SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) – A lack of passengers during the pandemic decimated public transportation this past year with ridership plummeting to around 5 percent. Now, transit agencies are grappling with how to get commuters to come back.

For many people the idea of returning to the office is a psychological barrier itself these days, but if you really want to make people uncomfortable, just ask them how they feel about returning to packed public transit.

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“Getting back on public transportation, even being vaccinated, it still makes me a little bit anxious,” said Jonathan Horowitz of San Francisco.

“Being in a confined environment you’ll just catch people’s germs,” said Sean Lama of Santa Clara.

“I start to think, well, how many times did I get sick because I was squeezed onto BART around all these people for 15 minutes?” Horowitz said.

Despite the strong sentiment against it, the science shows public transportation is safe.

A CDC study out of Japan at the height of the pandemic found no super spreader events took place on trains, especially where mask compliance was high, whereas restaurants, workplaces and concerts were primary cluster sites for COVID.

“Public transit is super safe,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, Director of Transportation at SFMTA.

Tumlin is grappling with how to convince commuters to come back.

“From the health science perspective it’s safe, but people don’t make their decisions based upon the science, they make decisions based upon emotion,” Tumlin said.

Ridership fell off a cliff this past year. Most transit agencies including BART, Muni and Caltrain lost 95 percent of passengers at the peak of the pandemic. Now riders are coming back but it’s slow. BART ridership is at 14 percent of pre-pandemic levels, Muni is around 27 percent and Caltrain is at 7 percent.

When ridership dropped, revenue followed and losses were in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Caltrain and BART rely on fare revenue for 70 percent of their budget, so Federal Cares Act funding saved these agencies from financial ruin, providing $705 million in relief across the region.

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“I mean, there’s no question that the pandemic exposed some of the financial weaknesses,” Michelle Bouchard, COO of Caltrain said.

Bouchard says COVID widened existing cracks in the financial system, but it also exposed other inequities, like the fact that the only people on board were those who had no choice.

“It’s definitely an equity challenge and an opportunity for us. Those folks that are riding BART right now, the vast majority are low-income transit dependent, meaning they don’t have a car,” Bob Powers, BART’s General Manager said.

Powers says these inequities are an opportunity to reinforce a commitment to being a public service. That’s partially why they never shut down.

“The Bay Area won’t be asking where’s BART. BART is here, BART is ready,” Powers said.

Powers says he thinks increasing ‘off peak’ train frequency will make up for lost revenue from white-collar workers.

“I think the way that BART has positioned itself on being flexible and additional trains that I can slot into service and increasing service on the weekends, I really think that’s going to be the key for public transit is to be the number one option for you,” Powers said.

As ever, for this to really work people have to choose transit over traffic, something even pre-pandemic, many were reluctant to do.

“The benefits of public transit from job creation to an economic engine to sustainability, I would argue investing in public transit now is the way to go,” Powers said.

“This whole notion of going back to normal? I’m not sure there’s going back to what we had pre-pandemic,” Bouchard said.

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All three agencies were able to avoid layoffs this past year thanks to that federal funding, but it won’t last that long. Muni anticipates it will run out by 2023 and is planning to prepare a ballot measure for 2022 to drum up additional financial support from the public.