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How Much Can Public Transit Be Blamed for COVID-19 Outbreaks?

Studies have shown that public transit may not be a 'superspreader,' but that doesn't mean that there's no risk.
By Peter Simek |

When this whole global pandemic thing kicked off some months ago, reports that the virus spread quickly through crowded, dense cities appeared to raise some sharp questions about the future of urban places. In cities like New York, subways were shuttered and residents who could fled the city. Were cities—and dense cities which rely on public transit, in particular—especially vulnerable to global pandemics? An article in Scientific American suggests that initial fears of COVID-19’s spread on public transit, at least, were perhaps a tad overblown.

The article addresses an Atlantic opinion piece written by Janette Sadik-Khan, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, and Seth Solomonow, the co-author of Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. The pair argue that public transit can’t be linked to as many major outbreaks as bars and live music venues. Furthermore, avoiding public transit increases car use, which can create pollution, which can make people more vulnerable to respiratory diseases.

My initial reaction to this argument was skepticism. The premise doesn’t seem to make sense. The more research and the more studies that come out about the spread of COVID-19, the simpler and more concrete the prevention recommendations become. Wearing masks and social distancing are the best ways to stop the spread of the virus. Surfaces pose less risk, but they should still be disinfected when possible, and you should wash your hands if you have been out and about. The virus seems to spread more in indoor spaces than outdoor spaces. Among indoor spaces, the riskiest are places are where people are in close proximity, or shouting and cheering, or where stale air is recirculated. To me, that sounds exactly like public transit.

And yet, Sadik-Khan and Solomonow cite contract tracing studies conducted abroad to support the claim that public transit doesn’t account for many major COVID-19 outbreaks—that transit is not a “superspreader.” A June study in Paris, for example, showed that none of the 150 outbreak clusters it found in the city could be traced back to public transit. A second Parisian study in July showed that only four of 386 outbreak clusters occurred on public transit. That’s still low–about 1 percent.

Another study conducted in Japan found that there were zero COVID-19 outbreaks caused by riding on public transit. Instead, the study found that outbreaks occurred at “gyms, bars, live music venues, karaoke rooms and similar establishments where people come in close contact with one another.” I’ve rarely been in more close contact with other humans than when riding the Tokyo subway, and so I find the results of this study particularly astounding.

There is something, however, that muddies Sadik-Khan and Solomonow’s argument. When Scientific American looked for U.S. studies about COVID-19 outbreaks that might be linked to public transit they found that – surprise! – none exist. Rather, epidemiologists they spoke to repeated much of the now familiar information about COVID-19 spread.

“When you have universal adherence and compliance with mask use, that’s when you are majorly reducing the risk for transmitting the virus,” [Melissa] Perry, [a leading epidemiologist and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health] said.

So where does this leave us? Well, like much reporting and science around COVID-19, in a realm of informed uncertainty. We know that masks are proving very effective at controlling the spread of the virus. We know wearing masks anywhere helps limit spread, and that places where people are likely to take off or not wear masks–like gyms and bars–are places where the virus has been shown to spread the most. That may explain why indoor spaces where people have no reason to take off their masks–or talk, shout, cheer, grunt, breathe heavily, etc.–are less risky. Public transit may be one of these places.

We also know that there are no studies that show how this places out in an American context, which makes it difficult to rule out the risk of COVID-19 spread on public transit. Americans use transit differently than people in other countries. Even a study of COVID-19 on New York transit might not be very helpful in understanding public transit transmission in cities like Dallas, Atlanta, or Los Angeles. We can’t really be sure if public transit is responsible for major spreading of the disease in Dallas. Even the expanded Parisian study showed that the subway was responsible for a few major outbreaks. That means public transit may spread COVID-19 less effectively than bars, but it can spread the virus.

The best advice remains to stay home if you can.

But many people who rely on transit can’t stay home. For those people, these studies at least offer some assurance that prevention measures—like wearing masks—may be effective, even in confined spaces like transit. And social distancing on transit may be easier these days than it has been in the past. Both Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s ridership and passenger vehicle miles traveled are down by 50 percent, which DART board member Patrick Kennedy attributes to people working from home as well as “20 to 30 percent who have lost their jobs.”

In an online conversation hosted by the Coalition for a New Dallas addressing the long-term impact COVID-19 may have on DART, Board member Jon-Bertrell Killen said that the drop in ridership, fare box revenue, and sales tax revenue may result in near-term reductions of bus service reductions by around 20 percent and rail service by around 10 percent.

These last points raise another key aspect of Sadik-Khan and Solomonow’s argument worth remembering. Every measure taken to respond to the relatively short-term crisis of the pandemic carries massive implications for long term goals and prerogatives. Economic shutdowns intended to stop the spread of the virus wreak havoc on individuals who may lose their jobs. At-home schooling may lead to long-term developmental problems in children. Similarly, as Sadik-Khan and Solomonow point out, the collapsing of funding around public transit and new pressure to move away from dense development will make cities unhealthier and less resilient in a world experiencing climate collapse.

While there remains an element of uncertainty around all epidemiological science, we have learned with certainty that responding to a pandemic is a hellish balancing act that leaves ample room for confusion, frustration, and anger. The good news, however, is that as we continue to learn more about COVID-19 it is becoming more and more clear that masks and social distancing are the key to limiting its spread, even in some tight indoor spaces, like a Tokyo subway.

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