Getting around the Valley of the Sun can be a difficult proposition without a personal vehicle and with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus some people may be limited in the way they get from place to place.
For students at Arizona State University, many means of transportation are available, but which is the most likely for providing effective social distancing?
With students returning to their homes over the summer as well as the reduced amount of people going out, the city of Tempe experienced a significant decline in ridership throughout the city. To be exact, the city noticed a 55% drop in fewer riders compared to the same time last year, according to Tempe Transit Manager Eric Iwersen.
“We’ve seen a real significant drop in ridership [on] some of our more urban routes like the light rail,” Mr. Iwersen said.
The light rail is one of many popular options for students going from ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus to main campus in Tempe and vice versa, yet it has also seen a decline.
Mr. Iwersen explained that, in partnership with Valley Metro, they have implemented various measures to promote social distancing and help protect passengers on their services like the light rail. Included in these additions were plastic barriers between riders and the bus operators as well as frequent sanitation of all of their vehicles.
“Those barriers will be long term, so they work not just for COVID or any sort of, you know, virus or pandemic protection,” Mr. Iwersen said. “They also work just for the general good working conditions [for] a bus operator having a little bit more of a barrier of separation so they can focus on their job of driving the bus.”
According to Valley Metro’s 2019 Origins and Destination Surveys, they’ve experienced a 55% decrease in college students using public transit daily over a nine-year period. Around 13% of their riders in 2019 attended university, including both part-time and full-time students. This could be attributed to added means of mass transit such as ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft becoming more appealing to students, officials speculate.
Hannah Foote, a student at Arizona State, has used ride-share services multiple times throughout the pandemic out of necessity despite being part of an at-risk group. While she had one positive experience, one negative was enough to make her more cautious of how she gets around.
“I’m trying to avoid it as much as possible just because it is a safety concern, you know, because you don’t know who’s in their cars and you don’t know where they’ve been or what they’ve been doing,” Ms. Foote said.
However, there have been changes in the way these companies are trying to operate and ensure riders and drivers stay safe and healthy. Uber’s COVID-19 safety update stated along with online resources to keep users informed, they have also sent out masks to equip their drivers. Uber was not available for further comment.
As of Sept. 6, 807 students were known to have COVID-19 on all of ASU’s campuses. The infection rate observed has done little to calm Ms. Foote’s fears about contracting the virus via her usage of rideshare services.
“I didn’t think about it when I first used Uber, but like, now it’s like all I’m thinking about,” Ms. Foote said.
Competition for riders may seem high especially right now but Mr. Iwersen explained that while there may be some competition in attracting riders, in the long-term, cities will always have some form of public transport. Despite the continuing pandemic, Tempe has already shown promise with increased ridership on its services. There is also more of a focus on public transit working in tandem with ride-share companies. Valley Metro has worked with Lyft in operating some of its services.
“In the long-term future, you know, public transit and ride-share can work really well together they can complement each other,” Mr. Iwersen said.
If possible, usage of personal vehicles may be the safest option of getting around. For mass transit users though, they can expect an adjustment period for all the new protocol and physical protections provided by these companies. Day to day life following the pandemic may see a return to some semblance of old mass transit trends but definitely with continued additions to providing a sense of safety.
“I think post-pandemic I would still use Uber,” Ms. Foote said. “It’s just like, well, we’re at where we’re at now so it’s really hard to like envision myself wanting to do that.”
Tempe News Reporter Caroline Yu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org