horse arena. “It seemed like a good way to market the house,” she says. “For someone who has the financial capacity to get away and work from home, here’s your chance to spend a month out on a farm, and avoid some of the trauma we’re seeing in other countries.”

But while the CDC recommends decreasing social contact to limit the spread of the virus, that’s just as doable in a downtown apartment as a countryside manor. Says Viboud: “If you’re staying at home and limiting outside contact, you’d achieve the same purpose.”

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Are D.C.’s Streets Finally Getting Safer?

Last year in Washington, D.C., a pair of city council members grilled the head of the city’s department of transportation on the status of bike and pedestrian projects in the District. It had been three years since the city had committed to following the traffic-calming principles outlined in Vision Zero, the international movement to reduce the injury toll associated with cars and trucks in cities. But the results, so far, had been disappointing: By that point in the year, 34 people overall had died on the city’s roads—D.C.’s worst year for traffic deaths in a decade.

The council members, Mary Cheh and Charles Allen, wanted an update from Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation, on what the city had been doing in its efforts to make the streets safer. But as the hearing wore on, his answers started to sound like a refrain: Almost every new bike- or pedestrian-infrastructure project, from a road diet on Maryland Avenue to an Eastern Downtown protected bike lane, seemed to be about six to nine months away. In fact, the city task force that was supposed to coordinate Vision Zero policy across city agencies had only just met for the first time the month before.

“Do you get why that’s frustrating to hear?”Allen said to Marootian. “I think we can do more, and I want to impress on you that I think we need to treat this with a higher level of urgency. Why aren’t we experimenting with all kinds of different ways to pilot different ideas? If we mess it up, it’s a can of paint.”

Last month, the city council reconvened with Marootian for a seven-hour redux of that hearing, and there were signs that this advice had been heeded. In 2019, DDOT established a Vision Zero Office, fast-tracked quick-build safety projects like adding plastic pylons at crosswalks to slow drivers turns, and piloted some new ideas, such as dedicated bus lanes or painted curb extensions, that could be executed with little more than a can of paint. So far, 21 people have died from road crashes this year in the District, putting the city on track for the lowest number of traffic fatalities since the city committed to Vision Zero in 2015.

It’s a modest sign of progress, to be sure, especially considering the campaign’s ambitious benchmark. But it’s progress all the same.  

When D.C. joined 13 other U.S. cities in making the Vision Zero commitment, its goal—eliminating all traffic deaths by 2024—seemed ambitious but also somehow achievable. Transformative safety improvements and a new era of technocratic, data-driven mobility were said to be a few short years away; self-driving vehicle technology appeared to be poised to eliminate the error-prone humans who were racking up 40,000 fatalities a year in the United States. Instead, technology has arguably made drivers worse, by dazzling them with digital distractions that have made cars even more lethal to other road users. While driving deaths have declined, this year United States is having its deadliest year for pedestrians and cyclists since 1990.

What’s more, Vision Zero has run up against decades of institutional inertia. Departments of transportation have long focused on optimizing urban streets grids for automobiles; retooling these bodies to focus more attention on walkers and bike riders has proved daunting. D.C.’s bumpy Vision Zero journey offers an instructive illustration of how difficult this process can be. In the case of this city, it took something else—a tragic pair of fatalities and a fired-up advocacy community—to speed up the District’s push for safer streets.

That process is ongoing. At the October hearing, the room learned that a 15-year-old girl had been killed earlier that day on East Capitol Street. Minutes after learning that news, three younger residents spoke to the council about the importance of Vision Zero in the clearest way possibly. “There are too many cars,” Siddharth Kravitz, 9, told the council. “It’s hard to cross the street. Every day someone driving a car comes close to killing us. It makes me scared. They go way too fast.”

Two victims, and a powerful pushback

Rachel Maisler did not want the summer of 2019 to be like the one before it. In 2018, Maisler, a health and aging policy consultant who now chairs the D.C.’s Bicycle Advisory Council, spent a lot of time organizing rides for the dedication of ghost bikes for three cyclists killed in the District that year. She also organized the dedication of a ghost scooter in Dupont Circle.

There’s a lot of organizational labor behind these memorials: You need to find a bike to paint white, write to elected officials, contact the slain cyclist’s family, pick a route, and invite DDOT and the press to attend. For Maisler and her fellow riders, it had become all too routine.

At each memorial ride, Maisler called for the city council to hold a public hearing on D.C.’s lack of progress on its Vision Zero commitments. “It felt like we were getting to the tipping point, where the city would have to act,” Maisler says. “We did this on our own time, because we thought more needed to be done in response to these fatalities.”

The new year began with some positive signs. In January 2019, DDOT installed yellow pylons and white flexposts to slow down sharp turns from drivers and installed signs to ban right-turns-on-red at 100 intersections around the city. Mayor Muriel Bowser named Linda Bailey, previously the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, to head the city’s new Vision Zero Office. In March, the mayor signaled a sort of reset on the policy, as city officials participated in a Vision Zero Summit sponsored by the Washington Area Bicycling Association in March.

But on Friday, April 19, a driver in a stolen van struck and killed Dave Salovesh while he was waiting at a red light on Florida Avenue. (The van’s 25-year-old driver later pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 8½ years in prison.) Salovesh, 54, was an active member of the bike advocacy community in D.C.; he routinely tweeted about riding in the city and advocated for a less incremental approach to making safe streets.

“He was a good rabble rouser, and I considered him a friend,” says Charles Allen. Salovesh was one of Allen’s constituents in Ward 6. “Dave believed strongly in accountability in government. He could call me out for something I’d done that he disagreed with, then go right back to talking about baseball, or our kids.”

After his death, the fight for safe streets became much more personal, for bike advocates, for elected officials, and for DDOT.

“We were all dealing with this profound grief,” Maisler says. “I was in a complete daze that Saturday.” After a coordination call with fellow safe streets advocates, they made a plan to write to elected officials and hold a rally at the steps of the Wilson Building, the District’s city hall, that next Friday.

But the next day—Easter Sunday—a 31-year-old man named Abdul Seck who was visiting friends in Southeast D.C. from the Bronx was hit by a car while walking at 16th and V when a driver failed to stop at the intersection and collided with another vehicle. Pinned under the vehicle, he died of a cardiac arrest that Monday. The car’s 21-year-old driver was charged with second-degree murder.

Community advocate Ron Thompson Jr. organized a vigil on Wednesday, where Maisler met him and asked him to speak at the rally. “The unfortunate proximity of two tragedies at two very different places with two very different people brought me and folks of my community—in Ward 8, Southeast, predominantly black, very low-income—together with folks who are predominantly white, with college degrees, and affluent or more wealthy than us, around this common issue,Thompson says.

The two victims shared something else: Better road design could have helped prevent their deaths. By the end of the summer, both crash sites saw fixes implemented by DDOT. On Florida Avenue, where Salovesh was killed, emergency legislation finally expedited a protected bike lane that had been planned for years on a road long known as dangerous.

Thompson also knew the intersection where Seck died: His mother had been in a minor car crash there just months before. The pattern of reactive problem-solving fit what Thompson, now working as an equity organizer with the urbanist nonprofit Greater Greater Washington, had seen advocating for basic fixes in his neighborhood.

Ron Thompson, Jr. (center) speaks at the Rally for Streets that Don’t Kill People at the steps of the Wilson Building, while Rachel Maisler (right) holds the megaphone. (Aimee Custis/CityLab)

“The best way to get DDOT to do things was to tweet it out to them and shame them into what they should already do,” Thompson says. “There’s deep inequity there, when you have to do this performative petition in order to get basic infrastructure in your neighborhood so that a child can walk to school safely.”

At the Rally for Streets that Don’t Kill People that Friday, a crowd of several hundred community members showed up before an installation of ghost bikes at the doorstep of the Wilson Building. They held a mass “die-in” on Pennsylvania Avenue and shared anguished stories about friends and family members they’d lost to traffic violence. “It was all these different pieces of the advocacy community coming together,” Maisler says. “Everyone has a different point of view, but every single voice melded together to elevate the message and drive it home that safe streets matter for every one in the city.”

Visible signs of progress

D.C.’s bike advocates have never been shy about telling DDOT what it could or should be doing to make the city’s streets safer—and showing it how to do it. Salovesh was known to place red Solo cups on painted bike lanes to show the dangers to cyclists, or deploy pool noodles on a bike lane that had become a favorite U-turn spot for drivers. (The latter led DDOT to add wheel-stop barriers to the lane.)

Many activists have continued in that vein—from the “DC Department of Transformation” that creates pop-up infrastructure, to the How’s My Driving App, which reports errant drivers to 311 and digs up their outstanding driving tickets. An activist painted the crosswalk where Abdul Seck had been struck before DDOT came to do it themselves.

At an intersection in D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood, painted pedestrian bulb-outs slow drivers taking turns. (Andrew Small/CityLab)

Salovesh’s friend Rudi Riet, a local mobility advocate in D.C., calls these interventions “pushing the city beyond the hypotheticals.” They’re also about making the streets more playful as well as safer. “People will gravitate toward things that are fun, that are enjoyable, that make you smile, that lower your blood pressure,” Riet says. “We equate sweetness with pleasure. Dave wanted to equate riding a bike and walking with pleasure and make it a game.”

Over the summer, DDOT seemed to embrace that that experimental approach. The agency repurposed timber for bike lane barriers, and placed speed stars to calm alley traffic near a local school. They piloted rush-hour bus-only lanes downtown and then made it permanent. “Our real effort this year has been to shape the way that we’re delivering projects,” Marootian says. The mayor challenged us with identifying our highest impact projects and accelerating the delivery of them in every way that we possibly can.”

For example: On a Saturday in early October, the city closed three miles of one of the city’s busiest and most dangerous roads, Georgia Avenue, for an Open Streets event, turning the four-lane thoroughfare into a space for steel drum bands, skateboard ramps, yoga classes, and a bouncy house.

DDOT director Jeff Marootian on Georgia Avenue during Open Streets D.C. (Andrew Small/CityLab)

“Georgia Avenue is a vibrant corridor with lots of businesses and residents,” Marootian said. “It really has a dynamic energy that we thought could be harnessed for an Open Streets event. One of our goals is really to capture people’s imagination about what our streets could look like in the future.”

Marootian also says that the city’s coming Vision Zero progress will also focus on equity issues, pointing to the horizon of capital projects over the next four years that will direct more resources on the city’s lower-income neighborhoods.

There are a slew of new bills designed to bolster street safety under consideration. Among them is a mandate to finish installing the network of protected bike lanes envisioned in a 2005 Bicycle Master Plan. Other bills would require all-way stops and sidewalks on both sides of the street as a default on residential roads, a citywide ban on right-on-red, dedicated bus lanes for each the city’s eight wards, and dropping speed limits to 20 mph on most city streets. “We’re taking the kitchen sink approach,” Allen says. “The time for nibbling at the edge and half measures is over. We need to have the political guts to make decisions that prioritize someone’s life. If you’re going to say Vision Zero, you’ve got to mean it.”

For traffic safety advocates in the District, the progress is welcomed, but it’s still not enough. I like seeing the action from DDOT, and I commend them,” Riet says. “I just wish that it wasn’t reactionary.” He’s worried that the latest traffic safety bills will get watered down. But mostly, he wants the city to remember the human costs of inaction.

That’s where the death of Dave Salovesh comes into the picture. Reducing him to a symbol, in a way, is a shame; his friend was a lot more than just a bike advocate. “Dave was a father. He was a PTA guy. He was a coach,” Riet says. The same goes for all the other lives lost on D.C.’s streets. “It didn’t matter whether they were on bicycles, on foot, or even if they were in a car. These tragedies could have been prevented.

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