People wear protective masks during the coronavirus pandemic while boarding a bus near the Fordham Metro North station Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in New York. As the coronavirus rages across the U.S., grocery workers, health care professionals, university staffers, cleaning crews and others who don’t have the option to work from home must weigh safety against affordability when deciding how best to commute to their jobs. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Fears and tension mount for commuters still heading to work

Fears and tension mount for commuters still heading to work

NEW YORK — One by one, the fears creep in as Aura Morales rides the bus to her job at CVS in Los Angeles. A passenger boards without a mask but she doesn’t dare confront him. More riders board and it’s impossible to stay six feet apart. Driving to work isn’t an option; Morales can’t afford a car, especially after her work hours were cut.

“I get on the bus, I just pray,” said the 53-year-old.

As the coronavirus rages across the U.S., grocery workers, health care professionals, university staffers, cleaning crews and others who don’t have the option to work from home must weigh safety against affordability when deciding how best to commute to their jobs.

Those who can have ditched public transportation and drive to work instead, contributing to a boon in used car sales in the U.S., which spiked to their highest level on record in June, according to Edmunds.

Meanwhile, public transit agencies have seen ridership plummet, not only because of all the people opting for cars but also so many are now working from home or have lost their jobs altogether. Transit ridership fell 62% nationwide in the third quarter compared to last year, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Heavy rail fared even worse, dropping 72% in the third quarter.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency warned that without an influx of cash it would have to lay off up to 1,226 full-time workers, or 22% of its workforce, and provide just 35% of the service it offered before the pandemic. New York’s transit agency proposed slashing subway and bus service by 40%, cutting commuter rail service in half and laying off nearly 9,400 positions. Washington D.C.’s transit system warned of layoffs and shorter hours as federal financial assistance dries up.

“It really is survival mode for the industry, or we’re going to see dramatic reductions in their service deliveries, which would really be counter-productive,” said Paul Skoutelas, APTA’s President and CEO. “Essential workers rely on public transit by and large, and we can’t let them down.”

In September, 71% of U.S. workers across all sectors were commuting to physical workplaces while 29% were doing their jobs remotely, according to a survey of 1,015 employed adults by the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Those relying on public transit have already seen schedules cut since the start of the pandemic in March, leading to packed crowds on fewer buses and trains. Mounting tensions over lax social distancing and mask-wearing as coronavirus cases spike have only made their commuting experience worse.

Hipolito Andon, 44, rides the subway to Rockefeller Center in Manhattan where he works as a porter cleaning and maintaining the building. He and his wife, who takes a bus to her school cooking job, are diabetic, increasing their risk of complications if they catch COVID-19. Andon’s son takes public transit to a porter job as well. As soon as they get home, everyone showers and changes clothes.

As the pandemic has dragged on, Andon sees more people boarding trains without masks.

“You hear people muttering, ‘Why is this guy not wearing a mask?’ But there’s no confrontation. People just move away,” Andon said.

Alexandra Fee chose her apartment in Arlington, Virginia based on its proximity to the buses. But when the 28-year-old was confronted with returning to her job as a university academic adviser, she plunked down cash for a used car after noticing the full buses that passed by her home, sometimes skipping her stop because they had reached capacity.

“If I plan on catching a bus at a certain time and they were too full that morning, would I then have to wait a half-hour for another bus?” Fee wondered.

Traffic patterns show a growing number of commuters making the same calculation.

Dozens of cities worldwide, including Paris and London, saw traffic rebound to pre-pandemic levels in September despite the fact that many major employers were keeping their workforces at home, according to Inrix, a company that analyzes traffic data. In the U.S., traffic in smaller cities from Colorado Springs to Knoxville, Tennessee surpassed pre-pandemic levels during the morning commute. In the Seattle region, transit use was down 70% while the amount people drove was down just 20%, according to Inrix.

“What in many ways the pandemic did, in terms of automobile ownership and people’s general use of various forms of mobility, is it reaffirmed the value of owning the means of transportation, especially in times of crisis,” said Stephen Beck, founder and managing partner of cg42, a management consulting firm.

Parking lots are also filling up on weekday mornings in parts of New York, according to SP+, which operates more than 200 parking lots in the city. Revenue from lots near entertainment venues and hotels was down in early November but revenue from lots where cars arrive by 10 a.m. on weekdays was up 4% to 10% compared with pre-pandemic levels, said Jeff Eckerling, chief growth officer at SP+.

“Sitting here today, compared to where we were, this is great,” he said.

For the millions of others riding subways, buses and trains daily, they must set aside their fears in order to get to work.

Sule Sokoni, a porter at a co-op building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, positions himself on his one-and-a-half-hour subway ride so he can see who’s getting in and out, and will switch cars if someone boards coughing or without a mask instead of dozing off for the long ride. He’s converting a bicycle into an electric bike so he can ride it to work instead.

Indeed, bike-sharing has become a more attractive alternative to public transit during the pandemic. Lyft saw its shared bike rides increase by 12% in Chicago this fall compared to the same time last year, and by 7% in New York.

Uber is also trying to capture wary commuters, offering van services and shared rides to employees who work for the same company. The number of businesses using Uber’s commuting products doubled from the start of the pandemic to September, said Ronnie Gurion, global head of Uber for Business.

“More and more companies are really looking for and thinking about how do I get more involved in the commute needs of my employees,” Gurion said.

Most workers are on their own, however, taking calculated risks.

In New York’s Bronx, two dozen passengers crowded together on a recent day to board a cross-town bus with nearly every seat full during the evening rush. Riders wore masks, but once inside, many sat just inches apart from each other.

Virginia Rodriguez hung back on the sidewalk, checking her smartphone to see when the next bus would arrive, hoping it would be less crowded as she headed home from her hospital job handling insurance.

“It’s stressful in the sense that you don’t know who’s going to be next to you,” Rodriguez said. “I try to keep my distance, and keep my mask on at all times. There’s nothing else I can do. I just hope I don’t get sick.”


Associated Press Writer Emily Swanson contributed from Washington.

Cathy Bussewitz, The Associated Press


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Don and Gloria Moore, of Red Deer, are set to celebrate their 70th anniversary later this month. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer couple to celebrate 70th anniversary

Red Deer couple Don and Gloria Moore are set to celebrate their… Continue reading

Chris Scott, owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe, was put in handcuffs after an anti-restriction protest Saturday in the parking lot of the business. (Screenshot via The Whistle Stop Facebook page)
UPDATE: Central Alberta cafe owner arrested after anti-restriction protest

The owner of a central Alberta cafe, which was the site of… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer now has 911 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre's expansion project is still a high priority, says Alberta Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer hospital ICU admissions stable, but rising, says surgeon

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre’s intensive care unit is in better… Continue reading

FILE - A firefighter wears a mask as he drives his truck. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward, File
VIDEO: Flames rip through Edmonton-area seniors complex, but no fatalities

ST. ALBERT, Alta. — Fire has destroyed part of a retirement complex… Continue reading

A caribou grazes on Baffin Island in a 2008 file photo. A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada's vanishing caribou herds is a step closer after a scientific review panel's approval of a plan to permanently pen some animals and breed them to repopulate other herds. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kike Calvo via AP Images
Parks Canada captive caribou breeding proposal gets OK from scientific review panel

JASPER, Alta. — A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada’s vanishing… Continue reading

The smouldering remains of houses in Slave Lake, Alta., are seen in a May 16, 2011, file photo. The wildfire that is devastating large swaths of the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray comes just five years after another blaze destroyed 400 buildings and left 2,000 people homeless in Slave Lake, Alberta. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ian Jackson
Ten years later: Five things to know about the Slave Lake wildfire

A wildfire burned about one-third of Slave Lake in northern Alberta in… Continue reading

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid races to 100 points this NHL season

Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid sprinted to a 100-point NHL season and… Continue reading

A Foodora courier is pictured as they pick up an order for delivery from a restaurant in Toronto, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Two-year EI review needed to buy time for needed tech upgrades, Qualtrough says

OTTAWA — Canada’s employment minister says a budgetary pledge for funding to… Continue reading

A person wears a face mask as they walk through McGill University during light snowfall in Montreal, Sunday, December 20, 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Some universities say no to proof of vaccination requirement

A COVID-19 vaccine likely won’t be a requirement to return to the… Continue reading

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland, participate in a virtual discussion with seniors from Residence Memphremagog in Magog, Que., from Ottawa on Monday, May 3, 2021. Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats are on the move in advance of a potential election this year, recruiting candidates, training volunteers and grappling with how to kiss babies and press the flesh in a virtual, pandemic-restricted world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Grappling with how to press the virtual flesh, parties gear up for election showdown

OTTAWA — The three main national parties are firing up their election… Continue reading

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, is setting off a social media reaction with his calls to stop non essential shopping, such as "buying sandals at Costco", with this photo of his worn sandals, which he published to social media on Saturday, May 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Dr. Robert Strang, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Nova Scotia’s top doctor sparks meme with caution on non-essential shopping

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s top doctor has launched a social media meme… Continue reading

Most Read