Health officials do not recommend avoiding public transit, but they do recommend that residents telecommute where possible and limit outings. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

BART ridership drops 8 percent amid coronavirus concerns

Transit agencies have stepped up cleaning but maintain regular service

BART ridership dropped significantly last week amidst growing concern over COVID-19, more commonly known as the novel coronavirus.

Last week’s ridership dropped around 8 percent from the week before, a BART spokesperson told the San Francisco Examiner Monday morning.

When asked what may have led to such a stark ridership decline, BART spokesperson James Allison wrote in a statement, “It difficult to attribute it to a single factor but undoubtedly the fact that some major employers are directing workers to telecommute is having an impact.”

BART’s Monday through Friday ridership dropped to 1.86 million passenger trips last week, down from 2.03 million passenger trips the week before.

The agency’s ridership in 2018 averaged 432,000 passenger trips daily. A ridership reduction of 8 percent may amount to roughly 34,500 fewer daily passenger trips, and roughly 172,800 fewer trips through the week, using 2018 ridership numbers as a rough guideline.

San Francisco’s Muni system has not yet crunched the numbers to see if there has been a significant ridership decline during the same period. As of early last week week “ridership was steady,” but San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokesperson Erica Kato noted that may have changed later in the week.

Telecommuting is on the rise amid concern over the coronavirus, with 13 confirmed cases in San Francisco as of Monday morning. Coronavirus concerns have also spurred the cancellation of events across San Francisco and the Bay Area, from San Francisco Symphony concerts to the Game Developers Conference at Moscone Center.

Many people use public transit to arrive at such events.

A drop in public transit ridership is not confined to the San Francisco Bay Area. The American Public Transportation Association, which counts member agencies across the country (including BART), warned in an advisory this month that “fear of exposure to infectious disease may significantly curtail ridership and/or increase rider anxiety.”

Agencies increase cleaning, hygiene efforts

Both BART and Muni have stepped up cleaning their vehicles to combat the spread of coronavirus.

BART is wiping down its stations with “hospital-grade disinfectant more frequently each day” and wiping down handrails and other surfaces in train cars with germicidal wipes at end-of-line stations. It has also put up multi-lingual posters with public health information regarding flu and coronavirus.

Muni vehicles are cleaned nightly using Germ Swipe and United 282 cleaning products, and “we are reviewing our procedures to look for opportunities to increase this work and test/integrate new solutions,” Kato wrote in a statement.

In a statement, BART officials wrote that “BART, along with all other transit systems, is taking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and public health departments. These experts advise us that operational changes are not necessary at this time.”

However Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, said the additional cleaning “will only help partially.”

“All the washing BART does and Muni does in the world won’t help,” Swartzberg said, “it eliminates only one of the means of transmissions of this virus. You could be in a perfectly sterile BART car, and if I was squished next to you I’d be at substantial risk of catching what you have.”

Swartzberg said avoiding public transit is a “prudent” measure for residents to take right now to reduce risk of exposure to COVID-19 and even just the flu.

COVID-19 and the flu “are most easily spread by being in close proximity with people,” he said. “Being on public transit within six feet of proximity with someone who is coughing, you are putting yourself at substantial risk.”

Masks “won’t protect you,” Swartzberg added.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised, in a statement, that COVID-19 spreads between people who are in close contact with one another, about six feet away, and through “respiratory droplets” produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.”

It may also spread by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching your own mouth, nose, or “possible” eyes, but “this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

The San Francisco Department of Public Health has not recommended that the public specifically avoid public transit, although it does advise that “to protect the public, transit providers should increase cleaning of vehicles and high touch surface areas. Also, provide hand washing/hand sanitizers [sic] and tissues in stations and on vehicles.”

However, the department also advises vulnerable populations should “limit outings,” and suggests that “if you can telecommute, you should.” The department is also recommending large gatherings be canceled or postponed, and for people to generally avoid any events or gatherings “if you are sick.”

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