Even during a pandemic, public-transit systems show themselves to be indispensable to the functioning of big cities, transporting essential workers to jobs, while also acting as a major engine of economic stability and equity. As New York and other cities take steps to reopen, transit agencies’ most pressing job, next to managing massive budget shortfalls, will be managing fear while they seek to reclaim the passengers they have lost. High-visibility cleaning and strong health-messaging campaigns, coupled with universal mask wearing, can help reassure passengers that they can return to a safe transit system. But more reassuring still is the lack of evidence that public-transit systems have played a role in COVID-19 transmission—and a growing body of research pointing in the other direction.
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By the time the MIT report appeared, according to the transportation-data company Transit, ridership on bus and rail systems had already dropped by 74 percent in New York, 79 percent in Washington, D.C., 83 percent in Boston, and 87 percent in the Bay Area from pre-pandemic levels. The assumption that transit was accelerating infections stoked public fears and quickly hardened into conventional wisdom. “Subways, trains and buses are sitting empty around the world,” a Washington Post headline intoned in a May headline, adding, “It’s not clear if riders will return.” When the New York Stock Exchange reopened in May, traders were required to avoid public transportation.
Underlying that rule is an assumption of danger that, so far, research has not borne out. A recent study in Paris found that none of 150 identified coronavirus infection clusters from early May to early June originated on the city’s transit systems. A similar study in Austria found that not one of 355 case clusters in April and May was traceable to riding transit. Though these systems, like their American counterparts, were carrying fewer riders at a lower density than before the pandemic, the results suggest a far less sinister role for transit than the MIT report described.
If transit itself were a global super-spreader, then a large outbreak would have been expected in dense Hong Kong, a city of 7.5 million people dependent on a public transportation system that, before the pandemic, was carrying 12.9 million people a day. Ridership there, according to the Post, fell considerably less than in other transit systems around the world. Yet Hong Kong has recorded only about 1,100 COVID-19 cases, one-tenth the number in Kansas, which has fewer than half as many people. Replicating Hong Kong’s success may involve safety measures, such as mask wearing, that are not yet ingrained in the U.S., but the evidence only underscores that the coronavirus can spread outside of transit and dense urban environments—which are not inherently harmful.