The Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) system has resumed service, sporting a bright red coat of paint along the UNM section of its route.
“We wanted to make sure that pedestrians especially knew there was a difference, that the buses would be going east and/or west,” Albuquerque transit director Danny Holcomb said regarding the pavement’s color change. “We wanted to make sure that if they saw that red paint, they would stop and pause and say ‘wait a minute, maybe I shouldn’t cross here.’”
After three-plus years of delays, ART operations began last November. Since opening, ART has accumulated an extensive array of accidents, including one fatality. The transit system has also been involved in at least 30 collisions with other vehicles, according to the Albuquerque Journal, and has hit two pedestrians.
For now, only the UNM-adjacent section of the route has received the new paint. The city is considering applying the paint to other areas with “bi-directional” lanes, but Holcomb said that painting the entire route would be “incredibly expensive.” The city is also considering physical barriers to further delineate parts of the ART lanes from normal traffic.
Besides pedestrian and automotive traffic, the city’s transit system is also trying to adjust to the new pandemic safety protocols that have been ordered in public spaces.
Some ART buses have varying amounts of tape cobwebbed throughout their seating areas to promote social distancing and limit bus capacity, but tickets are still purchased through a terminal requiring physical interaction with a shared surface.
“Some of the buses have tape, and other buses don’t,” ART rider Rosco Bond told the Daily Lobo. Bond said that, despite the lack of tape, he feels safe on the buses as he has seen an increase in mask usage after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s announcement of $100 fines for not wearing a face covering in public.
ABQ Ride, the city’s transit service, recommends on its website that “all passengers use a face mask or face covering when riding the bus, to protect other passengers, the bus driver and themselves.” However, there are no signs regarding masks, social distancing or other coronavirus-related information inside the ART buses, and masks are currently not required to ride the ART buses.
“Right now, it’s just a recommendation — we’re strongly urging (passengers) to wear a mask to keep everyone safe,” Holcomb told the Daily Lobo. “Our bus drivers have some masks that they’re able to hand out to passengers … We also have some marketing folks that are going out and handing out masks as well.”
Other riders, however, reported a significant lack of face coverings while riding the ART bus.
“I’m not paranoid, I just wear my mask and keep clean,” ART rider Hilari Robele said when asked if she felt safe riding the bus during the pandemic. “I know the drivers (wear masks) but not the passengers, I guess it’s not a requirement.”
“Hopefully they’re sanitizing a lot,” Robelle added.
While recent studies have shown a lower risk of transmission via fomites (contaminated surfaces) compared to sustained exposure in a contained space, they still can play a role in the spread of coronavirus.
“We’re still using ticket vending machines,” Holcomb said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have people that can go and wipe them down throughout the day. We do have a bus stop maintenance crew that goes by and they empty trash at the platforms, clean them up and wipe things down, but they obviously can’t be out there all day, every day.”
Holcomb added that passengers can alternatively buy passes online or pay at the front of the bus once inside.
“Personally, I’m not too worried about getting infected. However, I’m more concerned about some of my friends who have arthritis or they’re elderly,” ART rider Andrew Harrison told the Daily Lobo. “No one is six feet apart, and it’s all in this little box.”
ABQ Ride is now offering free service to those 18 years old or younger and says it has “increased nightly cleaning and sanitation” of its buses.
Overall, ABQ Ride has suffered a tremendous drop-off in patronage due to the pandemic, reporting a “50-60%” decrease in riders according to Holcomb.
“It’s taking a hit on our budget,” Holcomb said. “It’s not just fixed-route … we also have paratransit vehicles to transport folks with disabilities, and they’re in the same situation, maybe even worse.”
While some riders said that they had simply switched to other fixed route buses in the city, others described feeling a significant impact due to the ART system suspending operations.
“It takes me about 15 minutes to walk from my house to the ART,” Robele told the Daily Lobo, describing the challenges of the ART shutdown. “I was having to (walk) a half an hour, so twice as long, so it’d take me an hour to get home at times.”
Liam DeBonis is the photo editor and a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LiamDebonis