April 19 was the morning I started riding the commuter bus into work again every day.
After more than a year away from riding the bus, I made the personal decision to return even though returning to the office was optional. As the now fully vaccinated director of a regional commuter organization, the time to restart practicing what I preach had arrived.
Our region is still recovering from this pandemic, which represented not only the ultimate tragedy of lost loved ones but also a major disruption to livelihoods and commuting routines. The return to using transit is one of the keys to that recovery.
I felt butterflies in my stomach on April 19, even though I had done this a million times before. I arrived at the Dulles North Park and Ride lot particularly early that morning to board Loudoun County Transit’s Commuter Bus 481. Mask on, I found my eyes and thoughts wandering. How many other people would show up? Would fellow passengers keep their masks on? Would someone cough or sneeze?
Keep in mind, this route used to be full of commuters. Instead, the bus opened its door and I boarded to find only a handful of people already there from the Leesburg stop, sitting socially distanced.
For about five minutes, the questions lingered in my mind, my eyes peered curiously over my mask and my body tension proved I hadn’t quite moved past the high-alert phase. Then, I exhaled. With that cloth-covered breath, so went the unknown. Commuter Bus 481 became Commuter Bus 481 again.
In the roughly 60 round trips I’ve taken since that day, I’ve missed using an express bus more than I worry about wearing a mask and distancing safety measures. I’ve also thought more about how this has helped me with work-life balance and how I positively focus more on my family and work.
Commuters, for a variety of reasons, are staying away from the office for now. Come Labor Day, conventional wisdom says a larger portion of workers will return full time, while others will continue teleworking, some in a hybrid fashion. Returning to shared forms of commuting — commuter buses, Metrorail, carpooling, vanpooling, among other options — is equally important to our region.
If more workers return to the office in a car by themselves, the negative effects on the region’s traffic congestion, air pollution and, in turn, health outcomes will be significant. The roadways could hardly handle the pre-pandemic levels of traffic, let alone deal with an increase, and the area’s public transit systems cannot indefinitely survive the decline in fare revenue, which could cause a reduction in service that disproportionately impacts the region’s underserved communities.
Despite being anxious on the morning of April 19, I quickly realized what I and, more important, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention knew at that point: Public transit is now safe. Wearing a mask, following the spacing guidance and getting vaccinated help make it so. As the region recovers, I ask all commuters to look again at the calendar, circle their own April 19, and begin to confidently commute to and from work.