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COVID-19 disrupts bus service

WRTA sees 37 percent decrease in riders from this time last year

WARREN — Although the beginning of the year showed promise that more people were taking advantage of Western Reserve Transit Authority’s fixed-route service than in 2019, COVID-19 put the brakes on that trend.

The public transportation service gave 734,832 rides in the first six months of 2019, but only 461,612 rides in the first six months of 2020, according to data provided by Dean Harris, executive director of WRTA. That is a 37 percent decrease.

However, January and February numbers show the system may have been growing more popular before the pandemic forced a shutdown and perhaps a general fear of using public transportation during the outbreak.

In January , 126,389 rides were given, a 7.6 percent increase over the 117,430 rides given across the fixed-route system in January 2019. Rides were also up in the month of February over the previous year.

And the Warren Express Route provided about 1,000 more trips in 2020 in both February and January over the same months in 2019. The line, which connects the Youngstown / Mahoning County routes to the Warren / Trumbull County routes, gave 43,229 rides in the first six months of 2019. In March, the numbers started dropping off, bringing the total for the first six months of 2020 down to 26,924 — a 38 percent decrease.

On April 14, WRTA shut down fixed-route services in response to the pandemic, opening the lines back up May 27.

“We did this to help stop the spread of the virus and to protect our operators. Plus, it was during the stay-at-home order from the governor. We continued to offer (door-to-door) trips for essential trips during the six weeks we were shut down.”

Because the lines were suspended, very few rides were given in April and May, but even by June, numbers were down by 38 percent compared to the same month a year prior.

The limits of passengers per bus and the high unemployment is affecting the ridership, Harris said.

When fixed routes started again, WRTA made changes to help passengers keep their distance from one another, required masks be worn by passengers and operators, limited passenger seats to encourage distancing and stopped charging fares for the service.

WRTA utilized state money to increase WRTA’s presence in Trumbull County, adding several new fixed routes March 3 to the already existing Warren Express Route.

“Everything was going well. We started off a strong, 140 passengers a day, which is pretty good for brand new routes,” Harris said. “Then, as you know, the pandemic hit.”

Though 2,800 fixed-route rides on the expanded Warren routes were given in March, the number dropped to 344 in April and 582 in May, during the weeks the system was shut down. The route rebounded in June with 2,134 rides.

The most popular new route in Warren is the No. 72 Southwest route, followed by No. 74 Elm Road and No. 75 Northwest. The route with the worst performance is the No. 71 North route, Harris said, but it is unclear yet why.

The routes will be evaluated and possibly adjusted to reflect the need and demand of riders in the future.

Routes that comment to residential areas in Warren are most popular, along with travel up and down Elm Road, Harris said.

Rides on the fixed-route system are still free, something Angel-Lei M. Wright of Campbell said is an excellent deal.

“It is usually about $50 a month to ride unlimited, so for it to be free is a big difference,” Wright said. “It helps a lot.”

Wright has used WRTA for three years to travel to the homes of clients where she works as a home health aide. Even when the system shut down, she used the door-to-door service WRTA offered for essential trips.

Wright said she loves WRTA, but would also like to see the service expand to seven days per week.

“People work seven days a week; they should run seven days a week,” Wright said.

Wright, 24, said more people, young and old, should take advantage of the system.

“It is fun to ride the bus, I really enjoy it,” she said.

rfox@tribtoday.com

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