One of the few upsides during the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City has been the free buses. For months, the MTA has suspended fare collection and blocked off the front of the buses to protect drivers from the (potentially) coronavirus-carrying public. As the worst of the public health crisis subsides, the agency said on Tuesday the free rides must end.  

“We have to make sure we’re balancing safety with collecting fares,” Interim President of New York City Transit Sarah Feinberg said. “But, starting in August, at some point we’re going to start opening that fare box again.”

After all, the MTA is facing a $10 billion deficit.

The way a NYC Transit bus is currently blocked off for the driver.

Bus ridership has bounced back to more than one million riders a day (half of its pre-pandemic ridership), partly a result of the free rides with bus passengers boarding through the rear doors and the public perception that buses are safer than subways. However, as Feinberg noted, safety of the bus drivers remains critical: Of the 131 MTA workers who have died from COVID-19, 41 of them worked in the bus division.

Fare collection will begin as the MTA installs new plastic protective barriers around drivers on city buses, and plastic curtain partitions on express buses. 

Installation is expected to be completed by the fall on all buses. Riders will still not be able to sit in the front rows, but will be able to board from the front to pay the fare.

The agency hasn’t decided whether it will bring back the fare beating “eagle teams” to check whether riders paid or not.

Buses have mostly returned to regular schedules, and speeds are still up about 15 percent, due to fewer cars on the road. That’s down from a recent high of 20 percent faster than before the pandemic.

Early this month, the city agreed to install 20 miles of new bus lanes, which is also expected to help buses move along.