Looking Back at 18 Months of Pandemic Public Transit

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit us with a solid one-two punch in March of 2020, public transit had no idea what was about to happen. Eighteen months later we are still regularly responding to new things for the first time. But, what we have been able to do and what we have learned along the way is nothing short of extraordinary.

How It Began

On the first Monday morning of original Lockdown, senior County Connection staff met via a phone call with top Contra Costa Health and Emergency Services staff. We were informed that the County and the Governor had proclaimed public transit an Essential Service. We were debriefed about how the pandemic was expected to play out, what full Lockdown really meant, and more important to us, what was expected of us by the County. It was during this call that I had my first moment of realization of just how profound this virus was going to be and how little was known about it, other than it was hyper contagious and unacceptably lethal. I may have gone into a bit of shock at that moment. Among the things we were told was that that the worst of the pandemic was going to last over the next six to eight weeks and that if we didn’t all pull together, maybe 2 million people or more in this country alone might die. That call took place over 18 months ago.

During that call we were asked to do many things with our transportation resources that we had never done before. My natural inclination was to push back a bit. After all, public transit is not well known for turning on dime and it would be at least a few days before I would realize just how large of an emergency this pandemic really was. The County health and emergency response leadership firmly, but calmly, said this was not a choice for us and offered their complete support as we set out to do what was required of us. This was the start of a partnership that has become one of the most rewarding I have experienced over my long tenure at County Connection. Since that day, we have only built upon it as we have navigated the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic.  While there are too many folks to thank in this posting, I must mention that former Deputy Health Director Rohan Radhakrishna, Senior Emergency Planning Coordinator Meredith Gerhardt, and Transportation Planner John Cunningham were incredibly helpful to County Connection as we fulfilled many unexpected and crucial transportation roles during the hardest days of the pandemic.

Mitigation Protocols

By late April of 2020, all of our fixed route buses had plexiglass driver shields installed, were being fogged daily – sometimes twice a day, and had new MERV 13 filters installed. Smoke tests at this point demonstrated that our buses were completely recirculating the air inside the cabin every two minutes. The driver shields were installed over a couple of weekends. We “manufactured” them at the bus yard using materials from Tap Plastics. This was an idea that came from our Facilities Superintendent, Steve Muhlestein. The shields and the new air filtration systems will outlive the pandemic and will become permanent features of our bus fleet.

An Essential Service

So how did we respond to the pandemic crisis? First, we kept as much of our fixed route service going as we could, given that at one point, over half of our bus operator ranks went out either because of a need to be extra cautious with COVID-19 or because they actually had it. As last summer moved forward, we gradually returned to about 85% of our budgeted bus operator positions being actively covered. During our significant bus operator shortfall, our planning department devised a hierarchy of service, primarily driven by serving essential workers making essential trips. As we lost workers, who had to stay at home for various COVID-19 reasons, we reduced services accordingly by cutting services determined by the hierarchy. This ensured that we did the best job possible, given the circumstances, in providing essential services to essential workers. What this approach meant was service schedules were changing every day. We used our web page and social media to keep our customers informed as to what was happening. I cannot thank our bus operator’s union enough for the tremendous flexibility and cooperation they gave us in executing this very fluid way of scheduling buses.

Secondly, we completely repurposed our paratransit services. At the onset of the pandemic, 90% or more of our daily paratransit demand disappeared practically overnight as most of that ridership demographic fell into the extremely vulnerable categories relative to COVID-19 risks. This resulted in a great unused resource for the County to call upon. Between mid-March of 2020 through this summer, County Connection completely reworked our paratransit services. Related directly to COVID-19 needs, our paratransit program did the following:

  • transported homeless away from crowded and unsafe outdoor living spaces to various hotel rooms across the county,
  • transported COVID-19 positive homeless or folks living in congregate living places to medical sites and hospitals for treatment,
  • transported frail seniors to vaccination sites, and
  • transported seniors to grocery stores at prescribed times for senior only shopping.

In addition, with many seniors or people of need sheltering at home for much of last year and early this year, County Connection began to deliver things to people. In many cases these services replaced the work of senior volunteers that likewise had to Shelter-in-Place. Among the things we provided were:

  • County Meals on Wheels,
  • School lunch deliveries to students in need who were attending school via online instruction,
  • Contra Costa Food Bank deliveries to low income families, and
  • Delivery of basic supplies to home-bound seniors.

Innovation & New Training

These temporary programs flipped the traditional approach of transporting people to places to one of taking things to people in a manner that kept them safe from COVID-19. In order to transport the COVID-19 positive individuals from congregate living sites or homeless camps, the paratransit drivers had to agree to do these trips and received special training from the County. Our paratransit is provided via contract by Transdev North America (Transdev). Transdev employees also received training from the County on how to separate a sub fleet of vehicles dedicated to these COVID-19 exposure trips, as well as how to clean and disinfect these vehicles after each trip. Without the great dedication and cooperation from Transdev and its employees, we could never have done these special paratransit services on behalf of the County.

Another innovative paratransit program emerged during the pandemic. This is the “One-Seat Ride” pilot project. This project involves four East Bay suburban transit systems: County Connection, Livermore-Amador Valley Transit Authority (LAVTA), Tri-Delta Transit, and WestCAT. The pilot is testing the benefits and feasibility of providing paratransit customers with a single seat ride from origin to destination within the combined service areas of the four transit systems, regardless of which system a trip originates with, effectively reducing touch points for not only the passenger, but for operators too. Prior to this pilot, riders would have to transfer among vehicles at points near each transit operator’s borders. While tackling this pilot project had been in discussion for a few years, the onset of the pandemic created conditions to get the pilot implemented quickly and with urgency. A number of bureaucratic items seemed to fall by the wayside within the context of the emergency of the pandemic.

Almost all the things we have done during the pandemic that are listed above would have been very difficult to do in so-called “ordinary times.” This is in great part due to how we define public transit from a federal and/or state rule and regulations perspective. We are grateful to our federal and state partners who quickly waived or temporarily changed many rules and regulations that would have ordinarily prevented us from doing many of these things.

What Have We Learned?

We have learned that public transit is an essential service. It is a service that essential workers use to get to and from essential jobs that serve us all. We have learned that we are all “Transit Dependent!”

We have learned that women and men that operate transit vehicles and maintain transit vehicles are essential workers who are dedicated to their craft and often do their work at a rate of pay that was less than they might have received on unemployment throughout the Lockdown period.

We have learned that when public transit operators are allowed by the regulators to do so, they can be nimble, innovative, responsive, and most importantly….crucially integral to any response during a mega public emergency crisis, such as the one presented by COVID-19.

We have learned that if we enable our public transit operators to do so, they can be invaluable providers of all sorts of services to the public.

Overall, we have learned that great public transit is truly a huge benefit to any thriving community. So while it has been an incredibly tough 18 months for everyone, I think I can speak for the entire public transit community when I say it has been a difficult and challenging time, yet rewarding. I am immensely proud of all that County Connection has accomplished and of all the people that contributed by stepping up when it was most needed.