The timeline and cost for completing the Purple Line is up in the air after a judge ruled that contractors may quit in the middle of the project. Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich weighs in on that, the latest coronavirus news and more.
Coronavirus has altered nearly every aspect of our lives, from where we go to how we get there. When stay-at-home orders went into effect, the region’s transportation and travel patterns began to change dramatically. Metro’s ridership declined significantly. Bike sales rose. Car traffic fell so low, the region’s air quality improved.
Now, as the region slowly reopens, the transportation scene has started changing again. Metro plans to reopen to 90% capacity later this month. What else will change in the short and long term? What happens in the case of another coronavirus spike?
Join us to talk about regional travel during the pandemic, and how our travel patterns may affect the future of transportation.
Produced by Richard Cunningham
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. The coronavirus pandemic has altered nearly every aspect of life in this region including transportation. During the stay-at-home order both Metro's ridership and car traffic plummeted as many businesses opted to telework. Some residents took to alternative methods of transportation like biking. But as the region begins to reopen there are a number of concerns about returning to normal. Will mass transit be safe when crowds return? What happens to traffic if more people opt to drive? There are also long term concerns with sustainability and efficiency left to be answered. Joining me today to have a conversation about this is Jordan Pascale, WAMU's Transportation Reporter. Jordan, thank you for joining us.
JORDAN PASCALEHey, thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIStewart Schwartz is Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Stewart, thank you for joining us.
STEWART SCWARTZThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd James Pizzurro is Lead developer of Metro Hero. James Pizzurro, thank you for joining us.
JAMES PIZZURROPleasure. Thanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIJordan, during the height of the pandemic, what kinds of trips were residents taking and how does that compare to before the pandemic?
PASCALEYeah, well, for a long time it was just the essentials, you know, going to get food, the grocery store, healthcare that sort of thing. And that's changed over time as economies have reopened and, you know, I think about the year and it's just felt like forever if we think about it. I mean, you know, we've come a long way in terms of going around and moving around more. But certainly most people that can work at home are continuing to do so even five months into this. So those commuting trips and the trips to take kids to school that's a vast majority of the traffic trips that we take, and that's what creates the traffic congestion.
PASCALEIn Northern Virginia we've seen free flowing traffic more than 80 percent of the time during morning rush hour during the pandemic. And that only happened about 20 percent of the time during normal times. So that commercial truck traffic that's never went away. The goods still needed to get places, obviously, a lot of Amazon and other deliveries that sort of thing, but more or less we are getting more comfortable. Driving habits really started to return to about pre-COVID levels around June.
NNAMDIWhat methods of transportation have actually increased since the beginning of the pandemic?
PASCALEWell, we don't have hard data, but anecdotally bike shops are more swamped than they've ever been in terms of demand for new bikes and to get bikes repaired. Mine is in the shop right now and it's three weeks of backup to get a bike repaired. So that is obviously seeing a lot more interest, because of the outdoor, you know, just the health safety of it of being outdoors of not being confined in small areas with a lot of people.
PASCALESo bikes seeing a lot of demand. Trail usage is up in a lot of places. I talked to some scooter companies and they've actually seen the rentable scooters that demand has gone down a little bit. And they are chalking that up to one, there's just not as many people out and about. You know, if you think of like downtown, you know, maybe taking it to lunch or an after work gathering or tourism, just not a lot of those people in town right now.
PASCALESo those are kinds of the ups and downs. And car usage is like I said definitely continuing to slowly increase since about June.
NNAMDIJames Pizzurro, first for those of our listeners who may not familiar with it, tell us what Metro Hero is.
PIZZURROYeah. Metro Hero is a app primarily for Metro rail riders so train riders and also targeting the commuting audience. So as you can imagine far less commuters these days taking Metro rail. About 90 percent less actually if we're looking at compared to last year. So we're seeing those numbers reflected as well in our usage data for our app. Very much in line with what you would imagine, which is fewer trips. But we are continuing to service commuters, who do need to use rail and do need to navigate the system and know where their trains are.
NNAMDIMany essential workers, James, still need to get around including on Metro and buses. What steps has Metro taken to address safety issues for riders during the pandemic?
PIZZURROYeah. A great question. So if we look at what they've done from a sort of preemptive point of view, the federal government put out some guidance for social distancing, which basically equates to having according to Metro's research 20 to 25 people per rail car and 10 people per your standard bus. So that's significantly less capacity. About 80 percent capacity is what we're looking at. So what that means is with those cuts that 80 percent cut trains have to be less crowded, you know, for them to be adhering to the social distance guidelines. One thing, you know, as we talk about those guidelines is as trains and buses get more crowded some have been crowded for months. What does that mean for safety? And in the response we see Metro now ramping up service later this August, which I think we'll get into.
PIZZURROThat is, you know, definitely a few months out from when this problem began, of course. You know, some routes have been seeing crowding for a while. So, you know, in terms of proactive response I think back in May Metro was saying that they would be ramping up service to meet demand. And there's definitely been a little bit of a lag in that respect even with the efforts that they've put together to protect their employees, right, is the number one priority for them. As I would imagine it is for any business and their decision to cut service to sort of go in a rotating AB schedule for their operators and their front line employees has definitely protected those employees in some respects. But has definitely also had the cost of less buses and trains out there.
NNAMDIThis one for you, Jordan, Will from Adelphi emails us, why is there less car traffic on the morning commute into D.C. than there is on the afternoon commute going out of D.C.?
PASCALEWell, you know, I don't know that exactly. I mean, it's usually the opposite. Usually the most crowded is the morning, because you've got everyone going to work more or less at the same time. You know, after work you may grab a drink or run errands or that sort of thing. So usually it's the flipped opposite. And right now, I mean, everything is so upside down that I don't know there's an exact answer, but I certainly can look and find out.
NNAMDIJames Pizzurro, eventually more people as you said will be going back to physical offices. What specific plans has Metro put in place for when large numbers of people start taking Metro again?
PIZZURROYeah. So I think later this August, we're talking I think the 16th for Metro rail. I believe the 23rd for Metro bus is when we're going to see probably the biggest ramp up in service that we've seen for Metro so far. That equates to maybe around three-quarters of the level of service that riders would be used to on a typical day that isn't during a global pandemic. So that will definitely help and it's a significant upgrade from what Metro has been putting out there up until this point.
PIZZURROSo there's been a lot of planning in advance. I think Metro has said they need to two to three months of advance planning to, you know, be able to go from the idea stage to implementation in terms of getting operators and front line employees all the scheduling they need. There's been some questions as to why it does take that long to do that, but that is what Metro has said. And so August has been the timeline since May for doing this.
PIZZURROSo you know, we're on track as far as Metro's schedule is concerned from when they published that back in May. And what that will look like for individual riders really depends on your mode of transportation. So for Metro rail significantly more service. I think it's also expected that, you know, the demand is really going to be there for Metro rail as a little bit more of a closed system. Those transfer points can probably be hairy with social distancing as well. So some more specifics there for Metro rail in terms of service upgrade.
PIZZURROAnd for Metro bus it really depends on the route that you're taking. Some routes won't be running still. Some routes that were running won't be running anymore. Some routes that were operating at regular service prior to the pandemic still won't be operating at regular services. Maybe buses come less frequently or, you know, the operating hours for your route are a little bit different. There's definitely going to be a lot to parse from a rider perspective for, you know, when you can expect your bus to arrive in the morning or in the evening. So that's definitely going to be up to riders for better or worse to sort of parse out those schedules that Metro makes available through their website.
PIZZURROI will mention however, there will be no printed schedules. So riders will not be able to get their printed handout for when those buses will arrive. They are going to have to parse the Metro alerts that Metro puts out. And hopefully, you know, for riders who are using either apps like ours or any other third party application or the apps that WMATA makes available through their website, you know, hopefully the data will be available there later this August when service is scheduled to ramp up.
NNAMDIStewart Schwartz, what will riding Metro look like in the future? What changes will riders have to make in order to remain safe?
STEWART SCHWARTZWell, in the near term the most important thing is to be masked and do something many Washingtonians already do, not talk while on transit. I think that will be important. Certainly some physical distancing will be helpful. But it's the masking and not talking. The experience they're showing from Paris, Seoul, Tokyo other places is that transit has not been a source of COVID transmission. It's more common I think -- where they've seen, you know, gatherings, obviously restaurants, grocery stores, houses of worship can be more risky.
STEWART SCHWARTZBut in the near term it's the masking and the not talking and some physical distancing. In the future we're going to need Metro. It's critical. Our economy doesn't function without Metro bus or Metro rail and our other transit services. We would lock down in traffic gridlock and not be able to bring our economy back.
NNAMDIWell, here's Moe in Washington D.C. Moe, your turn.
MOEHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I wanted to comment on how earlier -- on how quick traffic dropped and how I noticed a pick back up. So I used to work on the convention center block in D.C. And so my commute almost every day regardless of what time unless it was really early would have, you know, crazy crazy traffic. And just to find parking would take me 30 minutes. But as soon as the lockdown began almost instantly I was able to park right in front of the store I worked at. My commute dropped down to 20 minutes. But over the last few weeks I've noticed it pick back up to pre-pandemic levels. And to me that indicates, you know, while the stores and businesses are not back to normal, Washingtonians in general are starting to return back to how things were.
NNAMDIYeah. Parking is not as easy for you to find as it was just a few weeks ago. Thanks for sharing that story with us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about transportation during and after a pandemic. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about transportation in this region during and after the pandemic and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Jordan Pascale, WAMU's Transportation Reporter. Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and James Pizzurro, Lead developer of Metro Hero. We got a tweet from Richard. "I've used Metro a few times since the pandemic began. Easily one-quarter to one-third of riders continue to not wear masks on platforms and trains. What is Metro going to do about it?" James Pizzurro, how is Metro enforcing mask wearing and social distancing now and how will they do it when even more people are riding?
PIZZURROThat is the central question, I think, Kojo. So what we've seen so far is Metro has taken a pretty hands off approach. You know, definitely suggesting that masks are required in their PR materials. I think helping to get the word out about mask use and how important it is. There's been reportedly -- some masks have been handed out by transit police as they navigate the system and maybe see someone not wearing a mask, but there has been really no enforcement of mask use.
PIZZURROAnd we've seen very early on this pandemic, we actually saw how, you know, policing mask use can be very inequitable. There are a lot of problems with it. It's unclear if you can really do that effectively right now given the context of really everything going on in this country around policing and, you know, a whole separate subject, but very related subject. So what we end up with is kind of a regulation without teeth. So, you know, there anecdotal rider reports of lots of riders out there or even employees who may not be wearing a mask at all the times that they're supposed to, which definitely creates a problem, as you mention, Kojo, as sort of service ramps up, as more people take Metro rail and Metro bus.
PIZZURROIt really -- we've seen nationally and internationally how important it is for folks to be masked. But it's difficult, because you either kind of have to contend with the social distancing problem of too many people being on a bus. That can be exacerbated by someone not wearing a mask. And, you know, if you're not running enough trains and buses all the more reason why everyone needs to be masked whether it needs to be good ventilation in the those vehicles particularly buses where you can open the windows for example. And again, I'm not an epidemiologist. I'm not a virologist. But just listening to the news, listening to the studies, the best practices that have come out have suggested, you know, that those are the approaches that we need to take if we want to run transit safely.
PIZZURROAnd if we want to run them like these other cities internationally who even some of them didn't even cut transit service. They just continued running trains and buses at exactly the levels they were before pre-pandemic. And they were able to get away with that, because there was such stringent mask use, because of that ventilation and all of the other sort of emerging best practices that have come out of this pandemic.
NNAMDIHere is Tony in Silver Spring, Maryland. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TONYYeah. Thank you. So two comments. One there's been a reduction in -- you know, there's increase teleworking. That should result in less traffic and therefore there's less need for the widening of 495 and 270. And a second point that I want to make related to this, the Planning Commission recommended that the state look at a number of alternatives using the intercounty connector. And they pointed out that the state failed to do that. And I'd like our panel to comment on those two points.
NNAMDIStart with you, Stewart Schwartz.
SCHWARTZI concur. I think telecommuting is here to stay. I think this is prompting much wider acceptance of telecommuting most importantly by employers. Some firms aren't even talking about bringing back their full staffs until late 2021. Even if we just have a 5 to 10 percent permanent decline, that's often enough to reduce peak hour congestion such that you restore flow to the highways. So in our view Governor Hogan should be completely reevaluating his proposal for 495-270. We concur as well that it's been a very flawed study, very conclusions oriented that they wanted to do hot lanes and they failed to look at demand management transit and transit oriented alternatives.
SCHWARTZThe other thing is that, you know, this country faces future challenges. One is fiscal. We don't have the money for massive capital projects. This one will now cost at least a billion in public dollars they're estimating and probably more. These companies are also asking for national bailouts as well. We should be looking at fix-it first for our infrastructure, better managing the capacity we have and investing in smart growth, transit oriented developed and walkable communities for our future.
SCHWARTZAnd the reason why that last part is so important is because we have the next existential threat we have to deal with, which is climate change and all of the negatives that brings for humankind. And doing so through smart growth that reduces transportation emissions is one part of the solution.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Tony. Here now is Dacari in Adelphi, Maryland. Dacari, your turn.
DACARIHey, Kojo. One topic I don't think that was brought up was how schooling -- when school comes back, you know, when it comes down to universities, elementary schools, high schools, you know, that's a beast itself when it comes down to traffic. And I don't know if there will be an estimate dealing with that, you know, because usually when school is out for the summer time traffic is usually smoother. So when school comes back everybody's like, Oh, I got to time out. I got to put my time in order a little bit more now. So, you know, is there any estimates on that?
NNAMDIWell, Jordan Pascale, given the uncertainty of when and where schools will be reopening are there any kinds of plans in the works that you know of for what happens on the roads after schools return.
PASCALEYou know, I don't if there's any particular plans right now. I mean, there certainly is that phenomenon that the caller talked about. You know, some traffic planners call it the September Shock or the September Surge. It is when people come back from vacation and schooling comes back. But the caller brings up a really interesting point is that school, work, transportation and the health aspect of this pandemic are all so intertwined that you can't, you know, think of things in a bubble.
PASCALEYou know, Metro originally was planning to ramp up service after Labor Day or in a couple of weeks here thinking that people would be heading back to work, because kids were heading back to school. Now that we're virtual, I mean, you know, parents aren't going to really have the option to go to school and not have any, you know, solutions for their children. So, you know, it all kind of works in this cycle that if, you know, school doesn't come back work doesn't come back Metro ridership doesn't come back. You know, traffic doesn't come back. So it is all interconnected in that way.
NNAMDIJames Pizzurro, one thing has emerged during this pandemic. A lot of essential workers ride Metro bus. Some bus service has been cut due to the pandemic. Other routes have been increased. Can you explain the thinking behind decisions WMATA is making about bus service and what's ahead?
PIZZURROYeah. There's a preface to that, right, since we do operate sort of a commuting app. You know, I'll personally or Metro Hero will get reports of bus or train service not operating the way that it was expected from riders. So that's sort of the data that I'm operating off of here. And if we're talking about those kind of anecdotal experiences, we have riders, who are insisting that a lot of the 30 routes are already pretty crowded. And that the service ramp up for those routes aren't going to be sufficient to deal with that level or crowding. I think also there were some cuts to the weekend to accommodate some other routes for weekend service. So a lot of shifting around.
PIZZURROThe 17K is also another route that has come up very popular relatively prior to the pandemic. That was one of the routes that was also experiencing cuts due to the bus strike that occurred last year.
PIZZURROSo, you know, a lot of the reasons for these cuts and sort of prioritization and deprioritization in service has come down to low ridership according to Metro. We don't have that much more detail. It's unfortunate that there wasn't the level of transparency and public input that one might expect from a process that really comes down to, you know, something as critical as how someone will get around. There wasn't really that level of dialogue unfortunately. And there isn't a whole lot of explanation other than sort of these key words around low ridership for why some of these routes were cut.
PIZZURROAnd if you look at the ridership data it seems to suggest that there are more reasons there. Some of the routes that are citing low ridership actually had quite a bit of ridership pre-pandemic. So it's a bit of a question mark. I think that's definitely something that folks should ask more questions about just around sort of the rational that went into this decision making. Obviously it's a huge job for any transportation agency to try to predict and accommodate demand. But at the end of the day it is the job of WMATA to sort of do that when it comes to Metro rail and Metro bus.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. But we're still taking your calls at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about transportation during and after a pandemic, how we'll be getting around. We're talking with James Pizzurro, lead developer of Metro Hero. Stewart Schwartz is executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. And Jordan Pascale is WAMU's transportation reporter. Stewart Schwartz, why has green transit seen a surge?
SCHWARTZWell, transit in general, yeah, certainly has seen a surge. Partly it's been the return to our cities and walkable places and the demand for it. And there is also a big movement to actually green the vehicles, as well, a massive effort by environmental groups around the country for electrification of transit as a key means of reducing emissions. And so we think that popularity will remain.
SCHWARTZAnd if you tie electrification of transit with walkable mixed-use communities, mixed-income communities, we can significantly reduce the amount that we have to drive every day, and pollution. I think one notes that's come out of this pandemic of many that we've -- many lessons learned was from a Harvard study, from their school of public health, showing, you know, and others, is the big drop in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions we've seen.
SCHWARTZBut also the connection they're finding between the particulate pollution, the small particles that get deep into our lungs, and the cases of COVID, how people have had more compromised lungs. And a lot of that comes from our vehicles, including on highways that were plowed through our cities, often through lower income and African-American neighborhoods.
NNAMDII'll go to Rob in Reston, Virginia. Rob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBThank you, Kojo. I have followed WMATA for over a decade, getting involved when the Silver Line was planned. And, unfortunately, over that decade, the financial performance of WMATA has been abysmal, and it's obviously getting much worse. Some transit systems are projecting hundreds of millions in losses. I have tried for the last four months to get Paul Wiedefeld, members of the Transportation Commission of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to provide facts, and so far without any success at all.
ROBThe WMATA system relies on jurisdictional subsidies. And if you're a taxpayer in northern Virginia or suburban Maryland, you can expect those subsidies will increase. At a WMATA board meeting in May, when they discussed reopening plans, it was said, for social distancing reasons, that they would have to limit the capacity of Metro rail railcars to about 20 per car instead of the typical 100 to 120 during peak periods. So, I see lots of problems, and perhaps you need another panel subsequent to this one to deal with what are the financial options for WMATA and what should be done.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call, Rob. Before I go to our panel, Tom in Great Falls, Virginia might have an issue along similar lines. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMThank you very much. I appreciate your having this program. The sad thing is that WMATA is unwilling to expose what the financial situation is. The latest annual report for WMATA was issued for 2018. There's nothing for 2019, and certainly not for 2020. But the key thing is that, in 2018, there was about $800 million of revenues operating revenues but the operating expenses were $3 billion. So, even in 2018, the costs were not covered.
TOMAnd now, due to the drop off by 90 percent of riders, there is going to be practically no operating revenue. And the problem is that people are going to have to be subsidizing, basically, an empty system. And the worst thing is that you probably have seen the report by the MIT professor on the subway in New York. And he said basically there's good reason to believe that the subway system was a spreader of the Chinese communist virus around New York.
NNAMDI(overlapping) I have to interrupt, sir. It is not a Chinese communist virus. It is a coronavirus. But since you raised questions about the financial issues of Metro, Jordan Pascale, the pandemic has called financial trouble for WMATA because of the steep drop in ridership. Both of our callers are concerned about that. What does the agency's financial picture look like right now?
PASCALEYeah, and just one other fact check before we get to that, that MIT study, a lot of people have kind of questioned the methodology and whatnot. That came out earlier in the pandemic, and I know there's been a lot of criticism around that particular study. There's been some more that have suggested otherwise, looking at, like, Paris and Tokyo and some transit agencies, and things like that. So, definitely, yeah, take that with a grain of salt.
PASCALEBut the financial issue, again, Metro, they really paint a grim picture, (laugh) to the point where, you know, they've even said that, you know, if federal funds don't come through that, you know, there is going to be a severely hampered or reduced Metro. Or, you know, they compared it to even transit agencies failing altogether. And I don't really know if it'll get that bad.
PASCALEBut what they've been saying is that, you know, they've been losing $2 million a day in fares just from low ridership. And also on buses, riders are boarding in the back, where there's no fare card -- to have your fare card. So, they're losing all of that bus revenue. So Metro's operating budget is made up of about 20 to 30 percent of those fare revenues. And then the rest is from the jurisdictions, you know, Virginia, Maryland, D.C., federal, the localities.
PASCALEBut they're saying, you know, those localities are going to be just equally hampered by this pandemic. You know, their revenues will be down, so, you know, they're even wondering if they'll be able to cover what they've promised Metro, so far. So, Metro's really looking to the federal government right now. Congress is, you know, coming up with their, I think, third round or fourth -- I can't remember what round of pandemic relief we're in.
PASCALEPublic transit, so far, is not included in that and they say it's absolutely necessary that Metro and public transit in general does get continued bailout funds because otherwise they really don't think they'll be able to, you know, continue running the number of buses and trains that we're used to. So, whether that money comes or not, that's going to be really big. Metro got 700 or 800 million from the federal government earlier this year for the pandemic relief.
NNAMDIHere now is Bob in Tacoma Park, Maryland. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBHi, Kojo. I have a question about the transit priority that we're dealing with more long term. I have noticed -- I live in Tacoma Park in Montgomery County. I've noticed that the Purple Line, which was the big transit project for the Maryland suburbs, seems to have ground to a halt with the government agencies and construction companies in a deadlock with each other.
BOBAnd in the meanwhile, Governor Hogan is pushing ahead at warp speed to build the toll lanes for 270 and the Beltway. And I wonder if anybody can comment on why we've got the priorities that way, and how are we going to improve livability without public transit.
SCHWARTZWe've been concerned for a long time that Governor Hogan has not been a supporter of the transit as he should be from the very outset. However, he did save the Purple Line, initially, and we're hoping that his negotiations will continue to keep it on track, literally. The project does raise questions of whether P3 deals, public private partnerships make sense, whether for transit or for roads. We much prefer more traditional procurement.
SCHWARTZAnd, yes, we should be putting these transit investments first. It's a critical tool for revitalization inside the Beltway for access to jobs, for workers, including people of color. And that should be our priority going forward, especially in terms of dealing with climate change.
SCHWARTZI'd also like to go back to the needs of Metro. Let's remember that this is a failure of preparation and action in a health pandemic, a health emergency at the highest levels of our federal government at the top, and not a failure of either cities or transit. And what we need to do is keep transit functioning so that it's there for us in the recovery, when we have the vaccine. In that regard, the actual need estimated nationally right now is $32 billion, and now is the time to call the D.C. area Congressional Delegation and ask them to ensure that is included in this next federal stimulus bill.
NNAMDIWe got a Tweet from David: I've been riding bike share's e-bikes. So glad they came back and that you can park them anywhere. Starting with you, Jordan Pascale, the region has made some strides in making space for alternative forms of transportation like biking. But is it enough and are there plans in place to do more?
PASCALEWell, yeah. I mean, those electric bikes did come online a couple weeks ago and, yeah, I've heard great things about them. You get places a lot quicker than you can pedaling on your own. But, you know, a lot of advocacy groups, including the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, say that what we've done so far isn't enough. And that there should be -- they want to see a plan of 20 miles of, you know, connected bike lanes and protected bike lanes this year. And DDOT's not going to be able to -- they say they're not going to do that.
PASCALEThey do have plans to add more, but as, you know, a lot of people kind of predict, especially the next year and going into the future, places like Paris and other cities are adding hundreds of miles of bike lanes, because they're envisioning, you know, this world that's not going to look like it did before. And they're banking on that kind of reliable, environmentally friendly way of getting around with bike lanes. So, you know, not as much movement as I think a lot of people would like to see.
PASCALEThat being said, I mean, you know, if you think about bicycling now, at least for commuting purposes, it's about less than 5 percent of the share for the region. So, you know, where will we see that grow? You know, it remains to be seen, but a lot of work to do there.
NNAMDIStewart Schwartz, there are a number of other options now beyond bikes, scooters, mopeds. What's the status of those, and do we know if ridership is increasing on those methods of getting around? What needs to change?
SCHWARTZI don't have the specific details on those other than that I'm sure that they're, from what we've seen, much less likely to be used on dangerous roads in the suburbs than they are in our city, which is making more accommodation for them. The bottom line is we should be transforming our streets and using this moment of reduced driving to do the most we can for dedicated bus lanes, protected bicycle lanes that can be used for all sort of non-vehicular modes, for scooters and so forth, and for anybody who might have an assisted vehicle of some sort.
SCHWARTZWe also need more space on the streets as we're finding for restaurants, to keep our restaurant businesses alive. And that's what European cities are doing, some Canadian cities, maybe one or two U.S. cities. But generally, in this region, I think we're lagging far behind. The city's doing a number of things but still not enough, as our partner groups have said. And we shouldn't waste this crisis, this emergency in terms of trying to create more livable cities and communities in our suburbs, as well.
NNAMDIHere is Nancy in Arlington, Virginia. Nancy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NANCYHi. Thank you for taking my call. Over the last month-and-a-half, I rode Metro eight times. And every time there were at least 10 percent of the people in the cars not wearing masks and having conversations and singing, even, and behaviors that I thought were dangerous in terms of spreading the virus. And I mentioned this to the station manager and he just looked at me like -- and shrugged his head, there's really nothing we can do.
NANCYSo, what I've been hearing on your program is that the safety measures are fully on the passengers. Like, either we need to not ride Metro, not report it because no one wants to do anything about it or can do anything about it. And I think that's a really ridiculous situation to expect your current ridership and potential ridership to put themselves at risk. And what you say is that you have signs up, you know. I think they're only in English. They might be in Spanish, too. I hope so. But that obviously isn't enough for me, you know, personally, to feel safe taking Metro. If you want to increase ridership, you know, you've got to do more for safety.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Nancy. Here's Analisa in Silver Spring, Maryland. Analisa, your turn.
ANALISAHi there. First of all, I completely agree with Nancy. I personally will not be using Metro if I get called back to the office in downtown D.C., for three main reasons. One, Metro has stated in the past that they will not enforce mask wearing. They are expecting riders in a sort of social norm idea to enforce that. Two, they have shown previously that they are unwilling or unable to enforce other rules and regulations already in place on their Metro trains.
ANALISANumber three, even before the pandemic, there was a serious overcrowding issue in Metro trains. I personally, commuting from Silver Spring, would usually have to spend minimum 45 minutes in a super-packed, crowded train, or up to an hour and 45 minutes on a platform just trying to get into a train to come home. There is no way for them to enforce social distancing and they are unwilling to enforce their current rules, and are probably going to be unwilling to enforce their mask ordinances. I am paying way too much to use Metro to not feel safe on there. And we will probably end up just driving downtown if we have to go back to work.
NNAMDIJames Pizzurro, you just heard that. How is Metro enforcing mask wearing and social distancing now, and how will they -- and how do they plan to do it when more people are riding?
PIZZURROYeah, and I want to say too, these points sound a little charged, I think, from, you know, folks calling in. But they're completely legitimate concerns. And we've seen sort of what happens when this has gone right, right. We can look at cities internationally to see, you know, very good mask use, social distancing if necessary if, for whatever reason, the mask use can't be enforced or provided.
PIZZURROBut even if we just look in this region, we have Ride On in Montgomery County. We have DASH in Alexandria. The former is literally putting out buckets with individually wrapped masks hanging off the door of vehicles. So, riders can get on. They can just sort of pick up their individually wrapped mask, unwrap it, put it on if they don't have one. And that makes everyone a little bit safer, right.
PIZZURROSo, there are things that agencies like WMATA can do. It did recently get 500,000 masks from the FTA. We still don't know exactly how those are going to be distributed, but even something as simple as that bucket solution could really help. It may reduce the need for really stringent social distancing, if we could more or less guarantee that masks are available to everyone at all times when they need them. It would make people feel a little bit safer, I think. So, there are solutions. It's just we really haven't seen them from WMATA, specifically. We've even seen them from other transit agencies in the region. So, I think those are really good questions.
PIZZURROAnd, again, just to reiterate, there are some equity problems around enforcement, both with, you know, sort of WMATA's existing rules as well as, you know, enforcing mask use. So, me, personally, I don't think I would recommend going that far. But in order to even get there in terms of even talking about enforcement, everyone sort of needs to have the materials they need, the personal protection they need to feel safe. And at least with regards to Metro rail and Metro bus, I think we just heard some comments that suggest that we're not quite there yet.
NNAMDIJordan, how have the drivers and train operators been protected from the virus? Have any Metro drivers or workers caught the coronavirus?
PASCALEYeah, there's certainly been -- I'm trying to think off the top of my head. I think about -- certainly more than 100 have caught it. Luckily, no deaths at Metro, which is a great thing in terms of other transit agencies. For instance, New York has had nearly 150 people -- transit workers die from the coronavirus. So, you know, Metro -- unlike a lot of transit agencies, Metro had an actual pandemic plan that they activated, I think, in January or February. And so they did have some idea of kind of what to do.
PASCALEJames mentioned earlier the AB scheduling where, you know, you kind of have two separate groups. So, you know, there might be spread in one group. Well, then you don't get, you know, this other group affected. So, that's one way. I mentioned backdoor boarding on buses so you're not walking past drivers. Think of how many people would walk past a driver in a day and how much exposure that is. So, they've stopped that.
PASCALEEarly on they close the first and last cars of trains since drivers have to walk through that at the end of their shift. But they've made a lot of moves to protect workers and, you know, thank God no one has died yet.
NNAMDIHere's Ron in Washington, D.C. Ron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RONHi, Kojo. Thank you for having me on, and thank you for having this very important conversation, specifically, in part about transit. One thing that has been increasingly concerning for me is, what do we do about bus? We know right now that Metro bus service has outpaced Metro rail. It's been about double -- I think it's about 100 -- 20,000 (unintelligible) since pandemic, the kind of stay-at-home ordinance have been in place.
RONAnd we know that most of those riders are low income, they're black and brown, and they are currently on packed buses, but they're also not paying for their fares. And so it's been a boon in an economic and health crisis, but reasonably, we have to be talking about what happens when those people who are facing economic hardships have to start paying fares again. And what options are the local jurisdictions and the federal government giving to WMATA and General Manager Wiedefeld and the agency to make sure that we aren't adding additional hardship onto riders that we know are mostly low income and mostly people of color.
RONI would just add that in Maryland, I was in Baltimore recently. For whatever reason, Governor Hogan has allowed MTA to end rear-door boarding. And ridership in Baltimore seems to be exceptionally high on buses. Most of those riders too are people of color and susceptible, as we know, to COVID-19.
NNAMDIJames Pizzurro, at a board meeting last month, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said that of those that ride the bus, 49 percent identified in their survey as African-American, 16 percent as Latino, and 10 percent as Asian. For me, that says 75 percent of the riders of Metro bus are people of color. Can you respond to our caller's concern?
PIZZURROYeah, I think, you know, even taking it a little step further with those concerns, right, these communities -- the very communities that are -- you now, really have no other choice but to take the bus, have seen their service cut. You know, on the positive side, I will mention, among the negatives, that indeed rear-door boarding, because WMATA's buses aren't outfitted with all door boarding capability with regards to accepting fares. Folks have not been paying, so that's definitely helped those communities.
PIZZURROOn the flipside of that, though, we have Gordon Chaffin of the Street Justice reported last month about Uber and Lyft prices surging in some of these areas that are traditionally served by buses in low-income communities. So, obviously, there's a problem and it's spilling out into ridesharing. And you can see it just in the prices alone.
PIZZURROSo, it's going to take a lot of conversation sort of where the monies go. Do they go towards increasing transit service, trying to get ahead of demand, like it was suggested back in May? Do they go towards bus service specifically to try and make up sort of the problems that have sort of been created in Metro's response to the pandemic? Do they go towards some ulterior, you know, alternative credits?
PIZZURROYou know, Metro actually increased from 3 to $6 in subsidy to folks who sign up with their place of work. You get a sort of credit if you do take ridesharing after a certain time of day, at night, when the buses and trains aren't running. So, $6, definitely greater than 3 but I think lots of folks in those communities, if we were to listen to their voices, would assert that that is nowhere near enough, and that they are very underserved by all of these modes. They were before the pandemic, and it's really only exacerbated the issue now.
NNAMDII know Kathy in Greenbelt, Maryland wants to talk about this but, Kathy, I don't have much time to take your call. But I will have Jordan Pascale tell us quickly about the chatter behind the high speed railway that would connect Baltimore to D.C. known as the Northeast Maglev. Could you provide, in 30 seconds or so, some background on this project and whether it's likely to happen?
PASCALEYeah, you know, it's kind of one of those projects that's kind of been in the background conversation for a long time. And the idea is to build a connection along all of the Northeast Corridor cities that would get passengers to places a lot quicker. D.C. to New York in an hour is what they're saying. And they're trying to build the first leg from D.C. to Baltimore first, but there's a lot of uncertainty, from funding to federal permitting. And even, you now, the technology has not been super wide-used, here.
PASCALESo, it's up in the air. (laugh)
NNAMDIJordan Pascale, Stewart Schwartz, James Pizzurro, thank you all for joining us. Today's show was produced by Richard Cunningham. Coming up tomorrow, as coronavirus cases spike across the Washington region and beyond, most schools in the DMV have opted to begin the year online. But how will school districts accommodate students and families who lack access to the necessary technology? To what extent can digital learning replace the in-classroom experience?
NNAMDIIn our continuing series on Education in a Pandemic, we're taking a deep dive into remote learning and the digital divide. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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