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SEPTA’s ‘lifeline service’ can mean a grueling commute for essential workers

SEPTA riders called their reconfigured commutes during the COVID-19 era “scary” and “crazy.” Some describe crowding, others long waits. SEPTA workers have called for more protection.

Miguel Garcia waits at a bus stop in Chester for the first leg of his commute to work in Horsham. Due to SEPTA's reduced service, Garcia has to take two subways and two buses to get to his job — a journey that takes 2½ to three hours.
Miguel Garcia waits at a bus stop in Chester for the first leg of his commute to work in Horsham. Due to SEPTA's reduced service, Garcia has to take two subways and two buses to get to his job — a journey that takes 2½ to three hours.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Until recently, Miguel Garcia had about an hour-and-a-half commute from his home in Chester to his job in Horsham. Regional Rail made it easier.

Then, the coronavirus came, and SEPTA’s ridership nosedived. The authority slashed service, one schedule change after the other, and Garcia’s trip to work as a logistics coordinator at Clinical Ink became jam-packed.

He gets there in about 2½ to three hours now, taking two buses and both the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines.

While much of the region is ordered to stay home, tens of thousands still take SEPTA daily. They’re the people who stock grocery store shelves, staff front desks at apartment buildings, and care for the sick. Their jobs require them to risk exposure to COVID-19 at work — and on the way there. SEPTA’s much-depleted service has turned their trips into grueling endurance tests.

“It’s scary,” said Garcia, 39. “Especially when you have to be shoulder to shoulder, or that close to someone, and you have no choice but to be less than six feet from someone.”

SEPTA authorities acknowledged riders’ hardship but said serious staffing shortages related to the virus have forced the limited “lifeline” schedule. The changes have more than halved service to 60 bus and trolley routes. Prioritized routes include those close to hospitals, grocery stores, and subway lines. Agency officials don’t know when more service might resume.

They also expressed frustration with people taking unnecessary trips as the authority is limiting riders onboard to allow for social distancing. The max is 20 on buses, 25 on trolleys.

“Unfortunately ... we have challenges outside of our control and given these extraordinary circumstances, we are doing the best that we possibly can," said SEPTA general manager Leslie Richards, “but we truly need the help from the public in order for us to run a better system.”

The authority is considering lowering the rider limits to even fewer passengers per vehicle and more service cuts.

» READ MORE: SEPTA to get $643 million in federal coronavirus relief aid

About a dozen SEPTA riders throughout the city spoke with The Inquirer about commuting in the COVID-19 era. Some acknowledged that without the SEPTA service, they would be cut off from their jobs and unable to earn money.

“I’m grateful the particular buses I take are there,” said Marnishia Hampton, who takes two buses to and from her home in Brewerytown to an overnight shift at a residential facility for people with behavioral health issues in the Northeast. “Other than that I’d be staying home.”

The service available is sometimes plagued by crowds and long waits, riders said. Christian Padilla’s 20-minute commute from South Philly to his restaurant job off City Avenue has gotten an hour longer as he travels from bus to the Market-Frankford Line to bus.

“It kind of sucks, actually,” said Padilla, 31, “because I didn’t want to be out here to begin with.”

For Tynia Stevens, 56, of East Lansdowne, the service changes have made the commute to work at Bryn Mawr Extended Care Center “crazy.”

“I’m late every day,” she said while waiting at 69th Street Transportation Center.

Absenteeism related to the coronavirus has affected nearly 20% of SEPTA’s workforce. Transport Workers Union Local 234, representing thousands of employees, is calling upon SEPTA to meet a list of demands to safeguard against the coronavirus. A reduced rider limit is among them.

TWU Local 234 president Willie Brown had threatened an unspecified work “action” Thursday and suggested riders “find an alternate way to work,” but Wednesday night he said he was holding off on any action for “a couple days,” citing the involvement of Mayor Jim Kenney.

» READ MORE: SEPTA union head postpones Thursday’s job ‘action’ that could have caused ‘significant service disruptions’

Earlier, Brown said the region’s essential workers shouldn’t have to think twice about getting on SEPTA.

“We could do a much better job, and it’s almost like I’m sending members out there on a suicide mission, and we’re not going to do that anymore,” Brown said.

More than 190 SEPTA employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, and just over half of those are vehicle operators and train crews. Four SEPTA workers have died.

Rides on buses and trolleys have been free since April 1 in an effort to keep customers away from drivers who sit next to fare boxes and card readers. Rear-door boarding helps, too. But free trips are of little use for riders who depend on suspended lines or see full buses pass by them without stopping.

David Willis, 37, of Darby, is a FedEx driver and has been relying a lot more on Uber to get to Bridgeport, costing him about $100 a week. A TransPass would cost $25.

“Just looking at the money that’s coming out, like, damn, I could save so much,” he said. “But what can I do?”

Drivers track how many passengers are aboard and will refuse pickups if the bus is at capacity. SEPTA has a plan for crowding, adding buses to routes still seeing high ridership where it can.

“It is sometimes unpredictable because people are not traveling predictable schedules like they do traditionally," said Scott Sauer, assistant general manager of operations, “so it’s something that pops up somewhere, we address it, then it pops up somewhere else.”

Homeless people seeking shelter in stations and on public transit has been an issue for SEPTA long before the coronavirus, but it was a concern riders highlighted last week. SEPTA has shifted its response to restricting access and getting outreach support from Project HOME and the city’s Office of Homeless Services.

SEPTA also has called upon its transit police to ensure riders have an essential reason to travel, but free trips play an unintended role in encouraging inessential rides. Because of rider limits, those passengers can supplant people who need to get to work by transit.

» HELP US REPORT: Are you a health care worker, medical provider, government worker, patient, frontline worker or other expert? We want to hear from you.

Social distancing was virtually impossible at the Frankford Transportation Center’s bus platform last week, even though crowds were much diminished from a usual workday. There were still dozens waiting for buses. Some wore masks.

One man in a mask and gloves, Clayton Holloman, watched disapprovingly as an unmasked man roamed the platform, looking for a light for his cigarette.

Holloman lost his job as a driver for a senior-citizen transportation company March 9, he said, an early victim of the pandemic. He waited in a mask and gloves Wednesday for the Route 3 bus to take him to his old apartment a few blocks away so he could pick up paperwork necessary to collect unemployment. He could walk the distance, he conceded.

Unmasked younger riders have become Holloman’s greatest concern. “Young kids,” he said, “they seem like they take it as a joke.”

Terrance Henderson, 18, stepped off a bus near the Erie-Torresdale stop on the Market-Frankford Line to meet his girlfriend and visit her mother. He wasn’t wearing a mask or gloves and wasn’t too concerned about infection.

“I don’t touch the poles,” he said. “I’m really healthy.”

SEPTA authorities said they’d prefer that neither riders like Henderson or Holloman be taking buses right now. “We really need everybody to ask is this a trip that they have to take at this time that cannot be safely postponed for a few months,” Richards said.

The capacity limits also end up leaving passengers exposed, said Stephen Ives, 37.

He takes buses to his job at a grocery store in Fairmount and home from his other job as a doorman at a Drexel dormitory. He appreciated that SEPTA was keeping a limit, but said barring riders from the front of the bus to protect drivers and, SEPTA said, to ensure space for disabled riders, leaves passengers sitting as tightly packed in the remaining seats as they would be on a full bus.

“You do your best to make a little personal bubble, but you only have so many square feet to work with on the back of a bus,” Ives said.

People consistently sit directly beside him, he said.

SEPTA has benched its fleet of articulated buses, which are about a third longer than the buses it is using, because they don’t have shields to protect drivers and have fabric seats that are harder to clean. The agency is considering adding shields and devising new cleaning techniques that could return those buses to service, Richards said.

Riders interviewed often expressed more concern with the hardship SEPTA’s schedules are causing than on exposure to the virus.

Ives used to take public transportation from one job to the other, but those buses are no longer running. Now, when he works both jobs two or three days a week, he has a 45-minute walk.

“It’s weirdly serene and surreal,” he said. “You’re in the middle of a city. Everything is intact, but no one’s around.”