When Foothill Transit officials opened a new $24 million, three-level bus depot and park-and-ride garage last March in Covina, California, they figured it would get lots of use.
But about two weeks later, the pandemic hit and ridership plummeted. That left the transit agency with a lot of empty space and no one to fill it for months.
By March, the site was back on its feet — sort of. Working with the city and the Albertsons grocery chain, the transit agency turned the ground floor of its parking garage into a COVID-19 vaccination site. The transit center has hosted two Saturday clinics and has at least five more planned. Nearly 2,500 people have gotten shots.
“We wanted to have a location where riders could get vaccination access,” said Doran Barnes, Foothill Transit’s executive director. “We also wanted a location that would support the community where this transit center is located.”
Across the country, transit agencies are getting involved in vaccination efforts. Many are giving people free rides to vaccine sites via bus, train or light rail routes, or are using their paratransit fleets for door-to-door pickup. And some, such as Foothill Transit, are turning their facilities into temporary vaccine clinics.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” said Chad Chitwood, a spokesperson for the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group. “Public transit is finding the best way to help.”
In the early months of the pandemic, Chitwood said, some public transit agencies were providing rides to food banks or offering buses as Wi-Fi hot spots for students who didn’t have internet access. In recent months, they’ve pivoted to vaccines.
At least 451 public transit providers in 45 states and the District of Columbia are providing free transit to vaccination sites, according to Stewart Mader, an independent transportation policy advocate based in Hoboken, New Jersey. He has launched a campaign called VaxTransit to encourage agencies to use their buses and trains to help provide people without transportation access to vaccines.
Large and midsize transit agencies are doing just that, as are smaller rural services operated by municipal and county governments.
Since January, for example, VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio has been providing free rides to anyone who needs to get to a vaccination site, said Jon Gary Herrera, a senior vice president at the agency. So far, more than 1,900 passengers have used its buses or paratransit service.