Some Toronto bus routes still crowded despite COVID-19. What about social distancing?

Some Toronto bus routes still crowded despite COVID-19. What about social distancing?
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The TTC says it’s taking steps to alleviate the crowding on buses that some riders and transit operators worry is increasing their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Despite systemwide TTC ridership falling roughly 70 per cent below normal levels since the pandemic shut down much of civic life earlier this month, in recent days transit users have reported close to full loads on some buses. 

At times the number of passengers on board has made it impossible for riders to follow public-health advice to keep six feet from others in order to prevent the spread of the disease.

Among the riders who posted photos and videos of worryingly full vehicles online was Aura Torres, who in a Twitter message Tuesday .

Torres said she’s a hospital worker who relies on transit to get to her job, and the crowding makes her feel unsafe. 

“Grocery store clerks, (cleaning staff), pharmacists, health care workers such as myself depend on public transit to get to work daily. However, having to go through what feels like a minefield in a crowded vehicle is an added stress that one should not have to endure. I’m not going out because I want to, but because I have to,” she said in a post to social media.

One bus driver who spoke to the Star on Friday said his early morning bus on Steeles Ave. West had been full each of the previous three days. The driver, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the TTC hadn’t authorized him to speak to media, said he was concerned for both himself and his passengers. 

“This virus is everywhere,” he said. “You don’t know who has it.” 

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said crowding hasn’t been an issue in most of the city, but the agency has identified some routes where buses are still busy at times. They include routes along Steeles Ave., Finch Ave., York Mills Rd., Jane St., and Kipling Ave. that are used by shift workers at manufacturing and industrial facilities. 

The crowding problem is limited to buses — “subways and streetcars are operating with room for people to spread out,” according to Green. 

The decline in bus ridership has been less pronounced — 62 per cent as of Friday, March 20, said the TTC — than the system as a whole. By comparison, subways have seen a drop of 80 per cent.

The TTC has said it wants to operate as close to regular service as possible, in part to enable social distancing on its vehicles, but is at about 80 to 85 per cent normal capacity on its bus network. 

As of Friday, three TTC employees had tested positive for COVID-19 — one bus mechanic, one subway operator, and one Wheel-Trans driver. 

Durham Region Transit has implemented caps on buses’ passenger capacity intended to give riders space. The agency has told drivers that when half of the seats on a bus are occupied the vehicle should be considered full, and operators shouldn’t stop to pick up more riders until others have disembarked.

Green said for the moment the TTC has no plans to implement a cap because doing so could create conflicts with passengers if drivers attempt to enforce it.

“What we really need is for customers to make good decisions around physical distancing and, if needed, wait for another vehicle if the first one is busy,” Green said. 

He said “there may be exceptional cases where a bus will bypass a stop” on routes where extra service hasn’t been deployed and vehicles are too full.

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Starting Sunday, riders will hear external bus announcements asking them to “Please maintain physical distance from each other and the operator.”

The TTC says that since January it has taken steps to protect passengers and employees from COVID-19, including cleaning its stations and vehicles multiple times per day, letting workers wear face masks, and eliminating the use of transfers, tokens, and cash on buses. 

Some measures, like restricting the use of seats directly behind bus drivers, are intended to keep employees safe, but also have the potential to increase crowding.
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