What riders with disabilities fear and want from public transit in COVID-19 era
Transit agencies with sinking ridership and dwindling revenues thanks to COVID-19 have one aim -- to get passengers back in the seats.
But first, riders need to feel confident that trains and buses are sanitary and safe.
That will be a tough sell for longtime UP West Metra rider Ray Campbell and other passengers with disabilities.
"Basically as a blind person, I have huge concerns about going back to the office. Not the least of which are -- my hands are my eyes. I touch everything," Campbell said.
His last day commuting to United Airlines' headquarters in the Willis Tower was March 13; now Campbell, a senior accessibility analyst for the carrier, works from home in Glen Ellyn.
Illinois is expected to enter the fourth of five phases to reopen the economy Friday, allowing all employees to return to work under state guidelines.
That should signal a reboot for transit, but many riders with disabilities "are afraid to ride the trains and buses because they are unsure if it is really safe or not," Lake County Center For Independent Living Executive Director Kelli Brooks said.
Metra is promising pristine conditions. Workers deep-clean cars, sanitize daily and request riders wear masks.
"Our daily disinfecting efforts are concentrated on all the high-touch areas, such as handrails, handholds, vestibule posts, door handles, seats, armrests, etc.," spokesman Michael Gillis noted.
This spring, with scaled-back transit service due to Illinois' stay-at-home order imposed March 21, Campbell has relied on ride providers such as Lyft and Uber for his infrequent trips.
Typically on Metra, he uses a white cane to navigate and his hands are invaluable tools -- touching seats, hand rails and even garbage cans -- to guide him.
"The thing that really scares me is getting on those Metra trains," Campbell said, recalling riders "coughing up a lung" pre-COVID-19. "It was like, 'What am I going to catch today?'"
To combat germs, Campbell intends to wear disposable gloves, although that complicates pulling up the Ventra app on his iPhone, he noted.
Unlike some airlines such as United that recently announced penalties for those who flout mask rules that include suspending flying privileges, "we can't ban people," Gillis said.
Instead, "we are asking for all passengers to cooperate and take responsibility for their own actions -- we are all in this together."
Meanwhile, reductions in Metra schedules and Pace routes related to the stay-at-home order are another hit for riders with disabilities.
Evelyn Graves of Arlington Heights, who is visually impaired, said the suspension of Pace's Route 696 bus is a tough loss.
"I can't take the 696 to my primary doctor in Mount Prospect," said Graves, who is in her 60s. "I feel like I'm in a different era, my parents' generation, when there wasn't enough transportation."
It's not known when service will resume on Route 696, spokeswoman Maggie Daly Skogsbakken said. "There are a number of factors that need to be considered to determine how and when to restore service to all the routes that have had temporary reductions or suspensions," she said.
One more thing
While passengers were on hiatus this spring, Metra coach cleaners began the herculean task of scouring the agency's rail cars at an Elgin yard.
Despite much elbow grease, initially, "we just weren't pleased with the results," coach cleaner Mark Llanuza said -- until he and co-workers deployed their personal power washers. "The difference was night and day," Llanuza said in a Metra video. So far the team has soaped, hosed, scrubbed and power-washed 920 out of 1,040 railcars.
"When the passengers come back after the virus is over, we want to welcome them back with clean and disinfected trains that are already sanitized," Llanuza said. "We want to let them know we care."
You should know
Pace drivers will resume collecting fares on regular buses today and require passengers to board at the front doors. Riders were asked to board using the back doors as a precaution against COVID-19 in April, and fares were suspended.
Central Tri-State Tollway drivers should prepare for delays in the Schiller Park area as workers repair the bridge over the Canadian National Railway tracks. Lanes will be reduced and traffic will be shifted until mid-July.
Although air travel nationwide is down by 73%, according to TSA checkpoint data, one smaller airline is preparing for a boost. Spirit Airlines saw its daily average flights at O'Hare tank to 3.4 in May but anticipates that number to rise to 23 in July. This week, flights will resume to Austin, Cancun, New York and San Diego. In July, flights resume to New Orleans and Oakland.