Transit ridership is plunging across Oahu as the COVID-19 crisis deepens.

Still, Honolulu’s more than 900 bus drivers remain on the job amid the pandemic, keeping the island’s transit system running for the thousands of daily passengers who still rely on it.

In an effort to protect drivers against the highly contagious coronavirus, the city has cordoned off seats at the front of older bus models and started setting up stricter boundaries to keep passengers at a greater distance. It’s also contracted a specialized “electrostatic cleaning” service to better disinfect the vehicles.

But the drivers, like other essential workers who can’t stay home in this crisis, are keenly aware of the heightened risks they face. More passengers and drivers have started wearing their own masks and gloves while on board, keeping their distance and looking for whatever advantage against COVID-19 they can get.

“We are on the front lines and dealing with the public,” Kelly Larson, a driver for TheBus, said Friday. “You could be going to work and spreading it and not even know.”

Articulated TheBus Bus along Beretania Street.
Service levels are holding steady for now, but Honolulu transit ridership has taken a dive and is expected to keep falling during the COVID-19 crisis. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Some cities on the mainland have started reducing transit service, and it remains to be seen whether Honolulu will follow suit with TheBus and Handi-Van. More of the island is seeing limited travel this week in an attempt to slow the virus’s spread under a series of county– and state-level stay-at-home orders.

So far, service is holding firm to the existing schedule. But as of Friday, TheBus had seen cash fares fall 40% during the crisis, according to Jon Nouchi, deputy director of the city’s Department of Transportation Services. That mostly reflects the drop in occasional riders and tourists. Most regular riders use a bus pass and don’t pay with cash. 

Similarly, Handi-Van — usually one of the busiest paratransit systems in the nation — has seen at least a fourth of its ridership evaporate. That’s largely due to the halt in social programs that heavily rely on the service, Nouchi said.

Normally, TheBus sees just under 200,000 rides a day. DTS is still assessing the overall drop in ridership. It expects TheBus to lose even more passengers in the days and weeks ahead.

Service levels could change if ridership sinks too low.

TheBus’ drivers have already started bidding on reduced work hours — just in case — through a process that’s based on seniority and backed by the Teamsters union that represents them, Nouchi said. They’re doing that now in case the city needs to swiftly scale back transit service. 

Larson said she and other drivers were briefed on potentially moving to a holiday-hours schedule.

In general, she thinks the city’s done a good job handling the situation — so far. Any drivers returning from travel out-of-state wait at least two weeks before returning to the job, she said.

DTS spokesman Travis Ota said Monday that the agency hasn’t heard of any drivers testing positive for COVID-19.

UPDATED: On Tuesday, Nouchi said the city learned Monday evening that a bus driver has tested positive, but that they appeared to have contracted the virus via travel and did not return to work afterwards. “As far as we know” the driver never had the opportunity to expose the virus to the public, he added.

“I just hope that if it starts getting worse for Hawaii that they close the transit down instead of keeping us running,” Larson added, “because that’s putting us in danger.”

No Place To Go

On about 100 of the older buses in Honolulu’s fleet, the seats that extend within six feet of bus drivers have been cordoned off to keep passengers at a safe distance. The newer, low-floor models don’t have seats that approach that close, drivers say.

Normally, all 500 or so buses in the fleet have a yellow line toward the front that passengers are supposed to stand behind. Now, crews are painting new, red lines that are farther back to try and keep standing passengers at more of a distance from drivers.

The drivers who navigate Oahu’s 100 bus routes now face a more practical problem as well.

Normally, they rely on local businesses and park bathrooms along their route to use the restroom. With most of those options closed, however, they have few places to go.

Nouchi said DTS is aware of the problem — it plans to place port-a-potties with security-coded locks along the routes most in need.

If there’s one silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic for bus drivers, it’s that the buses get around more smoothly.

“There’s definitely been less traffic, which, it’s been quite nice,” said Larson.

Other U.S. cities, such as Seattle and Boston, have reduced transit service after seeing a substantial drop in ridership. The decrease indicates that many residents are taking the COVID-19 threat seriously, but it also puts vital transit services in a bind. Fare revenues are dwindling and costs to keep the vehicles extra clean are mounting.

The American Public Transportation Association has called on Congress to approve a nearly $13 billion bailout to deal with those strains.

Moiliili resident Jake McPherson typically takes the Route 3 bus to get to his office downtown — he needs it because he doesn’t have parking, he said.

In the past couple of weeks he’s tried to touch as few things as possible while on board.

“I am very much aware of what’s going on, and the mechanics of how this is transmitted,” McPherson said of the COVID-19 virus. “I’m not concerned I’m going to get sick and die … I don’t want to give it to somebody who might be fragile.”

Last Tuesday, he noticed a sizable drop in passengers in his morning commute. Later in the week, McPherson said, he was approved to work remotely and stopped taking TheBus.

Meanwhile, Larson is bracing for the days ahead as Oahu navigates the pandemic and the growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“I enjoy driving, but … in the back of my mind I know we’ll probably stay open even through the worst of it,” she said.

She and her colleagues are trained to deal with emergencies, Larson added. “That’s part of the job. You know that going into it.”

When many local residents encounter an emergency, “they’re going to rely on the buses.”

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