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What will it take for you to return to King County Metro post-pandemic?

Tyler Goodwin, a utility service worker for King County Metro Transit, deep cleans a bus as part of its usual cleaning routine at the King County Metro Atlantic/Central operating base on March 3, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Even as vaccinations against COVID-19 are on the rise, King County Metro continues to have problems gaining back its once high ridership numbers, but there are signs it could crawl back up.

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A story in the Seattle Times walks through the Metro ridership picture prior to the pandemic, right up to the point where everything was locked down.

“People go home, don’t ride the bus,” KIRO Radio’s John Curley notes about the numbers at the start of the pandemic. “And now, slowly but surely, they’re coming back on, but certainly not enough in order to make up for the lost revenues.”

“I guess that’s the issue,” Tom Tangney replied. “Again, this is another one of those stories about what does a post-pandemic life look like? The fact that we had, I forget now what the percentage was it’s been so long, but almost like 50% of the people that worked downtown Seattle took the bus to get there, something like that [before the pandemic]. And there was a 72% decline, obviously, in the past year, and 77% if you include the Sounder train service and express buses, in ridership.”

“So now that more and more people are getting vaccinated, are more and more people riding the bus?,” he asked.

According to the Seattle Times, which spoke with people who used to be Metro riders and what their commute plans are going forward, some have changed their habits.

“They say mostly that they will eventually come back once they consider it safe, but they still feel it’s a little iffy,” Tom explained. “But there are some people who say they’ve permanently changed their minds. A couple of them have bought electric bikes and they say, ‘boy, I can get from Beacon Hill to Capitol Hill on my bike in no time and I feel invigorated doing that.’ And so they probably won’t go back to [the bus]. There are other people that say ‘I’ve been driving to work now that I’ve been going into work and I’ve been parking,’ it’s like $175 — I don’t know if it’s a month or something — for a parking space.”

“So it would be cheaper for them to take the bus, but right now they feel like it’s still not safe because you don’t know how close you’re going to be to people and who you’re going to be with,” he said.

Tom says he’s been riding the bus sporadically in the past year and has observed an increase in riders.

“Last time I rode the bus that went up to my mom’s about two weeks ago and there were twice as many people on the bus as I’d say there were maybe three months ago,” he said. “So people are slowly coming back. Masks are required, they won’t let you on the bus if you’re not wearing a mask, and they still blocked off seats on the buses so you’re not sitting right next to somebody. But in general, people say eventually they think they will come back just because it’s cheaper and more efficient, but there will be some drop off and nobody knows ultimately what percentage that will be.”

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Curley says public transportation was once thought to be a primary spreader of COVID-19 in big cities with subways and busy transportation networks, like in New York and Hong Kong.

“Because you’re all packed in there,” he said. “The guy next to you is coughing and sputtering all over you.”

“I was in Las Vegas the other day and the bus that takes you from the rental car facility to the airport, packed, jammed all in there. But it’s OK because everybody is in Vegas, and Vegas is the cleanest city in the world,” Curley joked.

Listen to the Tom and Curley Show weekday afternoons from 3 – 7 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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