How the Pandemic Is Clouding the Hop’s Future

As the coronavirus cuts into the Milwaukee streetcar’s ridership, it also raises long-term questions about changing transit habits.

The Hop is anything but hopping right now.

Like the Milwaukee County Transit System, the city’s streetcar line has reduced service as ridership has plummeted during the coronavirus outbreak. Looming in the background, however, is a larger issue: The future of streetcars, buses and other forms of public transit nationwide if this experience leads commuters to rethink where they live and work.

And for The Hop in particular, the recession spawned by the pandemic could slow economic development and slice into the primary funding stream for expanding the system to the lakefront, Wisconsin Center, Fiserv Forum and beyond, observers warn.

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As concern mounted about the coronavirus outbreak, The Hop scaled back service, starting March 26, to run every 20 minutes, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily — essentially a Sunday schedule, but ending an hour earlier. 

At the same time, streetcar staff increased their sanitation efforts, pulling every vehicle out of service at least once a day for extra cleaning, in addition to their regular nightly cleaning, with similar efforts at shelters, says Brian DeNeve, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works.

“They’re as clean as any transit vehicle I’ve seen anywhere,” Downtown Ald. Bob Bauman says of the streetcars. “They really keep those things spotless.”

Bauman, the chairman of the Common Council’s Public Works Committee, adds that he believes streetcar operators are “safer than a bus driver” because they are completely separated from passengers, not just behind a Plexiglass shield. Transdev, the company running the streetcar for the city, has been testing operators for coronavirus. One operator tested positive about two weeks ago, was ordered to self-quarantine and will need to be retested before returning to work, DeNeve says. 

The Hop also is encouraging its passengers to take precautions, such as wearing masks and staying at least six feet away from other riders. Unlike the bus system, however, the streetcar line hasn’t found it necessary to limit the number of passengers on each vehicle, because ridership is already low anyway, DeNeve says.

Streetcar ridership plunged to 27,447 in March, down 45% from an estimated 50,000 in March 2019, then nosedived to 7,285 in April, down 87% from 55,657 the previous April. 

That’s consistent with other transit systems, say Bauman and Robert Schneider, associate professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Ridership dropped about 55% for Milwaukee County buses in April, transit system spokesman Matt Sliker says. The Chicago Transit Authority estimated its bus and train ridership fell about 80% from late March to late April, and Chicago’s Metra commuter trains projected a 97% ridership drop for April.

Protests against police brutality also are affecting The Hop. Streetcar operations shut down early because of protests on five days in June, DeNeve says. Separately, post-protest vandalism resulted in about $4,000 of damage to the glass panels of the shelter at the Burns Commons streetcar stop, he says.

And those are only the short-term impacts. After the pandemic is over, planners and scholars are questioning whether transit riders will return to their previous commuting habits.

While low-income essential workers probably will continue to use buses and streetcars, others may switch to cars or decide to continue telecommuting, Bauman and Schneider say. It’s even possible some people could decide to move to less-densely populated areas, although Schneider and Bauman say it would be a mistake to abandon urban areas and encourage suburban sprawl. 

“There are a whole lot of other benefits to cities … we won’t want to lose,” including social interaction, access to services and the ability to walk places instead of driving, Schneider says.

Funding is another long-term question, with the recession threatening many of the traditional revenue sources for streetcars, buses and trains.

Capital costs for The Hop’s initial construction and planned expansion are funded by a combination of federal grants and revenue from tax-incremental financing districts. It’s too early to say how the recession might affect future TIF revenue, says Jeff Fleming, spokesman for the Department of City Development.

However, it’s going to be challenging to fund anything based on development in the near future, Schneider warns. And Bauman says nobody at City Hall is even talking about The Hop’s planned extensions right now.

“It’s a low priority right now,” Bauman says of streetcar expansion. “It’s a changed environment.” 

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.