With fewer passengers, metro Atlanta transit agencies cut service

With schools closed and many residents working from home, some metro Atlanta transit agencies are reducing commuter bus service as ridership plummets amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The number of passengers boarding the state's Xpress bus service fell about 75% this week, depending on the route. Passenger trips on Gwinnett County's express bus service fell about 70%. Cobb County saw an 80% drop in trips for its express buses into Atlanta.

Beginning Monday, those agencies will reduce the frequency of service to reflect new realities that may last weeks or even months. So far, the reductions are limited to the express buses that ferry passengers from the suburbs to major employment centers such as downtown, Midtown and Perimeter Center.

» GRAPHICS: A closer look at MARTA ridership 

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

None of the agencies has reduced local bus service — with its frequent stops serving neighborhoods and business districts — which has a customer base more dependent on transit than suburban commuters. MARTA, the region’s largest transit service, also has not reduced service. But CEO Jeffrey Parker said that could change if the pandemic drags on.

In the meantime, public health concerns have put transit officials in the unusual position of discouraging residents from using their services.

“We want those who need our system to ride our system,” Parker said. “We are strongly encouraging people to not use it if they don’t need to.”

Transit service cuts are just one of the ways the coronavirus outbreak has upended conventional life in metro Atlanta and across the country.

Schools and government offices are closed. More people are working from home. Businesses are struggling.

With many residents hunkered down, metro Atlanta highways have become eerily free of congestion. And commuter buses that use those same highways have also emptied out.

Chad Chitwood, a spokesman for the American Public Transportation Association, an industry group, said transit agencies across the country are seeing fewer passengers. Some agencies are reducing service. But so far, no major system has shut down.

Even in countries hit hard by the pandemic — such as Italy — public transportation continues to operate.

“It remains a lifeline to many people to get to their grocery stores, to get to their pharmacy, to get to their medical appointments,” Chitwood said.

Candler Park resident Greg Streib rode MARTA rail to a doctor’s appointment in East Point at lunchtime Thursday. His wife was using their only car.

Streib took precautions. He found his MARTA card worked without touching the reader. He didn’t touch the gates as he walked through. He didn’t touch the rails on the escalator, and he didn’t sit down on the train.

Streig said there were 10 to 15 people spread out in the car.

» RELATED: Traffic down as much as 50% on metro Atlanta highways

» MORE: Georgia XPress buses prepped to combat coronavirus

“I thought it was OK,” he said. “You can go somewhere and not touch anything, and people seemed aware that we didn’t want to be near each other.”

Metro Atlanta transit officials say about 90% of those who use those commuter buses are “choice riders” — they have access to a car but choose to take the bus. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of those using local bus service — the kind that will take you to the grocery store, a doctor’s appointment or a job across town — are dependent on transit to get around.

Those realities are reflected in this week’s transit ridership. While Gwinnett’s commuter service saw a 70% decline, local bus service was down just 20%. And the number of trips on the county’s most popular local route — along Buford Highway — was about normal.

MARTA rail trips fell 54% on Wednesday compared with an average February weekday, but local bus service was down only 36%.

For those who must ride — including retail, food service and health care workers who can't work from home — transit agencies have stepped up the cleaning of vehicles and stations.

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

At MARTA, Parker said buses and trains to be used the next day are sanitized each night. Often vehicles are sanitized between trips, with workers focusing on “high-touch” surfaces such as handles, seats and the compartments where drivers work.

Transit agencies also are advising passengers to take basic precautions such as staying home when they’re sick and covering their mouths when they cough. And they’re urging them to spread out on buses and trains — something that’s easier with fewer passengers than normal.

For now, transit officials say they don’t plan to cut local bus service or paratransit service for the disabled and elderly.

“We consider those both essential services,” Gwinnett Transportation Director Alan Chapman said.

But they can’t rule out additional service cuts as the pandemic continues. Staffing shortages may leave them no choice, as employees with children stuck at home can’t make it to work.

Already, staffing shortages have led the Xpress bus service to cancel some trips. And MARTA’s Parker said similar problems may force the agency to switch to a modified Saturday schedule as the pandemic continues.

“We’re not contemplating any service cuts right now,” Parker said. “But we’re preparing. It’s probably inevitable.”