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Future of Public Transportation in San Diego Uncertain After Pandemic

With declining ridership and more people using Uber, will buses and trolleys stick around?

A San Diego bus drives down College Avenue. Photo by Patrick Doyle.

A large number of people in San Diego rely on public transportation such as buses and trolleys to get around without using cars. It’s cheaper, safer, better for the environment, and sometimes even more convenient.

But with declining ridership, the advent of ridesharing services, and newfound health concerns, the future of public transportation has been thrown into question. It’s an issue that was already being discussed before anyone knew about COVID-19, but the pandemic has accelerated talks of how buses and trolleys will continue to function in the future.

Riders Concerned About Their Health

A handwashing station in front of a San Diego trolley. Photo by Patrick Doyle.

A big concern some San Diegans have is the spread of COVID-19 in the compact spaces of trolleys and buses.

One such resident is San Diego State junior Emily Johansson, who used to commute to school via the trolley but recently purchased a car.

“The trolley used to be my go-to a couple mornings each week,” Johansson said. “It was really helpful to get to campus without having to pay for gas … but then cases started spiking and I got nervous.”

To ease the community’s fears about the spread of the virus, one of the safety measures San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System has enforced is a mask requirement. Anyone who gets on a trolley or bus in San Diego must wear a face mask. Additionally, MTS has implemented a no-contact fare system, germ barriers for drivers and hand-sanitizing stations for riders to take advantage of. The city also sanitizes its vehicles much more regularly to try and fight the spread as much as possible.

But realistically, only so much cleaning can be done before the virus eventually transmits to someone. And to Johansson, that is concerning.

“I’m someone who got the vaccine as soon as I could, always wears a mask even when I don’t have to, and I still get concerned riding the trolley,” Johansson said. “I mean, how often do they actually clean those things? When you’re sitting that close to people of course there’s a high infection risk. And as important as the trolley is, I don’t know if I want to risk getting COVID from some random person who’s not wearing a mask.”

To try and explain the city’s thinking when responding to concerns about health risks, former San Diego Association of Governments Chair Jack Doyle said he thinks the city is making their best attempt to help riders feel safe.

“Requirements like masks and social distancing are put in place to try and prevent the spread as much as possible,” Doyle said. “It won’t be perfect, but the availability of public transportation is just too valuable to shut down entirely over concerns of COVID. That’s why there are those safety measures in place that protect riders as much as possible. It won’t be perfect, but it helps.”

Doyle also said he wasn’t sure about a vaccine mandate.

“I think everyone should get the vaccine,” he said. “But a mandate would realistically be difficult to enforce. As much as I think it’s everyone’s duty to get vaccinated, I can’t see how a mandate would work.”

For Johansson, in order to feel more comfortable riding again, she says vaccine rates in the city need to increase and infection rates need to drop.

“I would probably want to wait until the pandemic’s over,” Johansson said. “Right now I just can’t trust that other San Diegans are vaccinated.”

Currently, just over half of the population of San Diego County is fully vaccinated.

The Advent of Ridesharing Services

View from inside an Uber. Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Outside of the newfound health concerns, the amount of people using public transportation has been decreasing since 2015, according to a San Diego MTS study. This could be an indication that people are beginning to rely more on their own methods of transportation, or could indicate private ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft are dominating the market.

Doyle said he wasn’t sure how ridesharing services would affect the future of public transportation.

“I don’t use them much myself, but they seem useful to some people,” Doyle said. “I’m not sure if it will eliminate the need for buses and trolleys, though.”

Ultimately, despite the convenience of these ridesharing services, they create a risk for the long-term success of public transportation. The problem with these services, however, is that they can often be expensive.

People who cannot afford a car or gas often would not be able to afford a regular Uber or Lyft either. They frequently charge upwards of $15-$30 per ride depending on distance and time of day, and that is significantly more costly than the $2.50 one-way fare offered by San Diego’s trolleys.

To some, public transportation is more than just another option. It is an essential service to be able to get where they need to go on a budget.

As one of these people, Johansson said she really was not sure what she would have done if unable to afford a car.

“Ultimately I’m just really thankful I could get a car,” Johansson said. “I mean it’s possible I would still be taking the trolley, but I really wouldn’t want to with things the way they are now. But yeah, using Lyft everyday would get way too expensive.”

Future of Public Transportation

View inside of an empty trolley. Photo by Patrick Doyle.

Given the health concerns, introduction of ridesharing services, and the decrease in use of public transportation over the last several years, many are wondering whether San Diego’s buses and trolleys will last into the future. Even if some people take advantage of them, if not enough people use them regularly, the city may lose interest in continuing to fund their services.

But SANDAG’s former chair doesn’t think that will happen.

“That’s ridiculous,” Doyle said. “Public transportation is an essential service and I’m sure they’d never even think about reducing funding. People rely on it too much.”

For the foreseeable future, San Diegans will just have to trust that the city’s priorities will remain focused on supporting public transportation, even through such a tumultuous time.

This project was produced by Patrick Doyle as a published learning experience in JMS 430 Digital Journalism, part of the Journalism and Media Studies Program at San Diego State University.

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Patrick Doyle

Patrick Doyle

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ABC 10 Associate Producer. Former: NBC 7 Investigative Intern. Journalism & PolySci major in the Weber Honors College at SDSU! https://linktr.ee/PatrickDoyle100