Five months after the coronavirus outbreak engulfed New York City, riders are still staying away from public transportation in enormous numbers, often because they are concerned that sharing enclosed places with strangers is simply too dangerous.
But the picture emerging in major cities across the world suggests that public transportation may not be as risky as nervous New Yorkers believe.
In countries where the pandemic has ebbed, ridership has rebounded in far greater numbers than in New York City — yet there have been no notable superspreader events linked to mass transit, according to a survey of transportation agencies conducted by The New York Times.
Those findings could be evidence that subways, commuter railways and buses may not be a significant source of transmission, as long as riders wear masks and train cars or buses never become as intensely crowded as they did in pre-pandemic rush hours.
If the risks of mass transit can be addressed, that could have sweeping implications for many large American cities, particularly New York, where one of the biggest challenges in a recovery will be coaxing riders back onto subways, buses and suburban trains — a vast system that is the backbone of the region’s economy.
When the city shut down in March, over 90 percent of the subway’s 5.5 million weekday riders abandoned the system. Even now, as the city has largely contained the virus and reopened some businesses, ridership is still just 20 percent of pre-pandemic levels, adding to the financial strain of New York’s transit agency, which relies on fare revenue for 40 percent of its operating budget.
“What we are seeing in other cities makes me optimistic,” said Toph Allen, an epidemiologist who co-wrote a report on coronavirus transmission and public transportation with the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a transit advocacy group. “If you know that you have a transit system that is functioning in an area where there are no major outbreaks, you know transit can be safe.”
In Paris, public health authorities conducting contact tracing found that none of the 386 infection clusters identified between early May and mid-July were linked to the city’s public transportation.
A study of coronavirus clusters in April and May in Austria did not tie any to public transit. And in Tokyo, where public health authorities have aggressively traced virus clusters, none have been linked to the city’s famously crowded rail lines. [Continue reading…]