Despite serious concerns that fears of coronavirus infection will drive commuters out of mass transit vehicles and into their cars, there’s an emerging body of knowledge on how cities can deliver a safe commute—and evidence that some communities are keeping their transit systems free of COVID clusters.
“Mass transit is in crisis,” Grist writes. “Ridership has evaporated alongside confidence in a safe commute, and cities like New York are facing billions in transit budget shortfalls. People who can afford cars are relying on them more than ever, a brewing environmental (and traffic) disaster. The solution is to get people riding again—but how do we do that when public transit still feels risky?”
- The climate news you need. Subscribe now to our engaging new weekly digest.
- You’ll receive exclusive, never-before-seen-content, distilled and delivered to your inbox every weekend.
- The Weekender: Succinct, solutions-focused, and designed with the discerning reader in mind.
For one part of the solution, Grist turns to urban planner, community activist, and transit access campaigner Alvaro Sanchez, whose work focuses on making transit safe for students, seniors, and other marginalized groups. “In the context of COVID,” he said, “we should be asking, ‘Who are the most vulnerable people using these services, and how can we make it the most accessible for them?’”
That means helping riders feel safe from discrimination and police violence, delivering “first mile-last mile” connectivity, and using a form of “targeted universalism” that is designed for a subset of users, but ends up benefitting everyone.
First and foremost, “people need to feel a sense of security when taking public transit,” Sanchez said—beginning with personal protective equipment (PPE) for transit workers, who are often people of colour. Demonstrating that those workers “are being protected from harmful situations will go a long way toward making riders feel confident that they can ride and not be exposed to the coronavirus,” he noted, while generating jobs for attendants assigned to distribute PPE and prevent overcrowding.
First mile-last mile connectivity is about covering the gap between a transit system and a rider’s final destination. “Pre-COVID, micro-mobility—such as scooter shares or bike shares—was really starting to play a role in the way that we connect people to mass transit,” Sanchez said, but those services were often restricted to users with credit cards and smart phones. In parts of California, however, more inclusive programs for low-income households “have actually been very successful at replacing the need for those families to buy a car”.
In Chicago, meanwhile, Ed Miller, director of the environment program at the Joyce Foundation, lists a series of shifts in transit agency practices and funding aimed at keeping riders and employees safe. “In addition to more frequent and deeper cleaning, they are changing boarding patterns, requiring face coverings, and increasing space between riders,” he writes for Crain’s Chicago Business.
But even so, “many car owners who used to commute by transit are now likely to drive to and from work, especially in the early stages of reopening. That will deprive the system of badly needed revenue and push emissions back up after a respite of bluer skies during the shutdown.”
As part of the solution, Miller calls for a list of upgrades to his city’s aging transit system, from new and expanded tracks and stations to touchless entry and exit systems, that would “better serve residents, businesses and visitors for decades to come”. Using stimulus dollars to fund a shift to electric buses would improve local air quality while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and deploying those new vehicles to routes on the South and West sides of the city—the racialized neighbourhoods “with the worst air pollution and highest levels of respiratory disease”—would begin to “eliminate some of the devastating health and economic injustices revealed by the COVID-19 crisis”.
With lower lifetime operating costs, electric buses would also deliver a cost advantage over today’s diesel fleet, and “that cost advantage will only grow as battery technologies improve and prices drop,” Miller notes.
The fear of infection risk facing planners like Sanchez and Miller came through loud and clear in a recent survey in London, UK, where 70% of bus and Tube commuters said they were nervous about returning to public transport. “On London’s trains, ventilation quality varies considerably across the network,” CityLab writes. “This still doesn’t automatically mean London’s public transit poses a high coronavirus transmission risk for passengers”—unlike drivers, who must stay seated in the same vehicle for hours on end.
“But places such as London’s Tube still feel deeply unsafe for many Londoners, especially those with fresh memories of being packed tightly into rush-hour cars full of commuters every morning,” the publication adds. “In a sense, the coronavirus anxiety that lingers over public transit use is an extension of the broader disdain that many urbanites have for a mode of travel that (especially in the U.S.) is often dismissed as dirty and unpleasant.”
But in a separate dispatch, CityLab points to hopeful signs that rigorous use of masks, limited conversation, short exposure times, and reasonable ventilation may have prevented COVID-19 transmission on transit systems in Japan and France. Though the result may reflect a data gap—contacts are easier to trace in a clinic, a long-term care home, or an office than on a public vehicle—neither country is reporting any COVID clusters connected to transit.
One of the explanations for that finding “is highly encouraging: Passengers seem to be paying attention to safety guidelines,” CityLab writes. “Riders in both Tokyo and Paris have been wearing masks—a habit long ingrained in Japan anyway—and have been maintaining as much social distance as possible. Observers of Japan’s low transmission rate for public transit have also noted that transit riders there tend to travel in silence—significant, since speaking is a very effective disperser of virus-infected aerosol.”
But even so, “the widespread fear of public transit persists, since it’s clear that transit systems do indeed spread contagion to the workers who run them,” the publication adds. “More than 100 coronavirus-linked deaths have hit New York City’s MTA, with subway crews like train operators bearing the brunt of infections. In London, 37 public transit workers—including 28 bus drivers—have died of COVID-19. In a bid to drive down alarming fatality rates, city transit body TfL was obliged to tape off the driver’s section of buses and make passengers enter only from the middle doors. Such measures have also been employed in many other cities.”
Leave a Reply