In past semesters, students used to crowd into the route 81 TCAT to get from North to Central campus for their 9 a.m. lectures, or catch the packed 36 for Target runs. But now, with severely reduced capacity and social distancing protocols, the TCAT has an emptier feel.
The Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit is a service essential to the lives of many Cornell students, Ithacans and residents of nearby areas. However, the beloved blue buses have been facing struggles of their own since the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown in March.
When lockdowns were instituted, TCAT ridership fell by 90 percent. While this number slightly rose over the summer and beginning of the semester, TCAT still finds ridership to be 80 percent lower than usual.
“All we can hope is that we can regain the ridership in the long run,” said Patty Poist, TCAT’s communications and marketing manager.
The service has been forced to make changes in order to cope with the new circumstances of the pandemic. Of the 58 buses on TCAT’s fleet, only a maximum of 30 are used at any one time. The buses are being deployed on a rotation, allowing TCAT to keep all of its employees on payroll.
“We were able to keep everybody employed, but we did offer a furlough for anybody who wanted to take it,” Poist explained. She said this was a win for the company, which employs over 140 people.
On top of a reduced number of buses in service, TCAT is also limiting the number of passengers. In March, only 20 people were allowed on a bus at a time, which is a steep drop from the capacity of 68 before COVID-19. The capacity has since been raised to 25, but it is still far lower than normal.
The bus service has also taken many steps since March to keep buses clean and safe. One such precaution was buying electrostatic sprayers so they could do a nightly disinfection of each vehicle.
TCAT provided every driver with a supply of masks, which they can give to passengers who forget to bring them onto the bus. According to New York State Public Transportation Guidelines, all passengers on public transportation must wear a mask or some other form of face covering.
To reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure, TCAT also erected plexiglass barriers separating drivers from passengers and the fare box on every bus. Prior to the installation of the dividers, TCAT had gone entirely fare-free from March to early September in order to better limit contact between drivers and passengers.
“Fares constitute a very small part of our overall revenue source,” Poist said. “We are heavily subsidized by public dollars.” TCAT is funded by a combination of the federal government, the state, the county, the city of Ithaca and Cornell University.
Prior to COVID-19, almost 70 percent of TCAT’s ridership was associated with individuals from the Cornell community. Because it faces substantially reduced usage when Cornell goes on break, TCAT plans to reduce its services over the winter months, starting on Nov. 28 when most students will travel home. When the students return to campus, current service levels will resume.
The pandemic in general has created entirely new obstacles for public transportation, according to TCAT general manager Scot Vanderpool.
“One trend that has developed out of this pandemic is the concept of working from home,” Vanderpool said. “This may be one of the biggest challenges transit agencies will ever face.”
The trend has created doubt about whether public transit ridership levels will ever return to where they were before the pandemic. According to Poist, TCAT will need to be innovative in order to improve and adapt to a changing world.
“We will have to think differently, a greater focus on essential services, safety and connecting with various modes of transportation,” Vanderpool said.