23 Mar 2020


Street Justice: Coronavirus Bus Cuts Hurting the Most Vulnerable

Gordon Chaffin is a freelance journalist who focuses on infrastructure and traffic news and insights for Street Justice. You can support independent journalism by subscribing to Gordon’s newsletter. He’s offering a 20% discount to THIH readers.  –Maria Helena Carey

WMATA bus riders last week were unable to keep a safe distance from fellow passengers due to crowding from bus cuts made due to the coronavirus outbreak. (Photos by Anthony Lorenzo Green, ANC 7C Commissioner)

WMATA Services Cuts Place Cost-Benefits into Focus: Public Health, Economic and Racial Injustice

Since our summary last week of DC-area transit service levels, many of those transit agencies have cut back further — none more so than the Washington Area Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. WMATA’s coronavirus-reduced service only began on Monday, March 16th. Throughout the past week, the agency has further reduced service — including two cutbacks on Friday effective that evening and another reduction to bus routes last night announced via Twitter.

WMATA Cuts Service Repeatedly This Week

On Friday, March 13th, Metro announced 12-minute rail headways and bus cuts effective 3/16. Then, on Tuesday, WMATA cut rail headways down to 15-minutes and bus service further, while canceling all subscription/recurring MetroAccess rides. The agency said the bus changes “reduce the number of Metro employees and buses required to maintain service by more than 60 percent.”

On Friday at about 2:30 PM, the agency announced the closure Smithsonian and Arlington Cemetary Metrorail stations — effective only a few hours later at 5 PM. The closures were “to discourage the use of Metrorail for recreational visits to view the Cherry Blossoms around the Tidal Basin.” Echoing messages from several other press releases this week, WMATA wrote that  “Metro is open for ESSENTIAL TRIPS ONLY to maintain regional mobility for hospital staff, government officials, and emergency responders.”

Later on Friday night, WMATA cut rail headways back from 15 to 30 minutes and reduced bus services again to a Sunday schedule with no supplemental routes. According to the press release, the cuts were only effective this weekend. Last night, via Twitter and website message WMATA cut bus routes again — down to only 20 routes along the “highest-ridership corridors”: 32, 33, 36, 52, 70, 90, 16A, 16E, 28A, A6, A8, C4, D12, F4, K6, P12, Q2, S4, V4, X2, Y2, and Z8. Metro operates 269 bus routes total. It’s not clear whether WMATA will push service back up to the 15-minute headways and bus schedule they used through last week.

WMATA has justified the cutbacks by citing significantly reduced ridership — which hurts the transit agency’s financial capability to operate at full service — and the health of its staff, one of whom has the novel coronavirus— in addition to a Metro Police Officer. Also, the sudden, immediate service cuts this weekend were “due to workforce availability challenges.” On Friday, WMATA said rail ridership was down 85% YoY. On Tuesday, the agency said total ridership was down 70% — but didn’t give the comparison: down from the previous week’s Tuesday, down from 2019’s third Tuesday in March, etc.

Bus Ridership Down Less than Rail & WMATA Scolds The Poorer, Higher-% Minority Riders

WMATA only broke bus and rail ridership out separately on Wednesday: rail down 84% YoY and bus down 63%, compared to the third Wednesday of March 2019. Also on Thursday, bus ridership was down less than the rail passenger count.

The agency is telling people to stop riding public transit: “[Thumbs Down”] Work to do. ESSENTIAL trips only, please.” However, social media posts and news stories throughout the week showed crowded WMATA buses did not seem to show people taking transit for the fun of it. Metro’s answer to overcrowded buses during the reduce service periods has been to empower bus drivers to bypass bus stops even if passengers are waiting there.

As WAMU-FM reporter Margaret Barthel wrote, “it’s less that bus riders are taking frivolous non-essential trips, and more that a lot of people who ride the bus have no other option.” Barthel continues, citing WMATA’s 2019 Bus Report Card, “More than half of Metrobus riders make less than $30,000 per year, and a majority of them are people of color. Not sure that’s a population that’s going to have tons of WFH options or alternate transportation means.”

Yesterday afternoon and then this morning, anecdotal reports put Metrobus riders waiting for buses put suddenly out of service. Bus routes to DC’s hospitals — the D6 and D8 — went offline. The real-time bus tracking went offline, so the displays at Metro’s bus shelters would not have useful information and the buses aren’t arriving as per the set schedule.

Cherry Blossom Crowds Draw More Focus than Bus Cuts

As much as DC leaders have shown solidarity and mobilized to support service workers at bars and restaurants, they don’t seem to focus on the transit cuts affecting those service economy workers. There are lots and lots of hourly, service economy jobs where work from home isn’t possible and there isn’t high cultural capital powering quick support from residents and DC-area governments.

If St. Patrick’s Day revelers were last weekend’s social media villains, this weekend’s antagonists were Tidal Basin cherry blossom visitors. WMATA and DC government leaders spent much of the past week focused on dissuading visitors and limiting transit access, saying the cherry blossoms will be there next year.

Today, ANC 2A Commissioners James Harnett and Patrick Kennedy — also a Ward 2 Council candidate — urged the National Park Service to close down the Tidal Basin completely to discourage Cherry Blossom visitors. Their letter, cosigned by Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, comes after US Park Police actions yesterday with DC Police to close roads around the Tidal Basin and SW National Mall.

It’s not unworthy a public policy goal to limit the number of people visiting the Mall and Potomac Park cherry blossoms; however, it’s surprising how outsized a share of attention that issue is receiving. It seems like there’s a feedback loop between social media outrage and policymaker action. The bar limits came Sunday and Monday after the online shaming on Friday and Saturday. This weekend, it’s a prominent festival for which the entire country recognizes DC where pictures attract calls for restrictions.

The National Arboretum in Ward 5 — which sits isolated in an area unsafe for walking and biking — was also very crowded and DC’s most vulnerable waited at bus stops on a route that wasn’t coming because the edges of society don’t necessarily move at the speed of Twitter, of email, or even have access to the internet now that the libraries are closed. 

Mayor Bowser said this week that she agrees with WMATA’s service cuts. Her transportation agency cut bus routes also this week, though it waived fares on its small number of routes that don’t serve DC’s poorest and less-dense neighborhoods. It seems Bowser and DC leaders are doing more to restrict tourist access than improve the public health and safety hazard — the social justice issue — of overcrowded WMATA buses for essential trips that get less positive press. DC’s Circulator could expand service as WMATA cuts back to levels that make social distancing a privilege many in our region don’t have.

Best Practices for Virtual Meetings of ANCs, Civic Associations, and other Civic Organizations

On Monday, I produced a best practices document for virtual meetings of civic organizations like DC’s ANCs, civic associations, citizen advisory groups, and others. The document is available to all here; I hope you find it useful and share it as widely as possible to your professional and personal networks who are struggling to figure out livestreams, video conference calls, etc in the time of coronavirus. I outlined low-, medium-, and high-cost options — with my implementation at ANC 1C (Adams Morgan) as a medium-cost option.

In an email to DC ANC commissioners, I asked that they stress to Office of ANC (OANC) and CM Robert White (who oversees the commissions) that it is not sustainable — nor reasonable — that each ANC is expected to figure out these virtual meetings by themselves. OANC with DC’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer should procure 2-3 livestream kits, hire 3-4 contractors, and send those trained A/V people to ANC meetings for producing broadcasts — thereafter editing and uploading recordings of each ANC meeting.

I’ve been an A/V producer in many contexts. I built out live stream operations for Arizona State University when I was there. I’m an expert now in how poorly supported ANCs are by Council and an understaffed OANC. I’m aware that OCTO/OANC has done the minimum: sent out a list of free conference call services. I know that ANC 4D records their meetings with the iPhone voice memos app. An unpaid resident in ANC 3C puts their smartphone in a tripod each month and broadcasts meetings via Facebook Live over Cleveland Park Library WiFi. These are laughable patchwork solutions residents may reasonably consider unacceptable from elected bodies.

I’m happy to speak with anyone who is interested in improving this situation for DC-area civic organizations wishing to do more than scramble for a few months during the coronavirus mitigation.

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