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Boxing in Bus Drivers Eyed in Pandemic Protection Plan

Riders were packed onto an MTA bus in Brooklyn during the coronavirus outbreak.
Riders were packed onto an MTA bus in Brooklyn during the coronavirus outbreak, May 20, 2020.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Bus drivers could be surrounded by plexiglass as part of post-pandemic safety measures designed to separate them from passengers.

That’s among the options being pushed by union leaders as they work with MTA officials to map out potential sweeping permanent changes to bus and subway travel spurred by the COVID-19 crisis.

“It would protect the bus operator not only from the coronavirus, but also from assaults,” Tony Utano, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100 told THE CITY.

Since March 23, the MTA has cordoned off the fronts of buses with chains and vinyl barriers, while riders enter through rear doors without paying fares on local routes.

An MTA spokesperson said outside consultants are helping the agency “navigate the post-pandemic future” — one in which drivers could be further isolated at the front of the bus.

“As the city prepares to ‘unpause,’ we’re working with designers and our bus manufacturers to explore more robust bus operator protection,” said Shams Tarek, MTA spokesperson.

Multiple bus drivers told THE CITY they feel confined by the modest protective shields already used on many buses.

“I never was comfortable with the first divider, but it’s needed because we do get assaulted,” said Jason Felix, a Bronx bus driver. “I just wish there was a better way or a different type of layout, but beggars can’t be choosers, I guess.”

Since Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mid-April executive order that all people must wear masks while using the public transportation system, there have been at least eight incidents in which MTA bus operators were harassed or verbally threatened, the agency said in early May.

Through the end of March, the MTA logged 31 incidents in which drivers were spit on, up 40% from 22 during the same period last year. The MTA didn’t immediately have similar statistics for April.

‘Pick Up the Pace’

Utano said that TWU Local 100 began pushing for plastic sheeting on buses in March, but noted thousands of buses have yet to be outfitted with the temporary barriers.

“The longer-term solution is protective barriers made of sturdier, more permanent material, like plexiglass,” he said. “The MTA is looking into it, but needs to pick up the pace.”

Cincinnati officials installed protective guards on city buses during the coronavirus outbreak.
Cincinnati officials installed protective guards on city buses during the coronavirus outbreak.
Screengrab/CincinnatiMetro/YouTube

Utano said the union is pressing the MTA to commit to the plexiglass plan and to set a timetable for installing larger barriers.

“The sooner the better, especially since many of the homeless have moved to buses during the hours the subway is now closed,” he said.

Cincinnati and Annapolis are among the cities where plexiglass barriers have recently been installed between the bus driver and the farebox.

‘A Lot to Figure Out’

With most fares now going uncollected on MTA buses, advocates said the agency should accelerate its rollout of the OMNY contactless fare-payment system. OMNY is currently in use in sections of the subway system and on Staten Island buses.

“The pandemic should absolutely move up the OMNY timetable,” said Ben Fried of TransitCenter. “Moving it up is a huge deal and it absolutely aligns with the public health imperative.”

Tarek said the MTA is “considering numerous fare-payment options on buses in a post COVID-19 environment.”

More than 120 MTA employees have died as a result of coronavirus — among them 26 bus drivers, according to TWU Local 100 and the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Meanwhile, the bus has become more popular during the pandemic than riding the subway.

The MTA last week reported about 700,000 daily bus trips, up from a low near 400,000. Subway ridership is at around 600,000 trips a day, said Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit.

“I’m on those buses every day and you’re seeing more and more people on them,” said Raul Briceña, 39, who takes the Q58 from Ridgewood, Queens, to connect to the M or R train to his job in Astoria. “When it comes to the buses, the MTA has got a lot to figure out.”

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