COVID-19 has posed a unique challenge to commuters who rely on public transportation. The Orange County Transportation Authority is striving to assure riders of a safe experience in the shared space of their public buses, though adapting to social distancing protocols has not been without its challenges.
According to OCTA spokesperson Joel Zlotnik, the number of daily weekday passengers dropped from roughly 125,000 to approximately 30,000 following the stay-at-home order issued in March. In April, they began encouraging social distancing by having passengers board buses through the rear entrance. OCTA also limited the maximum occupancy for their buses to roughly 16 people, less than half of what is normally permitted. Mask dispensers and hand sanitizer stations were also installed for passengers as well.
OCTA is also installing Plexiglass dividers in their buses that will protect drivers and passengers from exposure to one another. While these installations are being done, the number of buses in service will be temporarily reduced.
“Right now we are doing a number of things to really try to protect the health and safety of our passengers as well as our drivers,” Zlotnik said. “Probably by the end of November, we will have [Plexiglass] installed on all of our buses, and will begin boarding on the front of the buses again.”
The goal of the Plexiglass dividers is to bring the bus systems closer to normalcy. However, with ridership now at 50% of what it had been pre-pandemic, some passengers are still coping with the changes. While the new safety protocols are well intended, they are not always followed. Beracht Dorian, a rider who resumed using OCTA’s services after the new policies were put in place, has seen passengers undermine OCTA’s efforts.
“I have experienced two instances of people refusing to wear masks while seated quite close to high-risk individuals,” Dorian said in an email. “In these instances, I spoke up until a change was made, but the driver was not the one to insist on the change.”
Dorian has also witnessed friction relating to fares. Lax enforcement of bus fares during the early days of the pandemic led some to believe fees had been suspended altogether, resulting in confrontations as regular boarding resumes with updated buses. Dorian describes these experiences as troubling, though there are other passengers who have found them to be less significant.
“It’s a little harder to take the bus now because of the pandemic, but it’s not too much of a big deal really. I’m still getting where I need to go,” said Andrew Miller, another long time patron of public transportation. “Of course, Ubers are a lot nicer, with just you in the car with the driver, but like I said it’s a lot more expensive. You can’t just take Uber everyday.”
Miller said that while he has seen fellow passengers become lax on social distancing, he still feels safe on the bus overall.
“I see a lot of people not doing it, and I see people doing. It’s a mixture, you know.”
While it’s hard to predict what kind of experience is in store when boarding the bus during the pandemic, Miller said it will come down to the character of those riding with you.
Meanwhile, OCTA anticipates changes as the COVID-19 situation evolves.
“There are many reasons that ridership can be impacted and the perception of safety is one of them,” Zlotnik said. “We do expect as businesses, schools and destinations open again and people need to get more places that we will see ridership begin to increase. Our goal is to let people know that we are here to provide safe and reliable service when they are ready to ride.”
To learn more about OCTA’s COVID-19 safety regulations, visit its website here.