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Navigating ETS during a global pandemic

By: Katrina Turchin
An ETS bus heading to West Edmonton Mall leaves a bus stop in front of MacEwan University (Katrina Turchin)

Susan Solorzano used to take Edmonton Transit almost everywhere she went. Five times a week, she found herself on a crowded bus full of strangers going to the mall or in a squishy LRT car of students, like herself, going to school. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Navigating Edmonton Transit Services (ETS) is something many Edmontonians have struggled with over the years, from cancelled bus routes to LRT delays. Factoring in a global pandemic has made that task much harder.

While most of the province went into lockdown, ETS kept running to serve those who weren’t lucky enough to work from home. Many people could limit their risk of exposure by taking their vehicles to the grocery store or essential jobs, but many like Solorzano, who don’t drive, didn’t have this option.

ETS Ridership

In 2019, ETS reported their total ridership to be 86,715,540. This number reflects the number of trips taken by ETS riders in which they used more than one transit service to arrive at their destination. After the pandemic hit, ETS lost 70 percent of its ridership.

ETS cuts to bus and LRT routes

ETS limited its bus routes in March to do their part in preventing the spread. ETC cut the weekly bus and LRT schedule and changed it so transit services would run according to the Saturday schedule seven days a week.

“If we reduce the number of buses and LRT on our city streets, we can further increase the level of cleaning and disinfecting taking place on these critical services that Edmontonians rely on,” said Mayor Don Iveson in a news release from March.

At the time, the province was entering lockdown and people were preparing to work from home. What wasn’t accounted for in the bus route cuts were those who had to continue taking the transit during the lockdown.

A deserted bus stop in front of MacEwan University (Katrina Turchin)

“I didn’t get to stop taking transit because of the pandemic like others did,” says Solorzano, a MacEwan University student and essential worker.

While she took transit less than she did before the pandemic, Solorzano still utilized the services throughout the summer. Solorzano didn’t have other options since she doesn’t drive, and ride-share apps like Uber are expensive and add up quickly.

The impact on students

Full ETS service resumed on Aug. 30 as the back-to-school season started, but accessing public transit remained difficult for some university students.

MacEwan University’s Students Association announced on Aug. 20 that it would suspend the U-Pass (university transit pass) program for the 2020 Fall term. U-Passes, give students full access to public transit services in Edmonton, St. Albert, and Strathcona County for a discounted rate.

The university announced earlier in the month that they would teach most classes online; however, 25 percent of students would be attending in-person classes. Students are generally known as a less fortunate population, and to cut their access to public transportation during a time of job and income insecurity angered many.

“It was a moronic decision on MacEwan’s part,” says Rielle Zahacij, a student who takes public transit from St. Albert to attend an in-person hybrid class at MacEwan University. “We still have to go to school, and public transportation is not all that affordable,” she says.

The U-Pass fee is typically included in MacEwan University’s tuition but was waived for the fall term after the service got cancelled. In previous years, the U-Pass cost $170 a semester. A monthly bus pass costs $97 a month.

However, ETS expanded the Youth pass and the Ride Transit Program until the U-Pass program makes a comeback. Students will be able to purchase a monthly Youth pass for $72.50 with valid student I.D., regardless of their age. The Ride Transit Program expanded to include students over the age of 18 who make less than $30,000 a year to qualify for reduced monthly pricing.

COVID-19 ETS safety measures

ETS made many changes to its services because of the pandemic, including implementing new safety measures. They have also worked towards making buses and LRTs safer. All buses had shields installed to protect the drivers, and extra cars were added to the LRT to allow social distancing. LRT doors will also be automatically opening at every station, so passengers no longer have to touch the exit buttons.

The pandemic hasn’t made Solorzano feel uneasy about catching the virus on public transit. While she has noticed some riders get away with not wearing masks, even though it’s now a city bylaw, it hasn’t deterred her from choosing ETS.

“Overall, because I keep the bubble of where I go small, and I’m familiar with how busy the routes will be when I take them, I feel relatively safe being on the bus,” says Solorzano. “And, while I do wish there was more that could be done with enforcing masks, I am content with what ETS has done so far.”

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