Fear of Public Transit Got Ahead of the Evidence

Fear of Public Transit Got Ahead of the Evidence

Many have blamed subways and buses for coronavirus outbreaks, but a growing body of research suggests otherwise.

From The Atlantic

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.

Hard-hit cities such as Milan that have reopened their transit systems have not seen subsequent infection spikes. Japan, which has some of the world’s busiest rail networks, had very few infections at all—only about 17,000, less than 1 percent of that of the U.S.—and no reported upticks in Tokyo since Japan began reopening its economy. Officials traced a post-peak outbreak in Seoul, South Korea, not to transit but to a lack of social distancing at the city’s reopened nightclubs.

Something that Japanese and many other Asian cities have in common is a long-standing culture of wearing face coverings in public. Scientists have not yet determined precisely how effective masks are at reducing virus transmission—and how safe transit would be if everyone wore them—but even imperfect face coverings appear to confer benefits when most people wear them. Buses and trains where masked riders silently browse their phones may prove less risky than other settings where patrons are talking loudly and singing.

It’s difficult for nuances like these to break through when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells American employers to encourage employees to avoid transit and to drive alone to work in offices, if possible. This message, which bewildered transit agencies scrambling to recover, fails to recognize the transportation realities of millions of Americans for whom owning and maintaining a car is simply unaffordable and impractical.

Read the entire article here.

Amy Ginsburg


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