This week, Metro’s Board of Directors will vote on adoption of a proposed budget for all agency spending through next June. The current fiscal year, which began in July, has been unprecedented for Metro, particularly with regard to the ongoing financial crisis caused by COVID-19. As a result, Metro has taken the likewise unprecedented step of operating without an approved budget for nearly a full quarter of the year. Now, when the Directors meet, they will be considering a funding plan which cuts bus service by 20% on the year, from 7 million total hours to 5.6 million. The proposed budget may be balanced fiscally, but by adopting it as it currently stands, Metro will be creating a deficit in service. By their own analysis, Metro staff state that service will not even potentially return to pre-Covid levels until late 2022.
Metro has justified these cuts by saying that they are exercising prudent fiscal management and that they are “running 80% of [their] normal service for 55% of [their] normal ridership.” This is intended to give the impression that Metro is actually providing more service than they need to, but these are not normal times and their benchmark is misleading because it fails to take into account the agency’s own social distancing guidelines.
Allowing for safe social distancing on transit vehicles has been one of the primary focuses for transit agencies across the country during the Covid pandemic. Social distancing is a priority for maintaining the health and safety of passengers and drivers alike. Some agencies have provided direct guidance as to lowered capacities for their vehicles, which may be as low as 10 to 15 passengers on a 40-foot bus, down from around 40 seated passengers with no distancing procedures in place.
While Metro has not publicly released concrete numbers on how many passengers can safely ride their vehicles, they have put out guidance that indicates their agreement with similar restrictions. At the end of June, Metro’s blog, The Source, published a post on “Returning to Metro,” in which they told riders to “[k]eep your distance whenever possible,” adding that riders should “[a]void sitting in a vacant seat directly next to another rider” and “[k]eep at least one row of seats between you and other riders.” If that distancing should happen not to be possible on the vehicle when a rider boards, Metro advises riders to get off and wait for the next bus.
Add to these seating guidelines that Metro drivers have been cordoning off the front of the bus to prevent passengers from getting too close to them, and there are not very many seats available to choose from. Bus layouts differ across the fleet, but in the example below, the red marks indicate seats that are recommended for use by Metro, and the dividing line indicates where the cordon would go. In this scenario there would be about 10 socially distant seats for passengers.
With that lowered capacity, Metro is saying that riders should have three to four times as much personal space as they did before the pandemic. Now, when we revisit Metro’s justification, the problem becomes clear. Riders should have three times as much personal space as before, but Metro is not providing three times as much space. If they were, they would be running 165% of normal service for 55% of normal ridership. Instead, they are proposing half that amount.
Where possible, Metro has been using articulated buses, which allow for more passengers, on the busiest routes. But they don’t have enough of these longer vehicles to accommodate the need throughout the network while also running the planned service deficit.
The resulting status quo has left bus riders in the lurch. Metro’s recommendation is that they shouldn’t ride an excessively crowded bus, that they should get off and wait for another. But this is not a practical suggestion for the typical bus rider. Bus riders are often low-income workers who do not have a great deal of flexibility in their schedules and cannot expect to receive leniency for starting a shift late. Furthermore, Metro’s proposed service cuts mean waiting longer for that next bus to come, with no guarantee that it will be any less crowded when it arrives. Metro is leaving its riders with little alternative but to ride unsafely crowded vehicles.
As with government agencies across the country, Covid has dramatically reshaped Metro’s financial projections, but the same cannot be said of its priorities. After all, Covid has also laid bare the inequities that run through LA’s massive regional economy. If anything, the pandemic has shown the extent to which a stalwart commitment by service providers like Metro to equitable recovery paths is needed. Consequently, there is no more basic rubric with which to grade Metro’s budget than its treatment of bus riders. The budget proposal coming before the Board of Directors this week fails that test and we urge the Board to reject it.