Turlock will soon become the first city in California to install air cleaning devices across its entire operational bus fleet, protecting its drivers from the risk of airborne transmission of the coronavirus through new, innovative technology. 

Turlock Transit plans to install 20 AirLabs AirBubbl air cleaning devices in the driver cabins of its buses by the end of the month, and has already installed eight of the devices so far. The AirBubbl removes more than 95% of airborne viruses and contaminated particulate matter, and floods the driver area with over 30,000 liters of clean air every hour to create a clean air breathing zone.

Drivers are the backbone of Turlock Transit, said transit manager Wayne York, and the organization has already taken other steps throughout the pandemic to keep them safe, like Personal Protective Equipment for drivers and the implementation of various other safety protocols such as disinfecting measures, social distancing and complimentary face masks and hand sanitizer for passengers.

“I believe it demonstrates our proactive approach to think outside the box in identifying creative, but effective solutions to solve problems, as well as our continued emphasis on excellence and innovation,” York said. “I appreciate the support of the City’s executive leadership and our City Council for supporting investments like these. As a small, locally managed transit agency, it also speaks to our ability to implement these solutions quickly, in a way that would be more difficult for larger agencies with larger fleets.”

Before the pandemic, York said Turlock Transit provided about 800 rides per weekday and 450 rides each Saturday on its fixed route system. Following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order last March, the transit agency experienced about an 80% drop in ridership. Numbers have gradually increased since then, with Turlock Transit serving about 320 trips per weekday and about 220 trips each Saturday.

The agency’s reservation-based Dial-a-Ride system, used primarily by senior citizens and individuals with disabilities, has gone from 45 trips per day before the pandemic to now providing about 12 trips per day.

“Transit industry experts are predicting that it will take anywhere from three to 10 years for ridership to fully return to pre-pandemic levels,” York said.

As the pandemic continues, Turlock Transit drivers can rest assured that they’re breathing clean air. 

“California is the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in the US, and keeping public transit safe and operational during this time is crucial for ensuring that the public can continue to travel safely,” AirLabs CEO Marc Ottolini said. “Professional drivers are one of the most at-risk groups from COVID-19 and forward-thinking public transit operators across the world are deploying our innovative air cleaning technology to cut the risk of infection for drivers, protect them against air pollution and keep services running.”

York first heard about the AirLabs AirBubbl through one of the organization’s memberships with a transit association, which allow York to stay up-to-date on new technology and best practices in the transit industry. Plymouth Metrolink in Plymouth, MN, were highlighted by the association as the first U.S. agency to deploy the technology across their fleet.

“After researching the product, I found it to be small, quiet, cost effective, easy to maintain and one of the few products that has been proven effective through independent testing,” York said. “This made it a perfect fit to improve the air quality on-board our buses.”

In addition to ridding the driver area of airborne COVID particles, the AirBubbl is equally effective at removing air pollution, including harmful ozone gases, nitrogen dioxide and particle air pollutants PM2.5 and PM10, playing a vital role in protecting drivers long after the pandemic has passed.

The measures taken by Turlock Transit to protect its drivers have been vital to the local economy, York said, as maintaining a regular transit schedule means essential workers can get to their jobs and are able to support both their families and the community. It also means that transit-dependent individuals can continue making trips for essential goods, such as groceries or medicine, he added. 

“My hope is that other transit agencies, large or small, will continue to evaluate emerging technology and position themselves to move quickly when they see something that would be a good fit for their agency and passengers. I also hope that when they identify a viable solution that they share it with their peers so that others can benefit from it,” York said. “Sharing experiences is a great way to keep our staff and passengers safe and improve regional mobility.”