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Mass Transit Faces a Downward Spiral of Reduced Revenue and Ridership

City systems were already strapped for cash. Now they face devastating deficits.

San Francisco Muni buses idled during the pandemic.

San Francisco Muni buses idled during the pandemic.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Jeffrey Tumlin and his staff at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spent Saturday, April 4, poring over rosters and route maps. The agency, which operates the Muni system, had already halted service on metro lines and trolley cars in response to social-distancing protocols and a ridership decline of as much as 83% some days, compared with normal levels. Now 30% to 40% of bus operators were expected not to report to work because of sickness or health concerns. Without enough drivers, Tumlin and his staff recognized, citywide bus service would soon be unfeasible.

On April 6, Tumlin announced that Muni was suspending about 75% of its bus lines. “I never thought I’d say this,” tweeted Tumlin, a true believer in public transportation as a social unifier. “Please don’t take Muni if you have other options.”