IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Covid plagues mass transit, leading to staff shortages, service disruptions

Some public transportation systems, including those in Atlanta and Portland, Ore., will start reducing services next week
New York subway
A commuter waits for a subway train at a station in Brooklyn, New York City, on Dec. 20, 2021. Ed Jones / AFP - Getty Images

The start of a new year has done little to slow the crippling effects of the pandemic weighing on U.S. public transit systems battling reduced services, Covid-related staffing shortages and slumping ridership.

Cities such as Portland, Oregon, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., are reducing mass transit services as their employees contract the coronavirus and are unable to work.

In Portland, the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon, known as TriMet, plans to cut bus service by nearly 10 percent starting Sunday as it grapples with its largest staffing shortage in history.

Officials confirmed on its website that it would reduce 20 of its 84 bus lines to help “schedule reliability as TriMet works to build bus operator ranks during a national worker shortage.”

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said it would reduce its weekday bus service to a weekend schedule beginning next week to "ensure customers who rely on Metrobus, Metrorail and MetroAccess for transportation have a more reliable schedule,” CEO Paul Wiedefeld said in a statement.

"Metro employees live in some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the pandemic and are exposed to the surge in the region and throughout the nation,” he said.

In the South, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority announced on Twitter this week that select trains could be canceled because of staffing shortages and advised customers to allow extra time for their trips.

Earlier this week, the United States surpassed 1 million new coronavirus cases in a single day, and cities have been grappling with staffing shortages in public transportation in different ways.

Covid-19's impact has taken a toll on the travel industry and mass transit since the U.S. first shut down nearly two years ago.

In the Midwest, the Chicago Transit Authority doesn’t plan on cutting services but officials acknowledged occasional challenges in providing all bus and rail routes on certain days when a high number of employees call in sick, which can lead to longer wait times.

But not every U.S. city is experiencing such setbacks. Transportation officials in Des Moines, Iowa, said they aren't reducing services and that its public bus system is operating at or near capacity with 111 full-time bus drivers.

“Ridership is climbing back up. It’s not fully recovered, but slowly making its way back up,” said Erin Hockman, spokeswoman for Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority. “We had a hiring push in the fall.”

Ridership for large- and medium-sized cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Cincinnati remain lower than pre-pandemic levels as their transit systems continue to be plagued by staffing shortages.

Heading into this year, about 3.2 million passengers were riding the subways on an average weekday in New York City compared to 5.5 million before the pandemic, said Craig Cipriano, interim president of the New York City Transit Authority.

About 1.3 million people were riding buses on any given day compared to 2.1 million before the pandemic, he said.

Cipriano said the number of train conductors and bus drivers who call in sick has fluctuated with the surges in Covid, but it has not affected the overall service.

"Customers can get to wherever they want to go,” he said.

In Washington, D.C., 172 of Metro's 2,329 employees were out because of Covid as of Tuesday, transit officials said, and ridership numbers for rail and bus fluctuated this week between 66,000 and 113,000 as two snowstorms slammed the East.

In Cincinnati, where the bus system is typically served by 500 employees, is down between 50 and 70 bus drivers a day because of Covid-related illnesses, attrition and people leaving the industry, transit officials said.

“It’s something we’ve been struggling with since the start of the pandemic with either employees being out after testing positive for Covid or employees going on extended leave,” said Brandy Jones, spokeswoman for Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority. 

The authority will rely on incentives to recruit new and nontraditional staff members, including increasing wages from $16 to $19.55 an hour, offering a $2,000 signing bonus and paying for training.

“There’s a national shortage,” Jones said. “We’re trying to be competitive.”

In Oregon, TriMet said it doesn’t have enough applicants to meet hiring goals and is banking on hiring more bus operators by increasing the starting wage to $21.36 an hour and offering a $2,500 signing bonus.