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Regional bus providers hit hard during pandemic

Like most industries during the pandemic, public transit saw a major decline in business. But now that more people are heading back to the work place after months of remote work, area transit providers say they are seeing a slight increase in ridership.

“Our regular commuter service that brings people into downtown and the University of Minnesota have seen some growth. We’ve seen another pretty good growth spurt as we got into fall after the Labor Day holiday, but we’re still lagging behind where we were pre-pandemic,” said SouthWest Transit CEO Len Simich.

SouthWest Transit provides public transit service for Carver, Chanhassen, Chaska and Eden Prairie. It also provides express bus service to Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota.

“I would say our ridership numbers to and from the University of Minnesota have picked up quite a bit and I look at that as similar back in 2007 and 2008 when there was a recession and more kids stayed home and commuted to college themselves,” Simich said.

TOLL ON BUS INDUSTRYSimich said COVID-19 has hit public transportation hard, leaving some in the business to fear a possible demise — particularly in the suburbs.

“The suburban markets, like the one we operate in, got hit hard because we have a number of what we call in the industry, a ‘choice rider.’ What it means is they have a choice — they can either drive or take a bus, but they decide to take a bus for all sorts of different reasons,” said Simich. “Whether it’s for less stress, to save some money or in many cases, they can get to their destination faster because we have advantages on the highway system. So, when people’s jobs got put on hold, or they were told to work from home, we lost all that market.”

Simich said he thinks it’s going to take some time to recover, but they are still expanding nonetheless.

“The major employers that utilize our services in downtown aren’t scheduled to come back until after the first of the year at the earliest, and even then, some of them are telling us they’re not going to be required to go to work five days a week,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a while to see that full recovery there.”

SouthWest Transit recently added new services like the “Grocery Getter” program and a Shakopee expansion allows for riders to travel from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. for $4. The services operate much like a Lyft or Uber ride. People request rides online or by calling, and a vehicle meets them within 20 minutes. Riders are then notified when the bus arrives.

Richard Crawford, Minnesota Valley Transit Authority spokesman, said since the onset of COVID-19, MVTA and many other transit organizations nationwide experienced significant declines in ridership due in large part to many people working from home.

MVTA is the public transportation agency for seven suburbs located 15 miles south of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which include Savage, Prior Lake and Shakopee in Scott County, as well as Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan and Rosemount in Dakota County.

Nationally, transit ridership in 2020 dropped by 79% compared to 2019 levels at the start of the pandemic, Crawford said.

“As people begin to return to work, we have seen express ridership increase and there has been steady growth throughout summer and another jump in ridership after Labor Day,” said Crawford. “We added more trips to the University of Minnesota in September and ridership on Route 465, which serves the university, is currently MVTA’s highest ridership route.”

Both SouthWest Transit and MVTA have implemented health and safety protocols and continue to seek guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“MVTA has adopted recommendations from the CDC on enhanced cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting procedures. Air filters are changed daily on the buses,” Crawford said.

Simich said SouthWest Transit also installed an air purification system for extra precaution.

“We’ve put in a very expensive air purification system in all our buses and stations and we have a cleaning protocol that’s second to none,” said Simich.

EVENT RIDERSHIPCrawford said MVTA Connect, a ride-on-demand microtransit service that currently serves Savage, Burnsville, Apple Valley and Rosemount, has been growing during the past year and has set ridership records in each of the past 12 months. Route 495, which runs between Shakopee, Savage, Burnsville and the Mall of America, also has been resilient and has ridership at about 75% of pre-COVID levels.

Crawford added that MVTA scaled back trips by more than 60% during the start of COVID to right-size its services to demand. As ridership has begun to increase, additional trips were added to meet demand.

“Although express ridership saw the most impact on ridership during the pandemic, local routes and new special service routes have experienced less impact,” said Crawford. “In 2021, MVTA offered connections for riders to attend the Twin Cities Summer Jam at Canterbury Park and the Renaissance Festival. More than 4,500 special service rides were provided in 2021.”

One event that saw a huge dip in attendance this year was the Minnesota State Fair which welcomed over 1 million people compared to over 2 million in previous years. It was the lowest attendance in 44 years.

“It was terrible. We normally haul 100,000 to 115,000 passengers. This year it was under 50,000. The fair was down and all transit,” said Simich.

Simich pointed to three factors affecting fair attendance and ridership this year: COVID, weather and parking.

“The first half of the fair it rained every day and top that with COVID, it would drive people inside a building where they were afraid to catch the virus,” he said. “So, people just stayed away. The third thing is the availability of parking. Because less people were going to the fair, there was more parking available in and around the fairgrounds.”

Crawford said MVTA’s ridership to the fair this year, like SouthWest Transit, was extremely low compared to previous years.

“State Fair ridership this year was 37,453,” said Crawford. “That number, as expected, was well below previous years.”

FURLOUGHS AND SHORTAGES

Simich said he hasn’t experienced driver shortages, but has had to furlough several employees.

“I have a lot of on-call senior drivers. For many of them this is not their career, it’s their second career and many of them are working part time. They’re not quite ready to retire yet, but those were the people who stepped up to be furloughed,” said Simich. “We lost about 12 individuals that didn’t come back once we started to bring them back. They just decided it was time to retire.”

Crawford acknowledges driver shortages from other bus services, but said MVTA luckily has not lost any.

“It’s a very competitive market for drivers throughout the transportation industry,” said Crawford. “MVTA is fortunate that we haven’t faced the driver shortages seen by other transit providers.”

NEED FOR TRANSITWith many people fearing a severe decline in public transit, Simich and Crawford are hopeful the service is still needed and encourage residents to utilize it more.

“Public transit does so many things. It gives access to jobs for people that may not have cars. You don’t have to worry about parking costs or long walks in the middle of winter. From that standpoint alone, it’s a huge economic driver,” said Simich.

Another important component of public transit, Simich said, is improving air quality.

“Every community that we’re working with are all looking at ways to make their areas more sustainable and part of that is getting people out of their cars,” he said. “We’re looking at things now like electric vehicles and anything we can do to reduce that carbon footprint.”

Crawford said while transit ridership, entertainment venues, restaurants and many other facets of the economy have been impacted by COVID-19, the bus industry expects improvement for all these areas as the pandemic fades.

“As the cost of cars increases, public transit will continue to provide an economical mode of transportation for ride-dependent as well as riders of choice and provide a means for people without transportation to get to large and small employers in the south metro,” Crawford said. “We’re monitoring travel patterns and will continue to adjust public transportation to serve the needs of our service area and the region.”


A Duluth trolleybus in 1949.


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