San Diego’s buses and trollies are still running, but low ridership is creating financial losses for SDMTS

The San Diego Metropolitan Transit Systems trolley services are still running for individuals who may need transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Passengers are encouraged to social distance while riding the bus or trolley (Photo: SDMTS, 2020)

In the time of the coronavirus pandemic, the Metropolitan buses and trollies of San Diego are still running for essential use. Though the San Diego Metropolitan Transit Systems are determining how to tackle declines in ridership and financial losses.

Mark Olson, spokesperson for SDMTS, says the company is doing its best to tackle these issues despite changes being made often by the government.

“Whatever the norm is this week probably isn’t going to be the norm next week,” said Olson. “Everything is changing by the day or minute.” 

According to Olson, SDMTS is experiencing financial losses due to the coronavirus.

“For the three months leading to July 30th, which is the end of the fiscal year for the company, we’re looking at about a $33 million hit to our budget for March to July,” Olson said. “We’re anticipating a $100 million loss through the next fiscal year.”

Though thankfully for the company, they will be able to receive funds from a stimulus package for transit agencies in the country.

“We’re receiving about $220 million, which certainly helps us for the next fiscal year,” Olson said. “It will also give us extra money for the following fiscal year.”

Safety Precautions

    In March, the SDMTS began to make preventative changes to their trolley and bus services in response to the stay-at-home order and social distancing efforts due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

    One of the first changes made by SDMTS was switching to a “rear-door boarding” system for passengers who continue to use the bus. Olson says that this allows passengers and operators to still be able to social distance. 

    “Passengers will only be allowed to board the bus using the rear door for the safety of the operator and other passengers,” Olson said. “Though there are exceptions for those who have special needs or require wheelchair access.” 

An illustration that shows how to board buses using the new “rear-door boarding” system. SDMTS wants passengers to use this method to ensure the safety of everyone using the bus. (Credit: SDMTS, 2020)

    SDMTS has revised schedules for trolley and bus services, as well. 

    “We’ve decreased the amount of service out in the street by 25% primarily for our buses,” Olson said. “We still want people to have access to the transit system, but we want them to be able to practice social distancing.”

    SDMTS also is providing employees and operators a variety of protective tools to keep them safe during the pandemic. 

    “We are supplying our employees with personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks and hand sanitizers during this time,” Olson said. “There are even employees who are making masks for each other since there is a shortage of them at the moment.”

Mark Olson, spokesperson for SDMTS, discusses the additional help the company is giving to their bus/trolley operators during the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: Sofia Gomez, 2020)

Efforts to Ease Anxious Passengers

    Despite the precautions, some passengers feel uneasy about using the transit services due to concerns with the coronavirus. 

    Johnny Magaña, an employee for Amazon, is one of the essential workers who use the trolley to get to their job. 

    Magaña says that before the COVID-19 situation, the trolley was always filled with people daily. 

    “When I get on, I usually have absolutely nowhere to sit due to the cart being so crowded with people,” Magaña said. “But now, it’s a complete ghost town and it feels like I am the only person around.” 

    Magaña says that the situation makes him a bit nervous for himself and his co-workers who use the transit system.

    “When I ride the trolley, I never touch the trolley button with my hand, always with my knee,” Magaña said. 

Johnny Magaña, 24, is an essential worker for Amazon. Magaña commutes from Chula Vista to National City by using the trolley. (Credit: Johnny Magaña)

     One of Magaña’s concerns surrounds the cleanliness of the transit systems. He is worried nothing is being done to protect essential workers like himself. 

“Is MTS really cleaning the bus and trolley like they claim they do?” Magaña said. “I personally have not seen any trolley, bus or station cleaned since this started.” 

Though Olson says SDMTS is doing its best to promote a reliable and clean system for essential workers like Magaña, he also said he wants passengers to report any discrepancies during this pandemic, as well. 

“Every day we have a professional cleaning team go in to wipe down buses and trolleys from top to bottom at least once a day, sometimes twice,” Olson said. “We also encourage passengers to let us know if they see any untidiness through social media or our customer service line.” 

A Future Decline in Ridership?

For other passengers, the decision to go back to using the transit system might take a while, even after the social distancing order has been removed. 

Chelsea Elizarde, a third-year commuter student at SDSU, says she hasn’t used the bus or trolley since the final in-person lectures for her classes back in March. 

“I don’t use my pass anymore,” Elizarde said. “I only used transit to get to school.” 

Elizarde says if the stay-at-home and social distancing orders were to be lifted, she would not go back to using the transit system right away. Elizarde, who is of Asian descent, said she will avoid public transportation partly because of how the Asian community is being treated while at the store or on the bus.

“Since I’m Filipino-American, I’ve had people look at me with disgusted expressions and others would avoid sitting next to me,” Elizarde said. “I wouldn’t want to go back to using the transit right away because I’m afraid for my own safety and health.” 

Olson says the coronavirus caused a decrease in ridership for both the trolley and bus services, though he sees positivity in this situation.

“Ridership has gone down about 65%,” Olson said. “The interesting thing in this scenario is that this is a good thing.” 

Although they are still operating, SDMTS encourages passengers to not ride the transit unless it is for an absolutely essential trip such as buying groceries, picking up a prescription or going to work.

Olson says that when this situation is over, ridership will gradually get better over time and SDMTS will continue to make sure passengers are safe. 

“It’ll take some time to get the full amount of ridership back to what we previously had,” Olson said. “We want to make sure by then we have a cleaner system and quicker response times to help passengers feel comfortable and secure, in the future.” 

For any updates on any service changes or related to any bus operators that may have been infected with COVID-19,  you can find more information on the SDMTS social media platforms and on their website