CDC struggles with transportation policy in response to COVID-19

June 8, 2020

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released new guidelines for businesses and employers in responding to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Many of the recommendations are sensible: regular temperature and health checks, enhanced cleaning, staggered schedules and employee distancing, and greater use of video and teleconferencing instead of in person meetings.

But when it came to “employees who commute to work using public transportation or ride sharing,” the CDC’s recommendation made less sense. It said the following: “Offer employees incentives to use forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others, such as offering reimbursement for parking or single-occupancy ride shares.”

To be fair, this recommendation was made with public health concerns in mind. Public transportation was not built for COVID-19 and social distancing. It also reflects the public’s overall reluctance to get back on buses and trains while there is still a risk of infection (although some polls suggest that reluctance is lower among those who were regular transit users prior to the pandemic).

To alleviate those concerns, transit agencies in Arizona - including Valley Metro and Sun Tran - and across the country are working hard to adapt to the new demands related to COVID-19: adjusting service and cleaning schedules, and crowding and fare policies. The CDC already has guidelines for how people can protect themselves on public transportation.

The CDC’s new recommendation amounts to overkill, and the experiences of other countries farther along in the recovery process than the U.S. suggest that. Transit systems in China and Korea aren’t back to pre-COVID-19-normal yet, but are carrying millions of passengers again with almost nonexistent new cases. Japan has ended its state of emergency and, according to a Japanese public health expert, they have not “traced any clusters to Japan’s notoriously packed commuter trains,” likely because “riders are usually alone and not talking to other passengers. And lately, they are all wearing masks.”

The narrow, car-focused recommendation also ignores a lot of other realities. First, not everyone has a car or can drive -- they might not be able to afford one or are unable to because of a disability. And even with a subsidy, a single-occupancy rideshare may be too expensive. Why not encourage two-person carpools instead? In terms of social distancing, it’s no different than a single occupancy rideshare, but it would be cheaper and mean fewer cars on the road.

Aside from COVID-19-related risks, the CDC itself is a great resource on how increased vehicle traffic is bad for the public health:

●       Motor vehicle crashes continue to be the leading cause of injury-related death for many age groups. Pedestrians and bicyclists are at an even greater risk of death from crashes than those who travel by motor vehicles.

●       Many Americans view walking and bicycling within their communities as unsafe because of traffic and the lack of sidewalks, crosswalks and bicycle facilities.

●       Although using public transportation has historically been safer than highway travel in light duty vehicles, highway travel has grown more quickly than other modes of travel.

●       A lack of efficient alternatives to automobile travel disproportionately affects vulnerable populations such as the poor, the elderly, people who have disabilities and children by limiting access to jobs, health care, social interaction and healthy foods.

●       Although motor vehicle emissions have decreased significantly over the past three decades, air pollution from motor vehicles continues to contribute to the degradation of our environment and adverse respiratory and cardiovascular health effects.

●       Transportation accounts for approximately one-third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change.

Any recommendation -- including putting more cars on the road -- that would increase air pollution that weakens people’s respiratory systems during a pandemic that attacks people’s respiratory system is a bad idea.

Fortunately, despite it being buried deep in the rest of the guidelines, the shortfalls of this recommendation have not gone unnoticed. Transportation advocates across the country have been calling the CDC out

In response, the CDC quietly revised the recommendation. The new recommendation reads: “For employees who commute to work using public transportation or ride sharing, consider offering the following support:

●       If feasible, offer employees incentives to use forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others (e.g., biking, walking, driving or riding by car either alone or with household members).

●       Ask employees to follow the CDC guidance on how to protect yourself when using transportation.

●       Allow employees to shift their hours so they can commute during less busy times.

●       Ask employees to clean their hands as soon as possible after their trip.”

This guidance is much-improved. It no longer exclusively endorses the single-occupancy car as a safe mode of transportation. But the guidance still misses the mark in several ways, especially on public transportation. It recommends that employers provide financial incentives for every mode except for public transportation. Providing a financial incentive for driving and not for transit is essentially the same as telling people to drive and not ride. And while providing financial incentives for walking and biking are great, it doesn’t help in places where those are not safe options.

The coronavirus has only made it clearer that the transportation status quo in the U.S. is not sustainable. We need better options for people to get around that are safer and cleaner. Any policy that falls back on the status quo and isn’t designed to move us toward a more efficient transportation network isn’t good enough.