The coronavirus pandemic changed many aspects of life, including the way people get around.
Michigan confirmed its first cases of COVID-19 on March 10, 2020. After that, the Detroit Department of Transportation and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation stopped collecting fares on buses to limit contact between drivers and passengers.
One year later, DDOT and SMART are resuming fare collections and taking new steps to protect drivers and passengers.
“We’ve offered vaccines to all drivers who want to take it and we continue to do so.” — C. Mikel Oglesby, DDOT’s Executive Director of Transit
The pandemic cost transit systems a lot of money.
“Typically, we get approximately $20 million from farebox revenues over a year,” says C. Mikel Oglesby, Detroit’s Executive Transit Director. Without fares, DDOT had to rely on the federal government to stay in service.
“We received $64 million in CARES Act funding,” he says. ”That funding can be used for operating, payroll, barriers, sanitation, facilities, security and planning.”
Listen: C. Mikel Ogelsby talks about managing a mass transit system during the pandemic.
Oglesby says DDOT did not have to lay off any drivers because of the lifeline from Washington, D.C. But the agency did pay a heavy human price.
Last April, DDOT driver Jason Hargrove died after contracting COVID-19. A couple of weeks before his death, Hargrove said a passenger started coughing on his bus. He became so terrified of getting sick that he made a video urging people to take the coronavirus seriously and posted it on social media.
In May, the disease killed Fred Westbrook, who had just retired as the president of the drivers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Local 26.
In October, drivers walked off the job over health and safety concerns. Some said they had been assaulted by passengers. The wildcat strike lasted three days.
The union ratified a new contract with the city in February 2021. Oglesby says drivers — and buses — are a lot safer.
“We provided masks for the drivers and passengers,” he says. “We installed barriers and hand sanitizing stations, and we’ve offered vaccines to all drivers who want to take it and will continue to do so.”
DDOT and SMART are also limiting the number of passengers. No more than 20 will be allowed on a standard bus, and the maximum for an articulated bus is 26.
Oglesby says passengers need to do their part by wearing masks and keeping their distance from drivers and other riders.
“The operators are basically saying, ‘give us respect,’” he says. “When you get off the bus, sanitize your hands. If you have to address the driver, do it behind the barrier, and then proceed to the cabin.”
Oglesby says drivers are not just doing their jobs, they’re putting their own lives on the line.
“They are out there during the middle of this pandemic for you,” he says. “So please, thank them. Give them the benefit of the doubt and we’ll get you home safe.”