As a high school student who hasn’t experienced being packed like a sardine with other children on the bus to school for over half a year, I’m lucky. Yet, essential workers who are dependent on public transportation amid the COVID-19 pandemic are facing historic Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) cuts.
Ridership dropped over 80% in the earliest months of the pandemic, and the VTA has suffered financial losses as a result. If you’re someone who has the means to go without public transportation, don’t stop reading just yet—healthcare workers, grocery store employees, restaurant staff, and other essential workers may be riding the bus to work and other essential destinations. We are all dependent on public transportation, in a sense, to receive the essential services we need.
In the coming months, the VTA is considering three different permanent plans to cut service, effective next year. The options include 10 percent, 20 percent, and 30 percent service cuts. Under the most severe option, public transportation, including bus and light rail service, would be slashed to service levels equivalent to those from 40 years ago, when 600,000 fewer people lived in Santa Clara County.
The effects of doing so would be disastrous. Those who rely on public transportation—namely essential workers, students, seniors, and low-income residents—would face longer and more irregular trips, and if the service becomes too unreliable, any rider with the means to drive a car would likely stop using public transportation altogether. And if necessary transit routes are decimated, essential workers will be unable to go to work safely, especially since cars are driving faster on empty roads, making walking and biking more dangerous. Many people might not even be able to afford alternatives to public transportation at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, and will no longer have the financial means to own and maintain a car or even purchase a bike.
VTA cuts might also have lesser-understood effects on the environment and the housing market. Although ridership had already been decreasing prior to COVID-19, the cuts would merely deepen the wound by turning away any those riders who have the option of driving instead of using unreliable service. This would further contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions emitted by private vehicles. Meanwhile, certain residential developments that were eligible for quicker reviews or grants due to their proximity to VTA lines may be at risk if service is irregular and infrequent.
For over 100,000 students, seniors, and low-income residents in Santa Clara County, public transportation is the only way to access work, school, healthcare, and other essential destinations. The VTA Board will come to their final vote at the December 3rd board meeting. Before then, please make sure to voice your opinion at the November board meetings and advocate against these service cuts.