Starting Wednesday, TheBus will run weekdays on a reduced schedule that largely mirrors its holiday hours, city transportation leaders say.
The move follows a recent, dramatic plunge in Honolulu’s transit ridership, as many on Oahu stay home under city- and state-mandated orders that aim to slow the local spread of COVID-19.
Typically, TheBus sees about 190,000 daily riders. As of Thursday, that number has dropped to about 69,000 daily rides — a 65% decrease, Mayor Kirk Caldwell said in a press conference streamed Friday over social media from Honolulu Hale.
Despite losing over half its ridership, TheBus still plans to maintain about 85% of its regular trips, Oahu Transit Services President Roger Morton said at the briefing. The goal is to cut back but still give passengers and drivers the space they need to practice “social-distancing” and lower their chances of contracting the virus.
Most of the transit fleet’s “articulated” buses — the accordion-like vehicles that are extra long — will stay on their routes to give riders that extra space, Morton said.
“They’re going to look like they’re overkill but we want everyone to have space,” he explained, urging riders to take essential trips only.
“We need to give our caregivers, our medical staff, our people that are maintaining sanitation at hotels and other places — they still need to get to work,” Morton said.
The city’s 900 or so bus drivers largely remain on the front lines of the pandemic crisis, providing an essential service to those who must still rely on public transit. So far, one driver has tested positive for COVID-19 but had just returned from a trip on the mainland and had not yet resumed driving, officials said.
Another driver’s COVID-19 test came back negative, Morton said Friday.
An additional 11 drivers are awaiting their test results, he added.
Currently, drivers don’t have special access to testing for COVID-19, Morton said. Any drivers who recently returned from travel must wait 14-days before returning to work amid the crisis. Currently, there are 37 drivers waiting under this policy, Morton said.
There are an additional 29 employees who either had symptoms or were high-risk to COVID-19 that are out on sick leave, he added.
However, OTS and the city are also taking steps to keep passengers at a safe distance from drivers. The city’s fleet of 500 or so buses gets enhanced daily cleanings, Morton said, and they’ve just added to the cleaning regimen what’s called “electrostatic” spray-cleaning.
“Our riders might notice that the buses are going to smell a little bit like a swimming pool,” he said, in reference to the chlorine used in the cleaning.
TheBus’ reduced weekday service, or “right-sizing,” as the city refers to it — follows similar moves by other U.S. transit agencies around the country as transit ridership plummets.
In Honolulu, the changes will largely reflect holiday hours but also include a plethora of changes to various routes. Some, such as 1L and 2L, won’t operate under the COVID-19 reductions.
Other routes that normally don’t run on the holiday schedule will operate. These are routes 16, 99, 234 and 235, according to a city press release.
There are various other changes as well, and riders are encouraged to check the timetables at www.thebus.org or call (808) 848-555 to see how their route might be impacted. Saturday and Sunday service will remain the same.
The office to purchase bus passes at the Kalihi Transit Center will be closing, so any bus passes purchased for April will also be valid for May — essentially a “two for one deal,” according to Department of Transportation Services Director Wes Frysztacki.
The HandiVan’s eligibility office will be closing in April as well, so any passengers whose eligibility is due to expire that month will extend to May, Frysztacki said. Anyone who booked appointments in April to renew their eligibility will be contacted directly to reschedule, he added.
In addition to TheBus, the HandiVan — one of the nation’s most heavily in-demand paratransit services — has also seen its ridership plunge. Its 4,200 trips a day are down to about 1,400, Morton reported. HandiVan is an on-demand service, however, so there’s not the same reduction in schedule required as TheBus, officials said.
Many of the Handi-Van’s senior and disabled passengers are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.
On Thursday, the Handi-Van’s on-time performance was 99.3%, Morton reported. It’s an unusual feat for a service that has faced a spate of challenges over the years.
Morton said he thinks that both TheBus and the Handi-Van’s ridership have sunk about as low as they’re going to fall. He expects ridership to stay at approximately where it is for the remainder of Oahu’s COVID-19 crisis.
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