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Should you take public transit during a pandemic?

US cities are disinfecting subways and buses, but people are still worried about the coronavirus.

A masked equipment service worker for King County Metro sprays a disinfectant through a bus in Seattle, Washington.
A worker for Washington’s King County Metro system sprays disinfectant on a bus. The county’s fleet of 1,600 buses will get cleaned once a day.
Karen Ducey/Getty Images

The National Basketball Association has suspended its entire season, churches across the nation are canceling religious services, and presidential candidates have stopped hosting rallies — all for the sake of public health. In the face of the coronavirus outbreak, health officials are advising Americans to avoid crowds whenever possible, and people are increasingly worried about being in close contact with strangers. For those who take public transit, this concern is top of mind.

On recent commutes between Brooklyn and Manhattan, it appeared as though every single rider was trying to avoid touching a grimy handrail or pole. It’s been emptier than usual as more and more New Yorkers (mostly people like me, who are white-collar workers) are asked to work from home. Still, I often catch a glimpse of a cautious commuter either wearing a surgical mask or rubber gloves and carrying hand sanitizer at the ready. It feels almost taboo to cough or sneeze on the subway, as many people have joked about online.

Health experts know Covid-19 is a respiratory disease, but they’re still figuring out how exactly the novel coronavirus is transmitted between people. It’s similar to the common cold and other respiratory viruses, which is usually spread through exposure to tiny droplets from a sick person’s cough or sneeze. As Vox’s Julia Belluz reported, “Researchers are on the lookout for potential airborne transmission, and there’s a lot of speculation about whether inanimate objects — like door handles — can pass on the virus.”

As a result, most cities with large transit systems are doubling down on deep cleaning their subway cars, buses, turnstiles, and handrails — doing their best to assuage riders’ concerns. Still, this active cleaning, however thorough and consistent, is seemingly doing little to dispel concerns as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases grows. In early March, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) re-issued a 2016 report on pandemic planning and response, reminding agencies of the impact it could have on riders and employees. According to Chad Chitwood of APTA, “Public transit systems have longstanding contagious virus response plans that are being adapted, updated, and put into action,” most of which revolve around cleaning and reminding riders about best hygiene practices.

Washington, DC’s, Metro system launched its pandemic task force in late February (weeks before the World Health Organization classified the coronavirus as a pandemic); New York City’s transit agency said its fleet of trains and buses will get a deep clean every 72 hours (vehicles are typically swept and wiped clean daily but only undergo a thorough disinfectant process about five times a year); and San Francisco’s rapid transit system promised to isolate and disinfect any train car visited by a person suspected or confirmed to have the coronavirus.

New York City subway staff disinfect a train station in an effort to stop the coronavirus.
New York City’s trains and buses are getting a deep clean every 72 hours, but you still should wash your hands once you exit the subway.
Tayfun Coskun/Getty Images

If the outbreak gets significantly worse in the US, the discretion to entirely shut down a system or reduce service is up to transit and local officials. So far, no US transit agency has suggested taking that measure yet. Authorities in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak, closed all transportation hubs in an unprecedented quarantine, stopping all trains, ferries, buses, and planes from leaving the city when the disease started to take hold in late January.

In packed metropolitan areas like New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle, public transportation is an integral part of millions of people’s lives, and few can afford to carry on insulated from the public, without access to a subway or bus. However, there are measures you can take to reduce risk for others and effectively slow the rate of the virus’s spread in your community. If you’re a healthy person who’s able to, consider commuting during non-peak hours, relying on other forms of transportation, or working from home entirely. Major tech companies, like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, have asked employees to telecommute, and JPMorgan recently instituted a staggered work-from-home plan for analysts.

If you are feeling sick or part of the demographic that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorizes as “at higher risk” of contracting the coronavirus (older adults, people with chronic medical conditions), staying home or self-quarantining is the best thing to do.

How worried should you be about public transit?

Many people assume public transit, because of the sheer number of commuters who use it daily, is a fertile breeding ground for diseases. That’s just a general assumption and there’s no clear evidence showing that, when it comes to the coronavirus, a subway car is more dangerous than a crowded supermarket or an office. According to the CDC, people should try to stay about six feet from a sick person to minimize the risk of catching the virus. Generally speaking, close contact with people in crowded spaces (whether that be a subway, airplane, or office) makes a person more susceptible to transmission.

Since health experts are currently unsure of exactly how the coronavirus spreads between people, it’s difficult to quantify the precise risks that come with taking a bus or train. That said, if you’re ill or at-risk, you should stay home and avoid public transit and crowded spaces in general.

Previous research has shown that taking public transit can increase a person’s risk of catching a respiratory infection (the flu or common cold), since “buses and [trains] are generally poorly ventilated carriages of people sitting and standing in close proximity” to one another. The study, however, does acknowledge that frequent riders regularly exposed to these common respiratory viruses are more likely to develop immunity. That isn’t the case for the coronavirus, since it’s a new strain of disease.

The risk of a rider contracting a disease varies, depending on how well-ventilated a train or bus is and how long they spend on it. Transit systems are required by law to have ventilation and air conditioning to reduce the spread of airborne viruses.

“There’s a higher level of concern when it comes to air travel because we tend to spend much more time on an airplane than on a bus or subway car,” said Charles Haas, a microbiologist at Drexel University, in an interview. “But there are standards for ventilation on trains and buses, and those presumably are being adhered to for people’s safety.”

“I have not seen any data on the relative risk of public transportation compared with [dense places like] workplaces or schools,” Timothy Brewer, an epidemiology professor at the University of California Los Angeles, told me in an email. “Preliminary data from China suggests that household contact was an important means of transmission outside of Wuhan, suggesting that prolonged contact [with a sick person] increases the risk of transmission. If correct, then the time spent commuting and the density of people commuting could be important factors in assessing if public transportation is a risk factor for the disease’s transmission.”

Because public transit naturally requires people to share space with others, it goes against the “social distancing” practices that health officials have recommended, such as closing schools, encouraging remote work, and postponing or canceling mass gatherings like sporting events, concerts, or religious meetings.

“In areas with community transmission, reducing one’s time with large crowds in close contact with each other is probably helpful,” Brewer added, so commuting when transit systems are less crowded and washing hands afterward are reasonable measures to take.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also encouraged residents to “do their part in reducing overcrowding,” like boarding less-packed trains, working from home, staggering work schedules, or walking or biking if they can. While he has received criticism online for suggesting people avoid transit if possible, these actions will overall help “flatten the curve,” or slow the pandemic’s spread. Collectively, these actions help reduce risk for people who have inflexible work schedules, such as service or hourly workers, and those whose only means to get to work is public transit.

In 2011, several researchers created a hypothetical simulation that examined how an influenza epidemic could spread in New York City, focusing on the role of the subway in transmitting the disease and using data from the 1957-1958 flu pandemic. They found that transmissions were in fact happening on the subway, but only at a rate of 4 percent. The possibility of contracting the disease in a person’s own household or school was much higher, at 30 percent and 24.5 percent respectively. The study’s results, which specifically focus on New York and the flu pandemic, is not applicable to all cities fighting a pandemic, but it does reveal our outsized fear of transit during a disease.

As Vice transportation reporter Aaron Gordon pointed out, “Riding public transportation in and of itself is probably not where people get sick. It is all the places riding transit enables them to go.”

Travel — and transit — is expected to decline. What’s next?

There’s not much data on whether public transit is a petri dish for viruses any more than other crowded spaces, but that perception has persisted across countries and pandemics. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, de Blasio was publicly photographed riding a train to prove that it was safe to take the subway after an infected doctor rode it prior to his diagnosis. (You can’t contract Ebola through airborne transmission, however, as it’s not a respiratory disease.)

According to a 2005 survey conducted in eight regions affected by the 2003 SARS outbreak (which is a respiratory disease), six locales — Hong Kong, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Great Britain, and the Netherlands — deemed public transportation (which includes buses, trains, and airplanes) the riskiest place to be during a pandemic, in comparison to entertainment places, shops, hospitals, and workplaces or schools.

Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, lost about 50 percent of its daily subway ridership during the SARS epidemic in 2003 that significantly affected the city. In San Francisco, authorities say that ridership has already “dropped significantly” as more people work from home or rely on other transit methods. A New York City MTA spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that subway and bus ridership has fallen almost 20 percent and 15 percent respectively, compared with a similar day last year. (Other US transit agencies haven’t publicly stated whether they’ve seen any meaningful changes in ridership.)

Countries like Italy, Iran, Japan, and South Korea — some of which have a more robust commuter culture than the US — have seen a dip in ridership, in part because schools, businesses, and even entire cities have shut down. Cities are still operating some train and bus routes, in addition to thoroughly sanitizing them. In Italy, airports are still open and trains are still running, although less frequently and at limited capacity, the Atlantic reported.

Disinfection workers wearing protective gear spray antiseptic solution against the coronavirus (Covid-19) in a subway cat at Seoul metro railway base.
South Korean disinfection workers spray antiseptic solution in a Seoul subway car.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Some transit systems are using technology to monitor at-risk individuals. Taiwan’s metro agency installed an infrared tool to measure people’s body temperature before allowing them to enter a train, barring anyone with a temperature above 38 degrees Celsius (or 100 degrees Fahrenheit) from riding. In addition to employing heat-sensing like Taiwan, a Chinese tech firm recently developed an algorithm for Beijing subway officials to identify commuters not wearing a mask or wearing it improperly, and Hong Kong’s railway operator rolled out a robot to disinfect trains, in addition to deploying cleaning staff. While it’s unclear as of yet how effective these high-tech measures are, they’re part of a state-led effort to curb the spread of coronavirus. In some cases like Taiwan, a rapid and aggressive response could make a difference.

Since the US has several major transit systems that are governed separately, Chitwood of the American Public Transportation Association told me that any major decisions, like shutting down routes, “would be made at the local level.” Currently, it doesn’t seem like any US city will implement a social monitoring system at the scale of China’s or Taiwan’s on public transit anytime soon, but it’s possible for health officials to recommend measures to further curb the spread of coronavirus.

On March 11, the World Health Organization finally declared Covid-19 a pandemic, as now 33 percent of all cases are found outside of mainland China. Experts say the US is on track to see a spike in cases, since the nation has lagged in testing people for the virus. It’s likely that in certain communities or cities where clusters of the disease have popped up, such as dense urban areas, people will be asked to socially distance themselves or self-isolate.

”I haven’t seen evidence of a heightened level of concern around mass transit,” Haas, the microbiologist, told me. “I ride it myself [in Pennsylvania], but the situation is changing so rapidly, it remains to be seen. Wash your hands, maintain distance, and think carefully about your commuting patterns.”

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