VANCOUVER -- Bus riders in Metro Vancouver will no longer have to pay a fare as part of the transit provider's latest effort to promote social distancing.

The company said regular fares still apply on other modes of public transit, including the SkyTrain.

Beginning Friday, the transit operator will be asking bus-riders to board buses using rear doors only.

"We are taking this step to allow greater social distancing to protect our Coast Mountain Bus Company operators at this time," TransLink said in a news release. "Customers requiring mobility assistance can continue to use the front doors if needed."

BC Transit announced a similar plan Friday for its buses in the Fraser Valley, saying customers who usually pay with cash or tickets don't need to, and can board at the back unless they require assistance.

The changes apply to the Central Fraser Valley Transit System, Chilliwack Transit System, Fraser Valley Express, Hope Transit System and Agassiz-Harrison Transit System.

The suspension of fares is the result of the configuration of buses, TransLink said. Cash fares can't be collected at the rear doors of buses, and some buses don't have Compass Card readers at those doors either, the company said.

On Thursday, TransLink also announced several other changes it has implemented in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Among those changes are restrictions on where customers can sit on certain buses and the SeaBus, with the goal of keeping passengers on both types of vehicles away from their operators.

TransLink said it is also accelerating the installation of barriers to protect bus drivers, increasing cleaning and disinfecting on all modes of transit and launching an education campaign to promote hygiene and social distancing.

These announcements come as TransLink is seeing a significant drop-off in ridership amid the extraordinary measures put in place by public health officials to try to stop the spread of the virus.

With schools closed and many people not working or working from home, TransLink said it saw fewer than half as many system-wide boardings on Tuesday, March 17, as it saw on the same day in 2019.

Specifically, total trips taken were down 52 per cent from where they were on St. Patrick's Day 2019, which was a Sunday.

The transit agency said bus boardings were down 48 per cent on March 17 relative to last year. Expo and Millennium Line SkyTrain boardings were down 54 per cent, Canada Line boardings were down 59 per cent, SeaBus boardings were down 69 per cent, and West Coast Express boardings were down 70 per cent.

TransLink did not provide detailed statistics for other days in March, but it did provide total boarding figures dating back to March 12.

On Monday, March 16, there were 38 per cent fewer transit trips in Metro Vancouver than there had been the previous year, when March 16 was a Saturday.

On March 15, there were 29 per cent fewer boardings than the previous year; on March 14, 23 per cent; on March 13, 17 per cent; and on March 12, seven per cent.

These year-over-year comparisons suggest a significant decline in TransLink ridership over the last week, something the company acknowledged Thursday. That said, direct comparisons between years require some caveats, including whether the date in question was a weekday or a weekend and whether school breaks were ongoing or not. Spring break for B.C. schools did not begin until March 18 in 2019, meaning schools were in session during the comparable dates from last year.

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Kendra Mangione