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Aug. 17, 2020 -- More people are riding public transportation again after staying away for months during mandated shutdowns at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Weekday combined ridership on New York City subways and buses has surpassed 2 million for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

Chicago and Washington, D.C., which have the most riders after New York, are also seeing an uptick after similar declines in the spring. Transit workers were also hit hard by the pandemic -- in New York alone, more than 4,000 transit workers have tested positive and 131 workers have died from the virus.

Still, transit agencies have developed many COVID-19 safety precautions since May. These include daily COVID-19 screening of transit workers, disinfecting and deep cleaning buses and trains -- New York City’s subway system is closed from 1 to 5 a.m. for that reason -- and mandating face coverings for workers and riders. Transit authorities in New York and Chicago also are handing out free masks and hand sanitizers to passengers, and transit officials in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) are planning to do the same.

Alex Marshall, a columnist for Governing magazine and a book author in New York City, rode the subway from his home in Brooklyn to Manhattan on a recent Saturday morning for the first time in months. “I was a little nervous, but the subway was clean, everyone wore masks, and it was easy to social distance because it wasn’t crowded.” He says he would ride the subway again.

But many people are still nervous about riding the subway, he says. This is reflected in passenger numbers -- bus ridership in New York was down last week between 25% and 50%, and subway ridership by 75%, compared to this time last year. In Atlanta, MARTA, the regional transit authority, reported Sunday that bus ridership was down 11%, compared to the average Sunday in February, before the full weight of the pandemic was felt.

The drop in revenue and the costs of COVID-19 safety measures have strained transit authority budgets. An industry trade group called on Congress last month to approve $32 billion in emergency funding

“Everyone is trying to get used to the idea of returning to public transportation and coming up with solutions that work for them. Some friends are riding buses and the subway daily, and others aren’t riding them at all,” says David Levine, a science writer in Manhattan, who rode the subway system and buses all the time before the pandemic.

Levine, who relies on public transportation to get around, feels safer taking buses than the subway because everyone wears masks, he can open the windows and board from the rear, and buses are not crowded during the day when he travels. He is a not alone; the number of bus riders outpaced subway riders in New York for the first time this summer.

Compliance with mask wearing is high. The New York City Transit Authority (MTA) did a survey of more than 15,000 bus riders between July 13 and 16 and found more than 95% of them were wearing face coverings. A survey of the subway found 90% of subway riders are wearing face coverings.

But some subway riders have complained that mask wearing is not being enforced inside trains. “Would be nice if CTA [the Chicago Transit Authority] had employees on the platform or riding in the trains because some passengers remove masks once they get to the platform and inside the train car,” Chicago subway rider Flores Lupe says on the CTA’s Facebook page.

“MTA, let’s talk about enforcement and how there are ‘no exceptions.’ Who is supposed to enforce people wearing no masks, because MTA police was right there and said/did nothing,” New York subway rider Tramell Thompson says on the City Transit Authority’s Facebook page.

Crowding and Social Distancing

Lupe and other commuters have also complained about crowds during rush hour, and they pleaded with local transit authorities to increase their service. “Please add more rush hour Orange Line evening trains. Yesterday, I missed the 4:55 pm train and another one did not come until 5:10 pm. The train was packed so of course social distancing wasn't possible,” Lupe posts on the New York City Transit Authority’s Facebook page.

The risk of transmission is greater in crowds because SARS-CoV-2, like previous coronaviruses, tends to transmit in clusters -- a few people can pass it to a lot people, and crowding on public transportation could contribute to that spread, says William Hanage, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

The MTA has resumed regular weekday and weekend subway service on most lines, regular weekday school-closed bus service on most routes, and service on express buses, according to its website.

After receiving complaints of crowding in the D.C. region, Washington’s transit authority (WMATA) planned to add more buses, trains, and hours of service beginning Aug. 16 to help with social distancing. This will bring most of its services to pre-epidemic levels.

The transit authorities are also asking riders to wait for the next train or bus that may be less crowded and to ride during off-peak hours, if possible.

Avoiding Crowds with Digital Tools

In Chicago, riders can monitor crowding aboard buses with digital tools and adjust the timing of their trips. The CTA’s “bus crowding report” on its website  shows available capacity on the agency’s 127 bus routes based on the previous 2 weeks’ ridership trends by route and time of day. The CTA also set capacity based on Chicago Department of Public Health recommendations of 15 passengers on a standard 40-foot bus and 22 passengers on a 60-foot articulated bus and each railcar.

The CTA plans to roll out a similar digital crowding tool for subway trains and eventually add real-time tracking features, according to a CTA statement.

“Social distancing is an important component of healthy travel on public transportation. And it is my goal is to put as much information as possible into the hands of our customers, so that they can make informed travel decisions that help us all achieve proper social distancing,” CTA President Dorval R. Carter Jr. says in a statement.

Bus riders in New York can use the new capacity tracking feature on the MYmta app “to track in real time the number of passengers on an arriving bus and how long the bus will take to get to their stop. The new feature covers 40% of the bus fleet and will allow customers to further plan their trip and maximize the ability to social distance while on a bus during the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to an MTA statement. The agency is planning a similar tracking feature for its subway system.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system is also providing weekly crowding charts for train riders and using its Twitter and text alert system to keep riders informed. In Santa Monica, CA, bus riders who use a touchless, cashless payment system can get fare discounts, and in Richmond, VA, city leaders made all bus rides free for at least the next few months.

Cleaning May Kill COVID-19

Mass transit authorities in Chicago and New York City are testing out cleaning technologies to see if they can eradicate the coronavirus on buses and subways. New York’s MTA partnered with an expert on ultraviolet light -- David Brenner, PhD,  director of Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Irving Medical Center -- who concluded that one kind of ultraviolet light eradicated the COVID-19 virus during a pilot phase. The MTA is now working with him on another form of ultraviolet light, called far-UVC light, to see if that can also kill the virus, according to a statement.

“We're also working with antimicrobials, federal labs and labs, frankly, around the world, with respect to antimicrobials, which could prove to not only eradicate the COVID-19 virus, but also to do so for weeks and months. We’ve tested those materials on subway cars and buses,” MTA chairman and CEO Patrick J. Foye says in a statement.

Chicago’s transit authority is also investigating UV light cleaning and testing new antimicrobial products inside buses and subway cars to see if they prevent bacteria, viruses, and liquids from sticking to treated surfaces for an extended period of time.

Ventilation on Subways Better Than in Hospitals

Transit systems are required by law to have ventilation and air conditioning to reduce the spread of airborne viruses known as aerosols.

Researchers have shown in experiments that talking and coughing produce droplets and aerosols in a range of sizes, which can travel for up to 27 feet and linger in the air for hours. They also found that poor ventilation prolongs how long these small aerosol particles remain airborne, according to a July 13 article in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Ventilation can reduce aerosol transmission by circulating air that is replaced with fresh air several times per hour -- and the higher the air exchange rate, the better. The Metro subway system in Washington, D.C., recirculates fresh air 20 times per hour or every 3 minutes, says a WMATA spokesperson, and New York City’s subway system recirculates fresh air 18 times per hour, says the MTA.

“The risk of aerosol transmission is surprisingly low on subways at that air exchange rate. This is better than almost all other buildings -- even hospitals which circulates outdoor air 12 times per hour,” says Linsey Marr, PhD, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, and an expert on aerosol transmission of viruses.

The subway exchange rate is also higher than the recommended air exchange rates in restaurants, where recycled air is replaced eight to 12 times per hour, or in offices, where it is replaced six to eight times an hour, according to TheNew York Times.

Marr calculated the New York subway car air exchange rate based on 35 riders, which comes to one person every other seat. “We have not seen any outbreaks at that level of ventilation and with everyone wearing a mask, which provides an extra layer of protection. I would feel comfortable with up to 50 people on a car as long as people are not standing shoulder-to-shoulder,” she says.

Very high ventilation rates can help head off superspreader events, “but all bets are off when you overcrowd a subway car. That’s for two reasons: There will be a greater likelihood of transmission from close contact as people breathe directly on each other, and doubling occupant density is the equivalent of reducing the ventilation rate by half,” says Joseph G. Allen, DSc, an associate professor and director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

Another positive sign is that even in crowded subway systems in major European and Asian cities such as Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, no COVID-19 outbreaks have been linked to the systems, although Marr says they are hard to trace back to public transit.

“The fact that the New York subway has such a high air exchange rate and that we haven’t been able to trace any outbreaks to public transportation are signs that we should not be afraid to take public transportation if everyone is wearing masks,” says Marr. She rode the subway in San Francisco recently and felt totally comfortable, she says.

Correction: A transcript from the Metropolitian Transit Authority incorrectly identified David Brenner's place of work. He is the director of the Center of Radiological Research at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, not the Urban Medical Center at Columbia University. The article also incorrectly called Brenner a MD. He holds a PhD. 

Show Sources

Alex Marshall, columnist, Governing magazine; book author, New York City.

David Levine, science writer, New York City.

William Hanage, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston.

Linsey Marr, PhD, professor of civil and environmental engineering, Virginia Tech; expert on aerosol transmission of viruses, Blacksburg, VA.

Mass Transit: “New York MTA announces NYCT ridership surpasses two million as New York City begins Phase 2 reopening.”

Mass Transit: “Transit agency leaders, APTA press urgent need for additional Congressional funding.”

Wikipedia: “List of North American rapid transit systems by ridership.”

The New York Times: “Is the Subway Risky? It May Be Safer Than You Think.”

The New York Times: “Why New York Buses Are on the Rise in a Subway City.”

Vox: “Should you take public transit during a pandemic?”

TheJournal of the American Medical Association: “Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: Theoretical Considerations and Available Evidence.”

News Release, New York City Transit Authority.

News Release, Chicago Transit Authority.

News Release, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Facebook: Chicago Transit Authority, Aug. 5, 2020.  

Facebook: MTA/New York City Transit, Aug. 6, 2020.

Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority: “COVID-19 Personnel & Ridership Impacts,” Aug. 16, 2020.

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