When COVID-19 comes for your bus – Greater Greater Washington


MetroBus bus stop at U and 15th streets, NW. by Elvert Barnes under a Creative Commons license.

It turns out that a public transportation system can catch the coronavirus. The question is, can it be vaccinated?

WMATA announced this week that bus services will have to be significantly reduced yet again. Not enough staff are complying with their own vaccine mandate and a testing alternative (which some would call forgiveness, given that covid can be transmitted days before a positive test). WMATA says 230 workers are not in compliance; they will be suspended from January 16, while 172 staff members have tested positive and therefore cannot work, resulting in a staff shortage.

As of January 10, tens of thousands of passengers who depend on Metrobus daily will have their primary means of mobility – to work, to appointments, to schools – reduced to Saturday service (from this post, the Metrobus service is currently operating on a moderate snow service plan due to snowfall today (Friday). In the meantime, WMATA have asked non-compliant workers to get vaccinated or undergo testing weekly within 30 days, or to be permanently withdrawn from service.

It has been almost a year since vaccines for the biggest pandemic in a generation became available. Now, repeatedly exposing people to the public and their colleagues who choose not to vaccinate or test produces a workforce that is sick enough for WMATA to take serious action.

But it is too late to prevent another round of service disruptions for many, at a time when metro services are also down, leaving riders with few options.

A sliding scale?

It has not been easy for two years. WMATA has gone from jamming, more than most agencies, to immediately protecting its frontline workers and passengers while serving the public; to reschedule services around rapidly changing priorities; existential financial threats due to the drop in goodwill; the 7000 Series wheel safety fiasco; to omicron, which suddenly makes it pretty obvious how important it is for frontline public service workers to be vaccinated.

It’s understandable why there was no out-of-the-box Plan B for some of these eventualities, or why management’s attention may have been distracted over the past couple of years. Who among us, etc.

But the best plan B, as they say, is a good plan A. The greater Washington area doesn’t run with a continually failing transit system any more than it does without kids in school. We can count on short term solutions for so long, and then what?

Everyone ultimately needs the bus, whether we’re taking it to work, or just relying on those who do to keep our essential services running smoothly. District and regional runners can no longer be left behind.

Time for a good disturbance

Economic and social recovery will occur in one form or another for cities, including the Washington area; history is a very good guide in this direction. But where and how? A strong urban recovery depends on many people deciding that spending time with others outside their homes, including on public transport, is a good idea.

Cars won’t get us there: Drivers drive, park, work, maybe buy a sandwich, drive home, and order things online. A self-centered recovery is not a resilient recovery: Business and school closures in the region this week due to the failure of the highway system due to snow, leaving travelers with few options, are expected to close definitely this case.

The scale of mass public engagement that will make our region roar again is a different phenotype: it features transport, density and public spaces that invite as much as possible for socialization, commercial activity and movement. physical (which is fundamental for public health).

Urban resilience means cities that can move a lot of people, even in difficult times. There will be more climate-related disruption and even another pandemic, not to mention potential threats from terrorism, like the local version we saw just a year ago. It will take big ideas and leaders willing to take risks. An election year is as good a time as any to research who is ready to run at that time, although many leadership decisions are made outside of the electoral process.

In an age when disruption becomes the norm, we need a transit system “vaccinated” against the biggest threats to operations, as a critical facet of how we think about public services.

Caitlin Rogger is Deputy Director of Greater Greater Washington. Widely interested in the structural determinants of social, economic and political outcomes in urban settings, she worked in public health before joining GGWash. She lives on Capitol Hill.