June 14, 2020
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.
The headline of the report read like the title of a 1950s horror film: “The Subways Seeded the Massive Coronavirus Epidemic in New York City.” As America’s densest city became the epicenter of a national pandemic in March, New York’s subway system, which carried 5.5 million people on an average workday in 2019, emerged as the villain from central casting. Landing in mid-April, the report, written by an MIT economics professor, concluded that New York’s subway system was “a major disseminator—if not the principal transmission vehicle” in the city’s COVID-19 outbreak.
Ominous articles citing the report created an uproar during the opening weeks of the pandemic. Some elected officials urged Governor Andrew Cuomo to shut down New York’s transit system. Conservative commentators, long skeptical of public transportation, seized on the MIT report as more evidence of transit’s unviability.
In recent months, public-health experts in the United States have urged people to avoid crowds, enclosed spaces, and time spent in close contact with others—each a feature of a normally functioning transit system. The notion that subways themselves were seeding disease interrupted this social contract and also played to long-standing fears of urban spaces.
Psychological and visual comfort already appears to be important for passengers. Ridership didn’t drop as sharply on America’s local bus networks nationwide. In May, the number of bus riders in New York surpassed the number of subway riders; usually, buses attract only a third as many. Some transit advocates report that riders feel more comfortable above ground than in trains and stations, and they limit the time spent in contained areas.
The way out of the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic runs along the rails and bus lanes of cities, and restoring urban transit networks to full force, expanding their service, and extending their reach across cities must be at the top of every nation’s economic-recovery strategy. Far from scaling back on public transit, cities across the country need a massive transit expansion that will enable them to avert the mobility meltdown that threatens to swallow them if even a fraction of former transit commuters take to cars. The nation won’t recover if it adds a traffic crisis to the ongoing health and economic crises.
Cities can take practical steps now to win passengers back and create a post-COVID covenant with transit riders. The bigger health risk may not ultimately be the bus or subway car where you spend half an hour with a group of strangers than the places that you are traveling to and from. Researchers still have much to learn. What’s becoming clear is that, with appropriate precautions, transit riders can feel comfortable swiping their MetroCards again and agencies can start building the post-pandemic transit systems that cities and their residents want to see.